The recent parallel is Harvey Weinstein’s reported claims of “sex addiction.”
Adopting a marginalized identity in a moment like this does more than bleed the meaning out of an apology. It sucker-punches the entire marginalized group. It sets back fights for civil rights—in these cases, respectively, non-heterosexual people and mentally ill people, burdened for generations by baseless stereotypes pertaining to pedophilia and violence. As writer Shanelle Little saw it, “Kevin Spacey willfully harmed a child and then turned and painted a target on the gay community’s back.”
Writer Dan Savage went further, suggesting opportunism in Spacey’s plea: “I’m sorry, Mr. Spacey, but your application to join the gay community at this time has been denied.”
Given the timing of the news story and the actor’s subsequent statement, some readers offered that Spacey may have simply spoken recklessly in a moment of fear. But as The Daily Beast writer Ira Madison III reasoned, “Y’all, Kevin Spacey didn’t just whip up that statement. He knew it was coming. You don't report this without reaching out for a response.” Indeed, BuzzFeed editor Shani Hilton confirmed that Spacey had been contacted repeatedly, and that reporter Adam Vary “sent over a detailed letter with allegation prior to publication.”
It is unlikely that after decades of refusing to identify as gay, Spacey would do so in a dashed-off statement. It is more likely a move to redirect the focus of the attention, as is often the tactic of powerful people.
In this case it worked. Multiple news outlets reported the story not as one of alleged child molestation, but as one of a famous actor being gay. At Reuters, the headline was “Actor Kevin Spacey Declares He Lives Life as a Gay Man.” The New York Daily News went with “Kevin Spacey Comes Out as Gay.” ABC News ran “Kevin Spacey Comes Out in Emotional Tweet.”
When a person hints at admitting to allegations of child molestation, the subject of sexual orientation is not the headline. In this case, it is not the first, second, or third most important part of this story. (Reuters has since updated the headline to “Kevin Spacey Apologizes After Actor Describes Sexual Advance at 14.”)
Even without litigating the alleged events of 1986, at least two transgressions here are significant. First is the conflation of child molestation and homosexuality, which are not related. This is a narrative that has been cultivated—and continues to be—to paint gay people as deviant. It stretches from religion to medicine, from Biblical scripture to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which included homosexuality as a disease until 1973.
Second is the recurring act of appropriating marginalized status at a time when Spacey stands accused of abusing power. The alleged abuse feeds the delegitimizing narrative used to keep the group marginalized. He closed his note with, “I want to deal with this honestly and openly and that starts with examining my own behavior,” but this appears to be honesty of convenience, the rare bad time to come out.
Instead his statement put himself ahead of that community, with which he chose not to identify—not to support and empower from his high vantage—until it served him, and he risks dragging it backward.