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Many of us have seen the “license and registration? … I’m gay” memes that have exploded across the internet in the days following Star Trek actor Anthony Rapp’s allegations against Kevin Spacey. The image of a person seated in a car, interrogated by a police officer following a traffic stop, when coupled with the Spacey-inspired caption, is humorous. Spacey has deservedly drawn fire for his decision to come out as gay in his statement responding to Rapp. Since Rapp came forward, actors Tony Montana and Roberto Cavazos, in addition to several members of the production staff from House of Cards, have all spoken out about Spacey’s sexual misconduct. One angle of the criticism, however, is dangerously misaligned. Namely, that Spacey’s actions have damaged the work of activists who have spent at least forty years working to separate gay men and pedophilia in the public psyche.
In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant led campaigns against ordinances protecting LGBT folks from discrimination in housing and employment across the country, beginning with a campaign in Miami-Dade county. Bryant, a moderately successful pop star prior to her career as an anti-gay activist, used her relative celebrity to convince communities that homosexual teachers were attempting to “convert” children via the classroom, as they were unable to reproduce on their own. Bryant endorsed and sang in a commercial for the Florida citrus commission, prompting a subsequent boycott of the brand led by major celebrities of the time, including Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore. The boycott was successful, as Bryant lost her endorsement deal and with it the personal funds to support anti-gay initiatives, however she maintains her beliefs to this day.
Bryant’s smear campaigns were also assisted by activities of NAMBLA––the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a group that advocated for the removal of age of consent laws. NAMBLA contended that relationships between older men and younger boys should be regarded with the possibility of being consensual. The group was met with severe backlash through the early 1980s, including from within the LGBT community, who censured the group and prohibited members from participating in Gay Pride parades and rallies. Decades of propaganda originating long before NAMBLA had equated homosexuality and pedophily, and equal rights activists were cognizant of the implications of such attacks. Public opinion in the 1980s undoubtedly affiliated the gay rights movement with NAMBLA’s goals, encouraged by right-wing, religious rhetoric that sought to vilify LGBT folks in their quest for equality before the law.
If Spacey’s flimsy attempt to silence a victim of sexual assault has “set gay men back,” as a well-circulated and cited tweet claims, LGBT activists have a greater battle before them than anyone realized. Stereotypes LGBT activists hoped vanquished after NAMBLA’s fall from prominence in the early 1990s might be alive and well if a single celebrity can topple years of hard work and scientific evidence. Is it possible that today’s LGBT community underestimated our standing in the court of public opinion? Is it possible that Anita Bryant’s campaign messages has lingered in the cultural subconscious?
Such a proposition seems unlikely. Dated beliefs correlating homosexuality and pedophily have been relegated to the most ignorant of social circles. Spacey’s coming out at the end of his apology to Rapp certainly plays poorly for him from an optics standpoint, but media sensationalism has not helped the matter. The media cycle seems fixated with emphasizing Spacey’s homosexuality in tandem with his assault on a minor, as if his homosexuality somehow makes the assault worse. The timing in which he revealed his homosexuality is a problem. The youth of his victim at the time of the assault exacerbates that problem. But his homosexuality does not in any way make his alleged crimes worse.
Spacey was silent when President Trump signed executive orders allowing discrimination based on “religious freedom.” Where was Spacey when Omar Mateen murdered 49 patrons of an Orlando gay bar? Has he ever used his celebrity to further acceptance of LGBT folks? Imagine Neil Patrick Harris or Elton John in Spacey’s place, and the sensationalism would seem rooted in a certain truth. That another prominent gay man acted out a distasteful stereotype. But Kevin Spacey is anything but a gay icon. For the majority of his life and career, he capitalized on non-disclosure, an ambiguity of sexuality at best. His convenient desire to identify as gay in the face of sexual assault allegations does not retroactively include him in the proud history that the LGBT community has rallied and marched for since the summer of 1969.
Instead of correlating Spacey’s assault on a minor with the LGBT community, let’s throw him into the basket of deplorables, gay and straight, emerging before the public eye who have abused their positions of power and celebrity. Is the “straight community” or “every straight man” required to take on the shame of Harvey Weinstein? Should every drink served by an African-American man be scrutinized following Bill Cosby’s misconduct? Obviously not. Spacey’s reputation and career should be impacted by the fallout from both his misconduct and response.
Spacey might “choose” to be a member of the gay community, as he described it, but we do not accept his misconduct as representative of our history or as exemplary to our current community. For years, Spacey has hid behind the illusion of heterosexual norms to further his career. Now, he seeks to use a community he has never embraced as a damage control tactic.
Cole A. Turner is a Young Voices Advocate. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 2015 and currently lives in Chicago, IL, where he works in media operations.