Tim Holbrook: Linking Kevin Spacy coming out and allegations he sexually assaulted a minor insults the LGBTQ community
Sexual assault is related to power, not one's sexual orientation or gender identity, he writes
Editor’s Note: Tim Holbrook is professor of law at Emory University School of Law. He is a frequent LGBTQ commentator and serves on the boards of the Stonewall Bar Association of Georgia and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Normally when a celebrity comes out, there is widespread celebration in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community.
We’ve seen it with the likes of Wentworth Miller, Anderson Cooper and Chas Bono. Even Caitlyn Jenner was warmly received by the LGBTQ community, although she eventually alienated herself from many because of her political views.
Of course, we long for the day that someone famous coming out is no longer newsworthy. Until that day comes, however, the LGBTQ community realizes that greater visibility helps advance our standing in society.
Then there’s Kevin Spacey. The LGBTQ’s response to his coming out? Condemnation. And rightfully so.
Spacey’s decision to come out was not through any real choice. He was spurred by actor Anthony Rapp’s allegation that Spacey had sexually assaulted him when he was 14.
Spacey apologized. Sort of. He apologized if he “did behave then as [Rapp] describes.” But he didn’t leave it at that. He apologized for “what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”
As if being drunk – or closeted – would excuse sexual assault. Most people, if asked whether they have sexually assaulted someone, can simply answer, “No. Never.”
And, indeed, linking his alleged behavior to his sexual orientation only feeds a common, destructive trope about LGBTQ people as predators.
Want an example of this myth? Just look at the debates over the discriminatory bathroom bills that portrayed transgender people as a threat to public safety, simply for using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. (Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that transgender people pose any such risk.)
Spacey did not say the assault never occurred, nor did he say there is no way it could have happened. Instead, he acknowledged that it might have happened.
He certainly could not have expected the LGBTQ community to embrace him. Instead, his statement appears to be a diversionary tactic. Distract the public’s attention by coming out.
Of course, what that also served to do was distract from the important message Rapp’s allegation had to convey. Even if he had not planned it, Spacey’s coming out had the disturbing ring of the powerful attempting to silence the vulnerable. Indeed, tragically, more focus has been on Spacey’s coming out and his despicable statement than on the courage Rapp demonstrated in coming forward.
Whatever the truth of this situation, it is a portrayal of what sexual assault and harassment is about: the powerful taking advantage of the vulnerable.
In such instances, someone in a position of power attacks a person with less power, knowing the victim is unlikely to speak up, perhaps for fear of some sort of retribution. Or perhaps the victim realizes in a s/he said-s/he said situation, they may not be believed.
Rapp says he was inspired by the deluge of women speaking up about Harvey Weinstein, as well as the #metoo campaign on social media. He should also be commended for his courage to speak up and remind us that the victims of sexual assault are not limited to a particular gender.
Like Rapp, I, too, was taken aback, stunned really, by the stream of #metoo posts after the Harvey Weinstein revelations came to light. As the #metoo posts became depressingly ubiquitous on my social media streams, I wondered whether I should also post #metoo, having been the victim of a sexual assault. I did not want to intrude on the power of my women friends, so decided not to do so.
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But Rapp was right. We need to identify sexual harassment and assault in all contexts and recognize and embrace that anyone can be a victim, regardless of their gender.
Men can be victims too, and given societal expectations for men, admitting to having been assaulted can be a challenge.
In my case, a now-former friend asked how I could have put myself in the position to be assaulted – a variation of victim blaming. Sadly, this is all too common.
There is thus power in Rapp’s willingness to disclose what he says happened to him.
Rapp should be celebrated for his courage. We shouldn’t let Spacey distract us from that fact and silence Rapp in the process.