Kevin Spacey used his marginalized identity to deflect toxic allegations. He’s not the first.
The violent, predatory nature of Hollywood that was once kept a secret has become public knowledge. It feels as though a full 48-hour news cycle can’t pass without the traumas of Tinseltown being turned into well-crafted exposés and material for tabloids. Kevin Spacey is just the latest Hollywood figure to be involved in disappointing and troubling accusations.
On Sunday, BuzzFeed published an interview with Star Trek: Discovery star Anthony Rapp, in which the actor alleged that Spacey made a sexual advance toward him when he was just 14 years old, in 1986. “He was trying to seduce me,” Rapp told BuzzFeed. “I don’t know if I would have used that language [at 14]. But I was aware that he was trying to get with me sexually.” Spacey, now 58, was 26 at the time, according to public records BuzzFeed consulted.
Spacey issued an apology on Twitter on Monday, saying in a two-paragraph statement that he doesn’t remember the alleged encounter, but if it did indeed happen, then “I owe [Rapp] the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him for all these years.”
But in the statement’s second paragraph, Spacey took the opportunity to come out publicly as gay. “This story has encouraged me to address other things about my life,” he wrote. “I know that there are stories out there about me and that some have been fueled by the fact that I have been so protective of my privacy. … I have loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man.”
The statement was met with fairly swift backlash, and rightfully so. Spacey tried his best to manipulate the narrative to distract from the harm Rapp alleges he did, and instead turn the focus to his marginalized identity as a gay man. It came off like a plea for some sort of sympathy — after being publicly accused of sexually propositioning an underage boy. He blatantly attempted to deflect the allegation that he’s a predator by turning the story into one about bravery and victimization by a homophobic society for the closeted portion of his life.
This does not feel new to me. I know it well through experience and observation: My whole life, I’ve heard some variation of the idea that if you are from one marginalized identity, then that prevents you from being problematic with regard to other marginalized identities. More often than not, I’ve witnessed that white people actually get away with this sort of thinking. There’s a pattern of people who are white and intersect with a marginalized identity using that identity as a way to mask some of their toxic behaviors. Like many oppressive practices involving identity, it can almost happen unconsciously.
As a gay black man, I’ve constantly encountered people who behave similarly to how Kevin Spacey comes across in his statement. I’ve known white men who think they’re unable to be violent or toxic because they’re part of a marginalized sexual identity. But we’ve seen this idea repeatedly disproven: This isn’t news to anyone of color who has opened up a gay dating app and experienced racism. White gay men are just as capable of harm as their heterosexual counterparts.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a gay man, but he’s also very outspoken in favor of the patriarchy and against undocumented immigrants and other groups of people. In a 2015 Breitbart post, Yiannopoulos advocated for the use of slurs that typically refer to gay people, arguing that he’s qualified to make such statements because he’s gay — essentially claiming that his identity gives him some sort of pass; in the same post, he wrote that “‘homophobic’ is a meaningless word.”
I’ve known white men who think they are unable to be violent or toxic because they’re part of a marginalized sexual identity.
More recently, he told Daily Mail Australia that he’d vote against marriage equality in Australia, despite the fact that he had married a man weeks earlier. “I’m gay and a Catholic. The highest priority for me is making sure no church, no believer anywhere, is required to violate their religious conscience,” he said. “I think the state probably should recognize a gay couple who want to commit to one another. ... But the paramount consideration is not those gay couples — it is religious freedoms.”
To be clear, this isn’t to equate the allegation against Spacey with Yiannopoulos’ beliefs and public stances. It’s about noting when white people who intersect with a marginalized identity use that identity to protect themselves from criticism related to their problematic words and actions.
This is part of a larger societal trend. For example, there’s an existing belief that if someone’s gay, that somehow means they’re less likely to be racist or less prone to displaying sexism. But even when white people know what it’s like to feel at risk, it’s all too common for them to behave in toxic ways. And all too often they use any marginal identities they overlap with to protect themselves from accountability.
Because of my experience as a gay man, I know this sort of behavior well when it comes to gay white men. But it’s not exclusive to them: When white voters were accused of being motivated by racism in choosing to support Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the identity of being impoverished was then weaponized by the media — on both the right and the left — to protect those people from critiques of racism. Does the term “economic anxiety” ring a bell?
In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders defended Trump voters by saying, “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.” Sanders spoke as if white people can’t be poor and racist or homophobic or sexist or downright deplorable all at the same time. Women are marginalized, and Trump’s party appears intent on marginalizing them further, but in the 2016 election, white women tended to vote for him anyway.
The truth is that people are complicated; there are no perfect heroes or villains. Just because someone belongs to a marginalized identity doesn’t mean they’re incapable of causing harm or oppressing others — and those marginal identities shouldn’t be exploited as some sort of cover or shield.
There are moments when I will be incredibly empowered in society, and other moments when I will be oppressed, and often these moments will happen in tandem with each other. I belong to the marginalized identities of being gay, black and visibly feminine. I also belong to the empowered identities of being a man and cisgender. We should view identity as a way to understand an individual’s experience, not excuse them of toxic behavior. My marginalized identities should not be used to insulate me from any wrongs I may commit because I suffer or find myself in danger in other aspects of my life. No one else should expect that sort of treatment, either.