How Calling Kevin Spacey a Pedophile Hurts the Gay Community

Kevin Spacey speaks at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on Oct. 4.

Rochelle Brodin/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Everyone loves to hate a pedophile, even if they’ve made him up.

Immediately after Kevin Spacey tweeted an apology on Sunday night for allegedly making sexual advances toward a then-teenaged Anthony Rapp in 1986, he was “Milo-ed”—demonized and outcast under the banner of pedophilia—mostly by gay leaders, but also by everyone else (including at Slate and by Milo himself).

Eight months ago, my colleague Gabriel Rosenberg and I, responding to the outrage around Milo Yiannoupolis’ comments on gay intergenerational sex, explored how gender and sexuality may complicate the ethics of sex across age difference. Let me be as clear as possible that Spacey’s alleged conduct, imposing himself unwanted on a 14-year-old boy, is in no way defensible, nor is closeted queerness an excuse that authorizes bad behavior. (Spacey’s statement doesn’t dispute either of these points.) However, we can condemn the alleged events of Rapp’s story without falling into the trap of fueling moral panic around the specter of the pedophile. And in its pitchfork-and-torches response, that’s exactly what the gay community is doing. It used to be straights who “pedophiled” gays to deny them civil rights and social inclusion. Now we apparently pedophile our own for moral purification and self-satisfaction.

The scary thing, in the eyes of the mainstream movement, is that Spacey used his apology as an opportunity to come out, to announce that he “live[s] as a gay man.” Braiding queerness into his apology sent gay pundits into a sanctimonious tizzy. Some lambasted him for coming out to deflect attention from his abusive conduct. Gay actors George Takei and Zachary Quinto decried Spacey’s coming out as manipulative and conniving, Frank Underwood-style. Others snarkily rejected his application for membership into the LGBTQ community. Critics likewise accused Spacey of dangerously equating homosexuality with pedophilia, reinforcing one of the most damaging arguments leveled at gays and lesbians in earlier decades. The dread that Spacey’s case might revivify that tactic seems to be many gays’ greatest fear.

Of course, had Spacey not come out, he would have been skewered by the same folks skewering him now: for irresponsibly remaining in the closet as a celebrity, for allowing self-hating homophobia to cloud his twentysomething judgment, for casting doubt on Rapp’s allegation by tacitly insisting on his heterosexuality. And that brings me to my first point: Spacey’s apology, while not displaying the total acceptance of a victim’s story that some might like, is not the manipulative mess many claim.

Obviously, I acknowledge that Spacey’s statement probably didn’t come from his hands alone. Like other celebrities facing sexual assault allegations, I assume Spacey’s presence and performance on social media is manicured by a public relations team. But since his critics are attacking the apology as his words, I will give him the same benefit. Aside from being more genuinely contrite than I think people are giving him credit for, Spacey’s statement—especially its admission of queerness—is in no way leveraged to exonerate his alleged mistake.

Unlike former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who announced his “truth” as a “gay American” in part to shut down allegations that he sexually harassed an employee, Spacey is not exploiting gayness to distract our attention from the predatory man behind the curtain. To the contrary, his coming out, he tells us, spurs him to “examin[e] my own behavior.” Dan Savage is just wrong. Spacey did not “excus[e] or explai[n] away assaulting a 14-year-old child” by recourse to gayness or drunkenness. An explanation is not the same thing as an excuse, nor is explaining the same thing as explaining away. Spacey did not imply: I was drunk I could not help it. He wrote, in effect: When I was drunk, I may have done an awful thing. I’m sorry.

The situation was lose-lose for Spacey, as perhaps it must be when one cannot outright deny aggressive sexual behavior directed at a teenage boy. But I expected, or rather I hoped, that gay leaders might offer a response more measured than self-satisfying indignation. Alas, to borrow the words of writer John Okada: “persecution in the drawl of the persecuted.”

And thus, my second point: Gay pundits’ overblown protests of disgust at Spacey support the very structure of pedophile sex panic—the hyperventilating reduction of queerness to child abuse—that they are trying to fend off. To be clear, under no clinical diagnostic I know of does a drunken, aggressive, and deeply stupid pass at a teenager qualify as pedophilia. Indeed, one working definition of pedophilia is “ongoing sexual attraction to prepubertal children … who are generally age 13 years or younger.” From the perspective of helping children and pedophilic men both, pedophilia is best understood as a mental and public health problem requiring treatment and supervision rather than as a crime. (As a technical matter, there is no “crime” of pedophilia, which is a structure of desire; there are crimes of child molestation, abuse, etc.)

No, based on the evidence available at this point, Kevin Spacey is not a pedophile. But calling him one only helps to bolster the homophobic fantasy that gay men in general might be. This is why gay commentators’ defensiveness against the stain of pedophilia is, while understandable, deeply misguided.

First, it draws attention away from actual harms experienced by children and toward the supposed dignitary harms of guilt by association. Spacey did not make his drunken misbehavior about gayness simply by coming out, but we do exactly that by making it all about us. It’s kind of self-centered. Second, gay defensiveness barricades the glass houses of stone throwers. Will heaping scorn on one man make the world safer for kids and women? Will it allow us to undermine norms of masculinity, femininity, and gay cultural life that normalize violent and coercive behavior? Or does scorn-shoveling make us feel better about ourselves? Third, this defensiveness makes a mockery of contrition, thereby feeding the false, binary narrative that the good guys and bad guys are forever good and bad. But the good guys rape, too, and the bad guys can change.

Queers have accrued enough social and political clout that we need not react with unthinking revulsion to other queers, as straights did to us. We can acknowledge, as Spacey himself did, that he screwed up astonishingly and that he may have damaged the young Rapp. Yet refusing or misreading his apology, like refusing or disbelieving his queerness, performs a phobia of simplification and misrecognition with which we are all too familiar—a phobia we should, however difficult the effort, resist reiterating.