This is not how we wanted Kevin Spacey to come out as openly gay. When I was an editor at Out magazine and The Advocate in the 1990s and early 2000s, the magazines asked Spacey's publicists for interviews many, many times, typically getting no response at all.
Behind the scenes, I had long known Spacey was gay, or at least bisexual, in part because my friend Anthony Rapp had told me his story of a sexual pass Spacey made at him in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey was about 26. Rapp told me that in the mid 1990s, and we even printed his account of the encounter in The Advocate in 2001, with Spacey's name redacted, as BuzzFeed journalist Adam Vary reported in his thorough and eloquent report published Sunday night.
(Responding within minutes to the BuzzFeed publication, Spacey said he was "beyond horrified to hear (Rapp's) story." He did not deny it happened but said, "I honestly do not remember the encounter," nevertheless offering "the sincerest apology.")
Unlike Esquire (in 1997), the gay and lesbian magazines for which I worked never outed Spacey. At Out magazine, we repeatedly told everyone that the name of the magazine was an adjective, not a verb. We did not out people, preferring to give them the time and space to make that decision themselves, a healthier route to honesty on both sides. We were happy to pave the way, and often did, starting with Rupert Everett's coming out interview on the cover of Out's second issue in 1992.
At The Advocate, I had the honor to do coming out interviews with many people, famous and not so famous, including an NFL football player (Esera Tuaolo), an "American Idol" finalist (Jim Verraros) and actors such as Robert Gant. My predecessor as The Advocate's editor in chief, Judy Wieder, interviewed many more, including George Michael and Rosie O'Donnell.
But as Wieder describes in her new memoir, "Random Events Tend to Cluster" (Lisa Hagan Books), The Advocate had developed a "no outing" policy before I joined the staff, and we stuck to it. We cajoled, befriended and pressured, but we did not report on anyone's sexuality without their cooperation. Just as each of us had reached the decision to come out in our own time, celebrities needed the same opportunity, even if it took them years and years.
The result of a healthful, self-motivated decision to come out is often a stronger, more powerful person on the other side. In Wieder's memoir, she recounts our conversation about putting Nathan Lane on the cover in 1999. "I think he's waited too long" to deserve the cover, Wieder argues, but she changes her mind when I tell her what changed his mind: the murder of Matthew Shepard. Lane got the cover and gave an emotionally charged interview.
Obviously the situation is not the same with Kevin Spacey. Despite the Esquire story, Spacey has kept his private life extremely private throughout his career. Despite the Hollywood truism that "everybody knows" who's gay within entertainment and media circles, Spacey didn't flaunt his "secret" — unless you consider taking your mom to the Academy Awards a kind of declaration.
Of course, many close friends knew of Rapp's encounter with the actor in the 1980s, including some of us in the media. But what could be done with that story? There were only two people in the room, they had never met again and no parade of additional accusers was forthcoming — so, right or wrong, we told ourselves we could not report it.
In keeping with The Advocate's "no outing" policy, when Rapp related the entire incident to writer Dennis Hensley in 2001, we removed Spacey's name and identifying details. Rapp understood the decision, and he didn't share the story again via the news media until now.
Why now? That's an easy one. The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the resulting opening up of the media to legitimate accusations of unwanted sexual advances changed the rules, and Rapp felt compelled to share his story again, this time with names and dates.
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His decision was not "to simply air a grievance," he told BuzzFeed, "but to try to shine another light on the decades of behavior that have been allowed to continue because many people, including myself, being silent. … I'm feeling really awake to the moment that we're living in, and I'm hopeful that this can make a difference."
It's a hope shared by many. The media's willingness now to report on behavior it long made excuses to avoid (and I don't exclude myself from that) is one thing. The real victory will be when the behavior itself is stopped, even behind the closed doors of hotel rooms and New York bedrooms like Spacey's.
Meanwhile, there's some solace that the reporting of Rapp's story led immediately to Spacey's long-delayed coming out. In a statement clearly prepared in advance — he knew the story was coming — he said the account "encouraged me to address other things about my life," alluding to "other stories out there about me." He asserted simply, "I now choose to live as a gay man."
As he asserted in his Twitter statement, Spacey may well not recall the encounter Rapp describes. It was more than 30 years ago, and Rapp says Spacey was drunk at the time. Whether what happened to Rapp was a singular mistake or a pattern of behavior may come to light in time, along with those "other stories" to which Spacey alluded.
The result all these revelations, and the decades of back story about what is told and what is withheld, both in Spacey's case and in Weinstein's and in so many others, should be a moral reckoning for the media. It reaches well beyond sexual misconduct. When immoral behavior of any kind is known to reporters and editors, what is our responsibility to "out" that behavior?
Clearly we have long erred, in certain cases, on the side of withholding until the evidence is irrefutable. Clearly that's not a sustainable standard.
What Rapp's revelation and Spacey's response prove is that even one person, with the story of one night, can make a difference. I will long ponder what we didn't do in 2001, I hope with concrete results about what we can do in 2017.
Bruce Steele is the planning editor at the Asheville Citizen-Times, where this piece first appeared.