QUEER VOICES

Protecting Kevin Spacey's 'Privacy' Was Dangerous

'Anti-outing' polices by publications are cast as high-minded. In actuality, they're inspired by homophobia and fear of repercussions.

11/03/2017 10:16 EDT | Updated 11/03/2017 13:15 EDT
Toby Melville / Reuters

Over 25 years ago, in 1990, as an editor, reporter and columnist, I was vilified by many in the media, and in the LGBT community, for reporting on the sexual orientation of public figures when such truths were relevant to a larger story. This came to be dubbed by Time magazine as “outing”―a word I never accepted since I simply saw it as reporting.

What made sexual orientation relevant to report? Lots of things. Sometimes the individuals were secretly gay or bisexual politicians or officials who were voting anti-gay or defending anti-gay policies. Other times they were well-known producers and executives in the entertainment industry―public figures in their own right―who were promoting anti-LGBT artists or projects.

And still other times they were celebrated, powerful but closeted gay and bisexual men in New York media, Hollywood or Washington, who were engaged in sexual harassment and abuse against their employees, who were often other vulnerable, closeted men. 

All of this reporting, which I did at the now-defunct OutWeek magazine and later at The Advocate, was deemed as a terrible invasion of privacy by editors and reporters from the respected mainstream news media―the gatekeepers at the pre-Internet time of proper and acceptable journalism. They engaged in a double standard inspired by homophobia, since reporting on heterosexual public figures’ relationships and sexual lives was perfectly acceptable, glamorous even, including when it wasn’t even very relevant to a larger story.

I was driven by a desire for equality in journalism at a time when the LGBT movement was demanding equality loudly on all fronts. In the media industry, there’s often a reluctance to change, and there’s always anxiety about anything that challenges the status quo. And so, a frenzy of fear and recriminations gripped the media. Many publications in the early ’90s instituted “anti-outing” policies and vowed not to have their journalistic standards influenced by so-called gay radicals.

Gay publications themselves weren’t immune to this. The Advocate magazine, too, had a supposed blanket “anti-outing” policy for years, as did Out magazine.

And that policy, according to Bruce Steele, who was an editor for both publications and who wrote about the policy this week in the context of the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual assault and misconduct, prevented the publications from reporting on Kevin Spacey’s sexual harassment against then-14-year-old Anthony Rapp when they had the information back in 2001. As Steele recounts

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...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. 

The Advocate and Out (and any other publications that may have had this information) thus allowed Spacey to continue to sexually assault and harass men and boys. In recent days, British news organizations have recounted stories of men who said Spacey harassed them them during his years on the London stage, including a man who was 17-years-old at the time and one who was then a 19-year-old. And now more men have come forward to CNN, which quotes eight people describing sexual harassment perpetrated by Spacey on the set of “House of Cards” against several members of the crew, in what is described as a “toxic” and “predatory” environment.

Publications’ anti-outing policies, cast as protecting privacy and promoting journalistic standards, were and are homophobic―and they are unevenly applied. As an editor-at-large for The Advocate, I reported on the sexual orientation of Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams―who defended the ban on gays in the military as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s assistant secretary―in a controversial cover story back in 1991. It wasn’t the only case in which The Advocate broke its anti-outing policy and claimed it was a rare exception only to do so, selectively, again―though mostly with regard to politicians and never with Hollywood figures.

The reasons offered by publications for having an “anti-outing” policy are often high-minded when, in fact, it is about old-fashioned capitalism driven by homophobia―fear of losing business―that has kept these policies in place.

At Out (where I was also an editor-at-large in the mid-90s) and The Advocate, I can attest that editors were petrified of being labeled by Hollywood agents and producers as engaging in “outing”―which sent shockwaves through an industry that thrived on keeping sexual orientation secret. They were fearful that they’d never get the agents’ and producers’ gay-friendly heterosexual celebrity clients ―the publications’ bread and butter―for the covers of their magazines, nor get the big coming out interviews of those rare gay celebrities who did come out. 

Whatever the motivations, a blanket anti-outing policy is wrong-headed and dangerous, and looking at the Advocate and Out with regard to Kevin Spacey,  we can zero in on two reasons why:

1) It equated being gay with sexual harassment of minors. By refusing to discuss Kevin Spacey’s having sexually harassed a teen because they were opposed to “outing,” the Advocate and Out weren’t distinguishing between sexual harassment of minors―including pedophilia ―and sexual orientation. Just because reporting on the Rapp story would reveal Spacey’s sexual misconduct doesn’t necessarily mean it was revealing his sexual orientation. Many male sexual harassers of children and teens are heterosexual, often married. The Advocate could have reported on the harassment without saying anything about Spacey’s orientation. I suspect that fear of Hollywood censure was more of the motivating factor.

2) It allowed predatory, harmful behavior to continue unchecked.  I wrote about the double standard in my 1993 book, Queer in America, in which reports of sexual harassment of women by politicians or other public figures were taken seriously―though, as we’ve seen even now, often not seriously enough―to report in major newspapers. While reports about male-on-male sexual harassment at the time would have required detailed on-the-record sources― and it’s still not clear that editors would allow such stories to be published, as the “privacy” issue would come into play, and my own stories were often ignored for that reason―male-on-female sexual abuse was treated differently. “When abuse is heterosexual, however, it seems to be understood that privacy is forfeited and that hunches and gut feelings are more important to go on than ironclad journalistic principles,” I noted in the book. That double standard has continued even up until today―though the Spacey reporting seems to be a watershed moment that could end it.

Editor Bruce Steele, in writing about his decision back in 2001 and about the revelations now, reflects honestly on how maybe he was wrong not to publish the account. And The Advocate has since changed its blanket “anti-outing” policy, as noted in a piece this week, stating the publication reports on a public figure’s sexual orientation “whenever it’s relevant to stopping harm to others or when a person is hypocritically acting against LGBT people.”

That is unlike many other publications, and that includes most mainstream media publications. They zealously cling to a policy, believing it’s proper journalism, but not realizing how it’s unequal and discriminatory. And, in the case of sexual harassment and abuse, it has allowed for dangerous, harmful actions to go unreported. 

 Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile