When I was a teenager, I went out with a boy who claimed to have had sex with Bryan Singer, whom he’d met on a trip to New York. This would’ve been after The Usual Suspects propelled the director to celebrity, before his Nazi-themed psychosexual farrago, Apt Pupil, which has in hindsight come to seem less like a failed adaptation of a Stephen King story than a grimy roman à clef. I don’t recall being especially shocked or morally troubled at the time, except insofar as Singer, who would have been in his early thirties then, seemed grotesquely old; I had some vague conviction that sex began at sixteen and ended at twenty-one. At the time I assumed he was lying. Now I’m less sure. That boy and I were having sex, or anyway making clumsily enthusiastic efforts in that direction, and this is part of what drives the question of men sleeping with boys into a maddeningly ambiguous moral territory. Where is the line to be drawn: at sixteen? Seventeen? At fifteen? At fourteen? Which brings us to the present moment, when mega-actor (and The Usual Suspects star) Kevin Spacey is alleged to have tried to force himself, years ago, on a then fourteen-year-old Anthony Rapp. (To put that in perspective for you Millennials, that’s roughly the average age of the baby-faced stars of Stranger Things.)
Spacey used the occasion to blandly apologize for “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior,” which he does not, it goes without saying, remember, before going on to rope the whole thing into a public coming out, dragooning one man’s childhood trauma into a grotty tale of personal awakening that begins in a closet of “personal privacy” and ends on a float in a West Hollywood parade. I’ll be entirely honest: I think our current culture of sexual offense often goes too far; I think we run the risk of criminalizing and pathologizing normal sexuality and ordinary flirtation. But “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior” is making a ham-handed pass at your dinner guest’s grown-up boyfriend after the third bottle of Cab. It is decidedly not locking yourself in a bedroom and forcing yourself on some petrified and barely pubescent boy. Imagine for just one moment that the story were exactly the same but for one detail: imagine that Rapp had been a fourteen-year-old girl.
This all goes to the heart of the ambiguity particular to what we used to call “the gay community.”
Well, this all goes to the heart of the ambiguity particular to what we used to call “the gay community,” a sense of some kind of tolerable ephebophilia, an under-thought and over-believed cliché about adolescent sexual awakening at the hands of older men, as if we were some kind of unbroken continuum of desire from Plato diddling his students on an olive-shaded hillside in Ancient Greece through Isherwood first glimpsing Don Bachardy on a California beach to coke-and-vodka Hollywood Hills bacchanals where wannabe models and actors are plied into getting naked in the hot tub before getting tossed out the back of the truck and ending up as twinks in the SoCal porn grinder. But while we rightly look back on the days of heterosexual grab-assery, Mad Men chasing their secretaries around the desk, with disdain and embarrassment (and lament it where it continues to rear its pocked, Weinstein-shaped head), there is a certain gay nostalgia for the bad old days, when closeted young men were initiated into the erotic community by the figure of the more experienced, more cultured older man.
That nostalgic history is itself a half-pornographic projection onto the past; many older gay men took on fraternal and paternal roles to young new arrivals without ever finagling an affair out of the dislocating experience of discovering a queer sexuality at a time when it was still, in many places, a crime. I came out in the nineties—a far more friendly and tolerant time than earlier decades, but still a period of deep homophobia, sodomy laws, and AIDS panic—in a family as open and tolerant as any I could have hoped for. But I benefitted immensely from the friendship of a couple of older (I say now incredulously, since I’m probably a decade older than either of them were back then) gay guys who worked at the small-town theater where I helped out in the office and on the stage crew after school. They talked to me about sex, helped me sneak into a gay club, gave me some sense of a language of camp and reference that I’d theretofore never had, smoked weed with me, but never once tried to fuck me. I was a gangly, awkward, weird-looking teenager, so who knows: maybe I just wasn’t the immemorial ideal of youthful male beauty. I like to think, though, that they were just decent guys. The thing is, I probably would have slept with them if I’d sensed the desire and opportunity. But the presence of desire in one party doesn’t obviate the moral obligation to at least some kind of modest restraint in the other.
Of course, the Spacey affair isn’t just a question of a shitty drunk with a lousy moral imagination; it’s also a raw product of the very peculiar industry. There really is no business like show business, at least where child labor is concerned. After college, I went back to the theater world, where I worked in administration for almost fifteen years. I never failed to cringe when child performers came through on tour. Oh, I never saw anything untoward; especially on big Broadway shows, they were surrounded by teachers and chaperones, hustled dutifully out of cast parties at reasonable hours, permitted to perform (if they were below a certain age) only on alternating nights. Nevertheless, there was something deeply uncomfortable about the way they were packaged as a consumable entertainment, something to be put on display. And as they aged, as they moved away from an obvious childhood into the squirmy and unstable category of adolescence, it was very easy to see how transforming them into something to be purchased, put through the paces, put out to perform, could very easily shade into a sense that they were something to be possessed. It’s worth noting that Spacey’s alleged assault did not occur near Hollywood, but off Broadway.
I’m afraid that queer people may fold it into the same joke we’ve been telling about Kevin Spacey and John Travolta and Bryan Singer for all these years.
He will suffer career consequences: Netflix has already cancelled an upcoming season of House of Cards, a terrible loss for aficionados of bad southern accents, although I suspect that the consequences won’t be permanent. Anthony Rapp was not a girl. We’re all socialized to know that teenager boys are all horny as fuck, that even when they are being preyed on by their social studies teachers, sex represents a sort of masculine success. And I’m afraid that queer people, too, may shy away from it, or fold it into the same joke we’ve been telling about Kevin Spacey and John Travolta and Bryan Singer and God knows who else for all these years, the same winking open secret that allows us to avoid the embarrassing and violent behavior of some of our most famous, if still half-closeted, examples. But we shouldn’t shy away. At the heart here is a question of basic human agency that is essential to queer sexuality and gender identity in our society: the right to positively assent to our desires and expressions. “I choose now,” Spacey wrote, “to live as a gay man.” Isn’t that nice, to be able to choose something rather than having it forced upon you by a stranger in the dark?