Thursday 22 August 2019

No excuses for Spacey as gay stars hit by rule change

The US actor might not have noticed, but homosexuality is no longer a hiding place

Queering the pitch: Spacey stands accused of trying to distract from the allegations against him Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Queering the pitch: Spacey stands accused of trying to distract from the allegations against him Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

There was widespread disgust last week when Kevin Spacey announced that he was coming out - or "choosing to live as a gay man", as he put it - at the same moment as he acknowledged attempting to have sex with the then 14-year-old actor Anthony Rapp.

How dare Spacey, gay America wondered. Time magazine saw Spacey as trying to "distract" from the allegations against him, which have multiplied in recent days. The comedian Wanda Sykes noted that he had invented something new: a bad way to come out. And the world wondered how someone most famous for playing a Machiavellian politician could be so breathtakingly naive as to think that being a gay celebrity would excuse or deflect from sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Nobody considered the possibility that he made this mistake because, until recently, being a famous gay man - especially in the arts world - did precisely that.

In recent decades the reluctance to comment in any way on the sexuality of many gay male stars, and play into the myth that homosexuality and paedophilia were linked, often dovetailed into a reluctance to call out questionable behaviour when it happened.

Liberace, to take one example, had a long-term affair with a boy who he met when the boy was 15, but nobody cared because the secrecy during Liberace's lifetime gave way to his status as a camp icon and the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra of course ignored this aspect of the story.

Irish journalists affected surprise at Spacey's tactic, but this was itself surprising because we too have long played by the rules Spacey thought still applied.

Ten years ago the Irish arts world was similarly rocked by accusations, made in a documentary televised here, that one of its leading lights, the poet Cathal O Searcaigh, had been involved in sexual relationships with Nepalese youths, for whom he said he was performing charitable work on trips to Nepal.

The documentary, Fairytale of Kathmandu, depicted O Searcaigh's travels in Nepal and though the young people involved were all above the age of consent in their own country - 16 - the appearance, and imbalance of means and power, made for deeply uncomfortable viewing for many people. Our own age of consent was then, as now, 17.

The Dublin city councillor Mannix Flynn accused O Searcaigh of violating guidelines for dealing with disadvantaged youths and Quentin Fottrell, writing in The Irish Times, said the poet's charity was "conditional" and involved a power gap between a relatively wealthy European adult and Nepalese youths living in poverty.

O Searcaigh admitted on camera and subsequently to having sex with some of the youths but insisted it was consensual.

The filmmaker, Neasa Ni Chianain, ended up challenging him about his relationship with the boys and O Searcaigh admitted on camera: "I certainly had sex with some of them, yes, yes, yes. But I wasn't coercing them into having sex."

In a subsequent interview with Fionn Davenport on Newstalk, the poet said: "I am not a sex tourist... I resent being called that. Sex tourism is about going to some place, it's instant gratification, it is paying for sex and then saying goodbye. I have never, ever done that.

"I have been going to Nepal for 12 years, I have sustained people over 12 years, it is not instant gratification."

What was noteworthy at the time was the extent to which O Searcaigh's defence of having sex with poor 16-year-olds seemed to hinge, for many, on his sexuality as a gay man. Several journalists pointed to the fact that Nepal is a homophobic society, as if the whole story could be explained in those terms.

Another leading politician, speaking in the Oireachtas, compared O Searcaigh to Oscar Wilde.

"Calls have been made for O Searcaigh's poetry to be removed from the academic syllabus, the local authority grants for his house to be withdrawn and for him to be drummed out of Aosdana," the politician noted, according to the written record. "Yet gloriously the artists of Ireland have supported him as they previously did in the case of Oscar Wilde. This is because they have a unique insight into the processes of works of creation and of destruction."

There may well have been a love that dare not speak its name, you couldn't help thinking, but the time to invoke it is hardly while watching a middle-aged Irishman flirting with schoolboys in uniforms, as happened on camera in the film (at one point O Searcaigh coos "pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?" to one of them).

And yet our general reverence for art and general reluctance about openly discussing homosexuality together served to push the controversy on to the back burner over the following years. In 2013 O Searcaigh reportedly contributed six Irish language poems to a publication called Sexuality and that same year was reported to have received over €200,000 in Aosdana funding over the previous 12 years (an Arts Council spokesman said at the time that it was not "funding Mr O Searcaigh directly" but acknowledged he was in receipt of Aosdana funds).

In the aftermath of the scandal a homemade DVD - financed by the absent O Searcaigh- was shown depicting several of the young men taking back what they had said in the documentary and a statement was circulated claiming that the poet had been exhausted from all the travel and speaking English and therefore we couldn't rely on what he said.

There was possibly another conversation that we could have had at the time, which related to control, power imbalance and not what is merely legal but what is appropriate.

But while a heterosexual man, or a non-artist, would undoubtedly have had to face more rigorous questioning on this front, O Searcaigh's sexuality combined with his status as a poet served as a perfect distraction for a majority of the great and the good in Irish society.

A decade later, this tactic didn't work for Kevin Spacey, but while we can condemn him for attempting to exploit a minor, we could perhaps forgive him for not noticing that the rules of what being gay excuses have now changed forever.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss