The Uncertain Future Of Outing

For decades, Kevin Spacey used the media’s fear of “outing” him to keep sexual misconduct allegations out of the news. But what really counts as “outing” — and when is it justified?

Back in 2001, actor and singer Anthony Rapp and writer Dennis Hensley got together for coffee in Union Square to discuss their respective new albums for the Advocate. Both openly gay, the conversation turned to whether they’d ever considered not being out in their careers.

For Rapp, the star of Rent, who had been out publicly since 1992, his answer was a simple, emphatic “no.” Hensley said the topic of being out made him think of “[a certain leading man] in [a certain award-winning film],” referring to a closeted major star. At the time, the Advocate decided to redact the name of the actor Hensley was referring to, even though Rapp went on to accuse him of making an unwanted sexual advance.

Sixteen years later, Rapp told his story to BuzzFeed News, but this time Rapp named the celebrated actor, Kevin Spacey, and Spacey has since been accused of sexual harassment or assault by many others. (Through his lawyer, he has either denied or declined to comment on the allegations.) The talent agency CAA and Spacey’s publicist have dropped him, Ridley Scott recast him in an already-shot movie, and Netflix has severed ties with the actor, indicating it won’t move forward with House of Cards with his involvement. British police are investigating him over an alleged sexual assault in 2008, and a former news anchor who says Spacey groped her then-18-year-old son told reporters this week that her son recently filed a police report with the Nantucket, Massachusetts, police (though a spokesperson for the police won’t confirm or deny the existence of a report).

Bruce C. Steele, who worked at both Out magazine and the Advocate throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, and was editor-in-chief of the Advocate in 2001, wrote a column after the allegations surfaced, explaining why both gay and lesbian publications never “outed” Spacey during those years. “At Out magazine, we repeatedly told everyone that the name of the magazine was an adjective, not a verb,” he wrote. The Advocate had also developed a “no outing” policy before Steele began working there, and when he arrived, “we stuck to it,” including with Spacey — who had long since occupied the glass closet, but was not yet formally out.

There has never been a simple, clear-cut binary of “out” versus “in,” for celebrities or anyone else — but in 2001, it was a common policy in mainstream media that if a celebrity had not spoken openly about their sexual orientation to the press, then “outing” them in any way was a no-go, whether that meant labeling someone as gay who hadn’t publicly associated themselves with that label, or even just reporting upon activities that could have implied someone was attracted to people of the same gender. Apparently, that standard also stretched to reporting on alleged same-sex sexual abuse. And as it’s now come to light, as BuzzFeed News reported last week, Spacey seemingly used the media’s fear of outing him to his advantage — to silence his victims.

One of those men was a journalist in his twenties when he interviewed Spacey in London for a national magazine sometime in the early 2000s. The journalist, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid risk to his career, says Spacey began aggressively groping him and screamed at him outside of a club when he wouldn’t reciprocate Spacey’s advances. But the journalist felt he couldn’t share his account at the time, because Spacey wasn’t out as gay. “I consider that a pretty important principle: You don't out people,” he told BuzzFeed News. “But it tied my hands. Being closeted has for him enabled him to use this privacy claim as a shield against anybody looking closely at his actual behavior.”

The journalist’s interview would have occurred around the same time the Advocate redacted Spacey’s name from Rapp’s story. What’s changed in the 16 years since? Quite a lot, it turns out — and even more so in the 31 years since Rapp’s experience with Spacey. For one thing, we’re now living in a post-Weinstein world. For another, journalists, publishers, and LGBT advocates have started to change the way they take on the thorny issue of “outing.”

Though it’s a concept that goes a long way back, the word “outing” was brought into popular use by Time magazine’s cultural critic William A. Henry III, in a piece arguing against the practice in 1990. There’s never been a grand consensus on what counts as outing, and whether it’s ever justified as newsworthy. What if someone goes to gay bars and is out to a wide circle of family and friends, but that person hasn’t come forward with an announcement on the world stage? What if someone’s been photographed in the tabloids holding hands with or kissing someone of the same gender (someone they live with, grocery shop with, vacation with) but they just haven’t told the media about the nature of what pretty plainly looks like a romantic relationship? What if someone is an LGBT advocate and profits off of queer dollars, but won’t claim a queer identity as their own? On the flip side — what if someone’s indirectly or directly promoting policies that harm the LGBT community?

And what if someone’s been accused of doing something terrible?

As we hurtle toward a future where young people are queerer than ever, when more and more people (famous and not so famous) openly identify as LGBT, the very concept of “the closet” seems less and less applicable to the complex realities of modern queer life. One of the aims of queer liberation is abolishing the closet altogether, doing away with the increasingly outdated notion that LGBT people must formally pronounce their identity. (Though it is not the sort of concept that’s applied to every queer person to begin with; trans and gender-nonconforming people who don’t “pass” for cisgender or straight often aren’t given the privilege of naming their identity on their own terms.) But even though the closet has never applied to everyone, it remains a reality that for many LGBT people, not drawing attention to their sexual orientation or gender identity is the only surefire way they can keep their jobs, their families, or even their lives. The closet (glass or otherwise) remains a social fixture when some of our most powerful cultural and political figures remain crouched inside of it, oftentimes using the language of “privacy” to defend their place there.

Privacy is often invoked when it comes to the issue of whether or not outing is ever justified. Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor who bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit against Gawker, invoked what he thinks is his right to privacy in an op-ed for the New York Times in August 2016, shortly after Gawker Media Group was forced to put itself up for sale following its loss of the lawsuit. Thiel bankrolled Hogan in large part because, back in 2007, Gawker’s Valleywag blog published a post under the headline “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Thiel accused Gawker of outing him: “I had begun coming out to people I knew, and I planned to continue on my own terms. Instead, Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it.”

Thiel is one of the most famous invokers of his “right to privacy,” though he’s certainly not alone — it’s been used by singer Demi Lovato, who said in her recent documentary that she’s open to dating both men and women, but previously told reporters that “I like to keep my personal life as private as possible.”

And so has Spacey. Four years before the Advocate ran Dennis Hensley’s conversation with Anthony Rapp, Esquire published a cover story on Spacey titled “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” with a lede about how “sophisticates” in New York and LA all spread the same gay rumor about him. In response, Spacey called the piece “dishonest and malicious,” saying in a statement at the time that “Esquire has made it abundantly clear that they have now joined the ranks of distasteful journalism, and this mean-spirited, homophobic, offensive article proves that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well.”

He reacted similarly in an infamous interview with the Daily Beast in 2010, when reporter Kevin Sessums asked Spacey, “We gay men have always proudly claimed you as a member of our tribe, and yet you don't proudly claim us back. Why?”

Spacey’s response invoked (you guessed it) his privacy: “Look, I might have lived in England for the last several years but I'm still an American citizen and I have not given up my right to privacy.” Spacey then brought up gay teenagers who commit suicide because of the bullying they face. “I feel that they have just as many rights as I do to not be bullied. And I don't understand people who say, ‘Well, this is a terrible thing that is happening to this young person whose life is being exposed,’ and then turn around and do it to another person.”

Both Spacey and Thiel have insisted not only that their gay identities should be protected as a matter of personal privacy, but that media outlets are engaging in homophobic exploitation by attempting to “out” them for pageviews.

This is where things can get complicated.

There are some journalists, critics, and LGBT advocates who are firmly anti-outing under most circumstances, and there are others who are just as firmly pro (in the sense that they don’t believe reporting that someone is gay or has same-sex relationships should be treated differently than reporting on anything else — rather, it should just be considered reporting the truth, aka doing their jobs).

But most of the time, even for those with longstanding opinions on the subject, a blanket pro- or anti-outing stance doesn’t always make sense, because the line between treating a gay subject just like anyone else and sensationalizing that subject for being gay isn’t always so clear. Here’s the central tension: By reporting on a person’s sexual orientation, are you refusing to treat queerness as something shameful, taboo, and “private” that should be hidden away from public view, thereby countering anti-gay sentiment and refusing to actively closet someone in the media — or are you in fact perpetuating anti-gayness by turning someone’s sexuality into a salacious scoop?

Of course, it depends on the story, and it depends on who you ask. In 2014, Gawker published a “remember when” post with photos of Spacey from a 2000 issue of Star magazine, showing him holding hands with, touching, and massaging an unnamed young man in a Los Angeles park. The next year, Gawker’s Defamer blog ran a series of unsubstantiated gay rumors about him, which some readers criticized as useless at best (these rumors have been out there for a while now, so why draw attention to them?) and, at worst, invasion of Spacey’s privacy, amounting to borderline homophobic sensationalization. These stories differed from a third Gawker post in March 2015, which included more serious allegations: that Spacey had been “lecherous and predatory” on movie sets. One unverified story about Spacey propositioning a young PA so relentlessly that the PA had to be moved to another project sounds similar to recent reporting by CNN and BuzzFeed News about Spacey’s behavior on the House of Cards set.

This wasn’t Gawker’s most serious controversy regarding “outing” — besides Thiel, there was the explosive Conde Nast executive drama — and there was also the case of Fox News anchor Shep Smith. In 2013, David Carr, the late culture critic for the New York Times, wrote a column about Gawker and outing, condemning their coverage of Smith’s sexuality before he’d officially came out: “Now that gay marriage is a fact of life, a person’s sexual orientation is not only not news, it’s not very interesting.”

J.K. Trotter, the reporter who wrote all of the Spacey posts and the Shep Smith story Carr referenced, indicated when he spoke to me for this story that he would publish all of those posts again. “My only regret is that I wish I had more vigorously pursued stories about Spacey's harassment of young men,” he said.

When it comes to differentiating between stories that are more so about gay rumors as opposed to stories that are about a bigger, more newsworthy narrative — like abusive or aggressive behavior — Trotter said that, in Spacey’s case, he wouldn’t have gotten tips about the latter without first publishing the former.

(Nick Denton, who founded Gawker Media, wrote a blog post last week arguing as much: that Gawker and other gossip sites had laid the groundwork for blockbuster reporting on sexual harassment and assault by outlets like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and BuzzFeed News. “Gossip can be gratuitous, without any purpose beyond entertainment,” he acknowledged. But, he argued, “those first accounts of sexual harassment  —  even if anonymous or thinly sourced  —  give confidence to victims that they are not alone.” Today’s New York Times story about sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K. mentions a Gawker post from 2015 that floated similar rumors.)

Trotter acknowledged that there’s a lot of gray areas here. “I don’t want to present that these questions aren’t tough, or that they aren’t questions gay journalists like both of us struggle with,” he said. But ultimately, he thinks “that treating homosexuality as something that an outlet cannot report on without the explicit permission of the celebrity whose homosexuality is under discussion is ridiculous … for celebrities, at least, it should be treated like anything else.” He thinks that the Spacey allegations going unreported for so long is evidence of that.

The way we think about those standards are beginning to change. Last week, when Daniel Reynolds reported a story for the Advocate about why the publication redacted Kevin Spacey’s name from Anthony Rapp’s account in 2001, he wrote that the Advocate today “allows for outing whenever it's relevant to stopping harm to others or when a person is hypocritically acting against LGBT people, and The Advocate wouldn't keep a celebrity closeted in media when they are otherwise out in public life.” As the oldest LGBT magazine in the country, the Advocate reflects an influential LGBT media standard.

That’s more or less the same standard practiced by notorious outing blogger Michael Rogers, who in 2004 started a blog “dedicated to exposing anti-gay politicians who were themselves having secret sexual encounters with other men,” as he reflected in 2014 for Politico.

“This wasn’t about private sex lives — it was about hypocrisy,” Rogers wrote about his project. He noted that the reactions to his earlier posts were “mixed, with some people backing me and others yammering that I was invading politicians’ right to privacy … To the latter group, I pointed out that these very politicians were making my private life — and the lives of millions of other LGBT Americans — a very public political issue. I also noted an important distinction between outing and reporting. Outing is the indiscriminate disclosure of someone’s sexual orientation without his or her consent. Reporting is not at all indiscriminate — and it has a higher purpose.”

Perhaps that’s all the outing question really boils down to in the end: whether or not reporting on someone’s sexual orientation serves some sort of higher purpose. In 2015, when the Daily Beast published an article by a straight journalist posing as gay on Grindr to meet up with Olympians, the end result was seemingly the opposite of serving a higher purpose — it was harmful, effectively outing gay athletes, and was eventually retracted. An editor’s note published in the aftermath apologized to the people “who may have been inadvertently compromised by our story.” That Daily Beast story was, to everyone who condemned it in an aftermath, a pretty clear case of when “outing” — even (or especially) inadvertently so — is absolutely not justified. This wasn’t serving a newsworthy purpose, but instead treated queer people like a curiosity at the expense of their safety.

But again, it’s not always so clear cut. If the standard for going forward with “outing” someone is “relevant to stopping harm to others” or “when a hypocritically acting against LGBT people,” what sort of actions clear that threshold?

For some, working for a network like Fox News might meet that standard. For others, including Rogers, politicians peddling an anti-LGBT agenda do — that’s how some other writers, including Mike Signorile of HuffPost, defended the “outing” of Republican Congressman Aaron Schock in 2014.

A veteran gay journalist, Signorile was vilified by the media as well as by many LGBT people in the 1990s for “for reporting on the sexual orientation of public figures when such truths were relevant to a larger story,” as he put in a recent essay about the dangers of protecting Spacey’s “privacy.” Signorile and others’ work contributed to Time Magazine’s coining of the word “outing” — “a word I never accepted since I simply saw it as reporting,” he wrote. Signorile’s reporting on the sexual orientation of secretly gay or bisexual politicians and cultural figures — who, he said, promoted anti-LGBT policies or harassed others from the safety of the closet — was assumed by many to be “a terrible invasion of privacy,” leading to mainstream media organizations and LGBT publications like The Advocate to institute “no outing” policies.

Those policies, “cast as protecting privacy and promoting journalistic standards, were and are homophobic ― and they are unevenly applied,” Signorile argues. And it was these sorts of anti-outing policies that led publications like the Advocate to avoid reporting on things like sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey.

Dennis Hensley, who wrote the 2001 Rapp story, told the Advocate that Rapp’s allegation “didn’t feel like a bombshell in the way it would now. It really was a different time. I mean, it was upsetting and provocative, but it wasn’t something you felt like you needed to do something about, you know? Which is one good thing about the way the culture’s changed.” Steele said something similar: Though the Advocate’s “no outing” policy at the time had exceptions — like criminality — he said he didn’t consider Rapp’s case one of those exceptions. Both said they would handle the situation differently today.

BuzzFeed News publishing Rapp’s story about Spacey could potentially be construed as a sort of “outing” — but in the end, what the report revealed was Spacey’s predatory behavior toward a minor, not his sexual orientation. Sexual abuse and coercion is not about sexual attraction so much as it’s about power. Those are important distinctions to make — as many writers have pointed out in the aftermath of the allegations, conflating gayness with preying upon boys is wildly dangerous, and has historically led to the persecution and oppression of queer people. Nevertheless, Hensley is right: Now the culture has changed. And it’s hard to know how Rapp’s story would have landed in a pre-Weinstein world.

The overall question now, as Steele told the Advocate, “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.”

Signorile has never believed in sticking with that standard. “I think each story is a bit of breakthrough in reporting on sexual orientation when it is relevant to a larger story,” he told me when I spoke to him for this story. He thinks the Spacey news “had impact and is instructive. I also believe a younger generation sees the issue differently. I've always said that as homosexuality itself becomes more accepted, so will reporting on it, even when public figures haven't necessarily disclosed it, and certainly when relevant. The two are inextricably linked. Add into that how the online, newer media has taken about the gatekeeper privileges of the traditional media, and I think that adds to the pace of the change.”

So what might the future of “outing” look like? Though some might not find a person’s sexual orientation relevant or newsworthy or interesting (whether or not that person is in a position to cause harm) on its own, the tremendous amount of attention that coming out announcements of all scopes can still draw might suggest they’re in the minority. Even in 2017, visibility does matter.

Plenty of public figures over the years who have formally “come out” — among them Holland Taylor, Demi Lovato, and Shep Smith — have later said in interviews that they were “never really in” to begin with. And yet, if a public figure hasn’t had a formal (and increasingly outdated) coming out, reporting on a story that acknowledges someone’s same-sex attraction or relationship can still be met with cries of “outing” and “homophobic speculation” and “invaded privacy.” Certainly those condemnations will at times be justified, like when a story isn’t genuinely newsworthy, or when someone’s a private figure, or when a queer person’s sexual life has been put on display just to be mocked and derided. But condemning all possible sorts of “outing” hasn't been a realistic standard for a long time. And if we are ever going to truly tear down the closet, maybe we won't end up needing to rely on the concept of "outing" at all.

Skip to footer