The Problem With Kevin Spacey’s 'Coming Out' At The 2017 Tony Awards

The coy wink-wink humor diminished the gravitas of coming out while inadvertently reinforcing the idea that it’s somehow shameful to just say “I’m gay."
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Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. But is it always the antidote we need?

Chances are it has rarely, if ever, cured what might ail a young gay person sick with fear while facing the terrifying task of coming out to family and friends.

To be or not to be proudly out of the closet? That is the frequently vomit-inducing question.

If that was the Shakespearean conundrum facing two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey before he hosted the 2017 Tony Awards on Sunday night, he certainly did an Oscar-caliber job of sidestepping it onstage.

The 57-year-old thespian has been followed by gay rumors for much of his A-list run. He’s never outright confirmed or denied them, but he used his hosting platform to indirectly acknowledge them. If he had something to reveal, he never got around to spilling. Instead, he played the rumors – and by extension, his sexuality – for laughs.

During Spacey’s opening routine at the Tonys, Whoopi Goldberg, another Oscar winner whose sexuality has sparked longstanding rumors, stepped out of a closet.

“Whoopi, how long have you been in that closet?” Spacey asked.

“Well, Kevin, it depends on who you ask,” she answered.

Later, the emcee had an in-character drag moment, dressing as “Sunset Boulevard” diva Norma Desmond while singing partial lyrics from the musical: “I’m coming out… No, wait, no.” See what he did there?

By most accounts, Spacey was an excellent host, but if those gay rumors are indeed true, he squandered his chance to turn the gig into a golden rainbow-colored opportunity. He could have used his position overseeing what has long been deemed entertainment’s gayest night to reinforce that young closeted viewers don’t have to be ashamed and afraid. They can be openly gay and still thrive. It can indeed get better.

And if those gay rumors aren’t true, then what was the point of the jokes? Were he and Whoopi trying to make a statement about the public’s insatiable desire to know everything about celebrities? It’s something that deserves to be addressed, but not with a few flip jokes at the Tony Awards while millions of gay viewers are watching and celebrating a vital part of their culture.

It’s one thing to play around with sexual orientation in order to show what a non-issue it should be, as straight stars like Ryan Reynolds and Harry Styles have done so superbly. (And kudos to Chris Cooper for seeing the humor in Spacey’s joke about their kiss/kill relationship in “American Beauty.”) But his making light of coming out when he hasn’t actually done the work in real life came across as being mostly self-serving while disregarding and disrespecting young closeted gay people who actually struggle with whether to leave the closet behind. It’s like putting on blackface and ignoring that millions of Americans can’t wash off their skin color at the end of the night.

“His making light of coming out when he hasn’t actually done the work in real life came across as being mostly self-serving.”

Some have suggested that Spacey’s gay innuendo might have been his method of revelation. If so, his continued silence would have been preferable for this fan. The coy wink-wink humor diminished the gravitas of coming out while inadvertently reinforcing the idea that it’s somehow shameful to just say “I’m gay” and be done with it. In these times when America’s disenfranchised are increasingly under attack, implication is not enough. You have to shout it from the rooftop – or the Tonys stage – to truly express your gay pride.

But more than 20 years after Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time magazine by declaring, “Yep, I’m gay,” those three words remain the hardest ones for some celebrities to say.

Jodie Foster, another two-time Oscar winner also known for a straight-shooting screen persona, said pretty much everything but those three words while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2013 Golden Globes. She launched weeks worth of watercooler discussion with her unprecedented (for her) openness, but would it have violated her closely guarded privacy to publicly utter those three words?

This is not to say that celebs owe it to complete strangers to put all of their personal stuff into the public domain. But by admitting you’re gay – not dancing around it, but saying it directly – have you actually let anyone into your bedroom? Although I will never approve of forced outing, we can’t normalize being gay if we can’t own it completely. As for those who insist that one’s sexuality is/should be irrelevant, they’re right. Still, they’re oversimplifying something that’s far more complicated than black and white. If it doesn’t matter, then why are young closeted gay people struggling?

If they could hear more celebrities they admire and respect say, “Yep, I’m gay,” perhaps it would make it easier for them to admit it to themselves and to others. A star’s reluctance to say those words out loud can reinforce the doubts and fears of their young closeted fans, most of whom can’t make their own “announcement” by acknowledging their “heroic co-parent” and “ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life” at the Golden Globes. If their role models can be comfortable saying they’re gay – not just implying it, suggesting it, and/or joking around it – maybe that can translate as total comfort with being gay, too.

When Ellen came out, she led with humor. (Remember the bit about her Ellen sitcom character being, um, Lebanese, on The Rosie O’Donnell Show in 1996?) Eventually, though, she had the courage and the guts to put her reputation and career on the line in service of the uncensored truth: “Yep, I’m gay.” She didn’t reveal anything more about what goes on in her bedroom by saying it than a pregnant star does when she announces that she and her husband/partner are expecting.

Numerous gay performers have followed Ellen’s lead, and their careers didn’t die. Ricky Martin, Grammy/Oscar winner Sam Smith, and erstwhile Tonys host Neil Patrick Harris are but a few of them. Times have changed in the days since Rock Hudson and Liberace. Coming out is no longer considered career suicide. And it can save lives.

That, to me, will always be more important than hoarding every single detail of one’s personal life or getting a few laughs onstage on awards night.

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