I don’t want to spend a lot of time writing anything that isn’t NaNoWriMo right now, but sometimes there are stories in the news that I can’t let go by without some comment. The recent revelations of prominent men actually facing some consequences for their years of sexual harassment is (if these kinds of consequences stick around and we start believing women when they say they’ve been subjected to this treatment) a great thing. Some people are trying to make hay out of the fact that the most recent cases have been people in the entertainment industry, but please don’t be fooled. Every industry has this problem. This is a systemic societal manifestation of male privilege/rape culture.
A lot of other people have written about the general topic over the last few weeks, and there isn’t much point in me weighing in further, but one particular aspect does require some commentary: A Pattern Of Abuse: How Kevin Spacey Used The Closet To Silence His Victims. It’s not just straight men that behave abominably in this way. Gay Actors Open Up About Sexual Harassment In Hollywood: “I’m No Stranger To It”.
The first article I linked above looks at an aspect of this problem that doesn’t get talked about a lot: how the closet makes the problem especially bad for queer people: 1) a lot of straight people who either experience the harassment or witness is feel that they can’t say anything because doing so would out the people involved, and involuntarily outing another person is wrong; 2) if the victim of the harassment isn’t out, they feel that they can’t defend themselves because doing so would expose their secret. The article, unfortunately, focuses primarily on that first bit: how Spacey counted on people’s reluctance in order to continue his behavior with impunity. But I really wish the article had spent some more time on the second one, because I don’t think enough people understand just how bad it can be.
Particularly for young people, such as the second of Spacey’s accusers, who started a sexual relationship with Spacey when the victim was 14, and willingly went along with it for quite some time, until the incident when Spacey tried to force him to do a new sex act he wasn’t ready for (at the much more mature age of 15). This is another way that the closet plays into this kind of abuse, especially for queer teens. See, the kid has spent his whole life being scared to death that people will find out they are gay. They are convinced their families will reject them (and given how many do kick their gay kids out on the street, that isn’t an unreasonable fear), they fear all their friends will abandon them, and so on. At the same time, they are teen-agers, with hormones raging through their body, they have crushes on people that they can’t pursue, and so forth. There’s no socially acceptable way to explore those feelings, to take someone they like to the school dance, et cetera.
But then someone comes along and offers them part of what they crave: someone who desires them, someone who claims to have feelings for them, someone who will let them experience these things they’ve fantasized about. Never mind that the person is older (sometimes a lot older)–and what kid didn’t have at least one crush on an older person at some point–this is someone who is finally giving them something they thought they would never have. So they may go along with it. They may enjoy it, at least for a while. They may believe the other person actually cares about them. So, once they have gone that far, then they believe anything unpleasant that happens is their fault. They agreed, originally, right? They assume any of the bad feelings they have are because something is wrong with them, not recognizing that it’s the toxicity of the closet and the exploitive behavior of the other person that is at fault.
Whether they go along with it at all or not, they still can’t tell anyone. They can’t ask for help or advice, because doing so means admitting they’re queer, and then all of the things that they’ve feared will come true. So they suck it up and try to endure. Which continues the whole toxic cycle.
And let’s make something very clear. The reason they were targeted was because the older person suspected that they were gay. The abuser is looking for victims who may let them have their way, or who will give in to the harassment out of fear, or at the very least will stay silent because of that same fear.
This is the reason that Spacey’s attempt to use his coming out as an excuse when the first allegation came forward was so infuriating. By attributing the first assault to a “drunken mistake” and then saying he’s finally chooses to live as an openly gay man, he was trying to make himself the victims. While I’m sure that growing up a closeted queer kid was just as unpleasant for him as to any of the rest of us, he embraced the toxicity of the closet and used it to abuse other, generally younger guys. The truly sad thing is how many of the media initially let the tactic work, the headlines were about him coming out, not about the fact that he’d sexually assaulted a 14-year-old. Enough people called them on it (and more accusers came forward) that it shifted: Media Skewered For Focus On Kevin Spacey Coming Out Rather Than Harassment.
Spacey doesn’t get to hide behind the queer community. He doesn’t get to use booze and being closeted as an excuse to prey on teen-age boys again and again. He is not the victim in any of these cases. He’s a sexual predator.
Content Warning: the following essay (which will also touch on dangerous misperceptions and myths about sexual orientation) includes some specifics about physical abuse of children and worse. Only click when you’re ready … Read More…
About a month ago a political scandal reared its head in Seattle. An anonymous man filed a lawsuit against Mayor Ed Murray—our fist openly gay mayor, a man who served many years in the state legislature as an openly gay man—alleging that decades ago when the plaintiff was 15 years old, Murray had paid him for sex. Because of the age of the plaintiff at time, if the allegations are true, it would have been consider sexual assault, child rape, et cetera because the younger man was below the age of consent.
It was difficult to know how to respond to the allegations. The lawsuit was filed just six weeks before the filing deadline to run for mayor. The law firm representing the plaintiff is headed by a notorious anti-gay activitist. False accusations of sexual predation on underaged boys are lodged against gay men all the time. The lawyer handling the case has since behaved as if this is a crazy PR stunt rather than a case. For example, going online on local news sites to make long and very unlawyerly comments on stories about the case, or filing “motions” with the court that have nothing to do with the case but contain long press release-style recounting a of rumors about odd things that have happened around the mayor.
Three more accusers have stepped forward, two of whom had tried to make similar allegations some years ago, but were unable to convince police in Portland, Oregon in 1984 to file charges, and more recently even the local Republican-leaning paper felt there wasn’t enough evidence to print their story of being abused in a group home where Murray worked in the 80s. The paper rushed to publish the 9-year-old interviews as soon of the law suit was filed.
To be clear, among the reasons I leaned toward thinking the allegations are probably false is that in 1984 police in Portland, Oregon were not exactly known for being pro-gay, neither was the Multnomah County Prosecutor. At the time, Murray was an openly gay man with a degree in Sociology working with troubled youth. Not exactly the sort of person you would expect the police or prosecutors to go easy on in regards to charges of child rape. That led me to think that in the 1984 investigation it wasn’t merely a lack of corroborating evidence, but that there was actually evidence refuting the charges.
On the other hand, my own experience of surviving physical and emotional abuse from a parent, and how people didn’t believe me (even people who witnessed some of the abuse), as well as the many accounts of survivors of various kinds of abuse whose allegations are dismissed out of hand, the stastistics about rape victims being disbelieved, and so forth, made me reluctant to leap to the conclusion that the allegations were false.
But then there was the way Murray chose to defend himself. Rather than simply deny the allegations and say that he was looking forward to his day in court (the statute of limitations for criminal charges is long past, so it’s a civil lawsuit), Murray and his lawyer initially attacked the two non-anonymous accusers for their criminal records and drug histories. He suggested that the lawsuit was being filed for political purposes, and questioned why the plaintif was suing anonymously and waited so long to file.
Attacking the credibility of accusors is a classic abuser tactic. It doesn’t prove that Murray did it, but if he was able to dispel the scandal this way, it would have a chilling effect on abuse survivors who have less-than-perfect pasts.
The original plaintif then revealed his identity and explained that he had remained quiet all of these years because he didn’t want his father to know that he had worked as a prostitute during his teen years. His father having recently passed away, the plaintiff felt free to come forward now.
Certainly the attorney’s odd behavior (which has actually provoked sanctions from the judge) makes one wonder what his motives are for taking this case on contingency. Murray isn’t fabulously wealthy, so I’m not sure any judgement earned is going to justify the months of work the lawyer will undertake between now and the trial date (scheduled for next year). Since the initial filing of the case came off as a mini media circus, he clearly wasn’t hoping for a quick settlement to make the scandal go away. But no matter how impure the lawyer’s motives may be, it doesn’t mean the underlying allegations are false.
The four men in question have far from spotless records. But the other thing they have in common is that all four were, as teens, in very bad situations. It isn’t unexpected that coming from such a background they would find themselves turning to crime and drugs just to get by. And it is very difficult to break out of such a cycle once it is started. Vulnerable people, particular vulnerable teens, are exactly the sorts of victims certain types of abusers seek out, precisely because “respectable” people are disinclined to believe them.
On yet another hand, Murray is notoriously thin-skinned. He’s infamous for shouting at people who disagree with him, not to mention shouting at his own staff members when things don’t go his way. That means he’s exactly the sort of person who, if he is innocent of the charges, would react by attacking his accusers. But routinely shouting at people who work for you is also indicative of a particular kind of abusive person…
Fortunately, many prominent people were willing to make public statements about how the Mayor’s defense tactics cast a chilling effect on abuse victims and rape victims and so forth. The calls for him to at least drop his re-election campaign all focused on that, leaving the truth or faleshood of the allegations for a jury. So, yesterday he announced that he won’t seek re-election, though he plans to serve out his term.
If the allegations are false, it is sad that a man who has devoted so much of his life to furthering the cause of civil rights for queer people has had his career ended by them. If the allegations are true, it’s sad that his victims weren’t believed and that they felt unable to come forward publicly sooner. And it’s going to be infuriating when (not if) the usual anti-gay a-holes use this as an example that queer people are evil.
I hope the charges aren’t true, but if they are, I hope that a jury figures that out and that at least some form of justice is served. Because everyone, no matter their class, status, or past, deserves justice.
One night in the 90s my phone rang with the Caller ID showing a number I didn’t recognize. The area code of the number was for the region where my grandparents and several other relatives lived, so thinking that it was either one of my relatives or about them, I answered. The voice on the other end asked rather hesitantly to speak to me, by my old name (before I legally changed it). This made my heart race a bit, because if something awful had happened to my grandparents, I would expect anyone trying to contact next of kin would use that name.
I said, “Speaking. Who is this?”
“I don’t know if you remember be, but I’m —– ——-, I was one of your teachers at __________ Middle School?”
“COACH! What a surprise to hear from you!”
It is true that he had been one of my middle school teachers, but more importantly, he had been the coach of one of the team sports I mostly flailed at and specifically he was the coach who had taken time outside of school time to get me to a weight room and try to turn me into someone who wasn’t picked on so much at school. It was great to hear from him, but also a bit confusing. We hadn’t talked in decades.
He had gotten my phone number from my grandmother, and he’d been wanting to talk to some of his old students, specifically the ones he felt he hadn’t done enough for. I tried to argue that he had gone above and beyond for me, but he interrupted and told me to let him say his piece.
“We knew,” he said, “all of us knew which of the students were being mistreated at home. Some of you had the disturbing recurring bruises and such, others had less severe signs. We all knew, and we talked among ourselves about how we could help. But the law was different, then. If a teacher accused a parent of abuse, the teacher almost always lost their job, their career ended. It was our word against the parents’ and usually the kids would deny it, too, because they were too scared of the abusive parent…”
He went on for a bit, and I tried to assure him that I understood. I was well aware of how laws that protected teachers and doctors and so forth if they reported suspected abuse didn’t become common until years later. I also assured him that he had helped. “You believed in me. You talked me out of quitting. You showed me I could do more–could be more–than I believed I could. And that’s part of the reason a year or so later I was finally able to stand up to my dad. You’re one of the reasons I’m still alive to talk about it.”
As I said, he arranged for me to have workout time at the weight room up at the high school. That part that I haven’t mentioned is that he set it up so that the other kids didn’t know I was getting extra help. He made it clear that he understood that if my bullies knew I “needed extra help” it would make their bullying worse. He didn’t manage to turn me into a winning wrestler. But I got better, and discovered that I was actually good at running, so I joined the track team and later cross country. I was never a champion, but I stopped being the team member who always came in last. It didn’t make everything else in my life wonderful, but it made some parts better.
He still felt the need to ask forgiveness for not doing more. As we talked, I was able to put a few more pieces together. His wife had passed away less than a year before, so he had been rattling around their house with nothing but his memories and regrets. As he said, I wasn’t the only abused kid that had been one of his students. He mentioned a few who had died early deaths, from alcohol or drugs or suicide, and clearly he felt that their abusive childhoods had played a role. “I ran into your grandmother in the grocery store earlier this week, and she told me you lived in Seattle, doing something with computers. I was so glad to hear that you’re well.”
I tried to assure him that he had done good for me, and I knew he had done right by many others. “If it helps, I’ll say ‘you’re forgiven’ even though I never, ever felt wronged by you.”
It was an emotional night. I still tear up writing about it.
Domestic abuse is a complicated problem. So many forces in society enable the abuse and silence the abused. Abusers are good at presenting a respectable, reasonable facade. They are even better at casting doubt as to the reliability of any of their accusers. They are really good at teaching the abused to doubt themselves.
There is no simple solution to domestic abuse. Coach thought that if he made me into a better athlete, since my dad had been a champion in school, that maybe Dad wouldn’t abuse me as often. That’s not how it works. Abusers want control, and no success is ever good enough.
Yeah, Coach’s efforts to make me less of an athletic loser helped in many ways, but even more, his willingness to offer his time and ecouragement–to be a loving positive adult presence in my life–did far more in making me into a person who could make my own life better.
A few years later I learned from my aunt who still lived back there that Coach had died. I hope he believed me when I said he was one of the reasons my life had become better.
Thanks, Coach Clemens. Thank you for believing me. Thank you for believing in me. And thank you for teaching me to believe in myself.
Anyway, when the story first broke, we knew that several people who should have been in a position to protect the young boys who came to the university’s football camps had known about Sandusky’s child raping for a while, but there were still those that claimed they only knew of an isolated case or two that they somehow rationalized away as aberrations. Well, that was a load of bull: [trigger warning: sexual assault, child abuse] Unsealed Court Documents: Sandusky Abuse Allegation Was Reported To Joe Paterno In 1976.
There is a special place in hell reserved for child rapists, and Sandusky is going there. But there is a similar place, perhaps a worse place, in hell reserved for people who know about this sort of abuse, do nothing and even enable it. And Coach Joe Paterno is certainly and deservedly rotting in that exact part of hell right now.
Humans tell stories because narratives are extremely powerful. Narratives can help us overcome adversity or survive disaster. Unfortunately, they can also trap us in unhealthy situations, or lead us into catastrophe.
When I was a kid, the narrative prevalent in most of my extended family was that alcohol caused all of my dad’s problems. It was certainly true that on days when he started drinking early the rest of us did everything we could to stay out of his way. If dad was drunk before nightfall, it pretty much guaranteed that someone was going to get a beating. But those weren’t the only days that he was like that. The only reason people outside the immediate family could hang on to that narrative was that if he wasn’t actually drunk, and there were people outside the immediate family present, Dad would remain on his best behavior. They didn’t know that, drunk or not, he was just as likely to slap or punch any of us at any time if he thought we were out of line.
And what constituted being out-of-line was difficult to predict. For me, it included doing anything he thought wasn’t manly, for instance.
Even though Dad rejected any suggestion that he should drink less, their narrative that it was all alcohol’s fault dovetailed nicely with his own rationalization, which was simply that nothing which went wrong in his life was ever his fault. Someone else was always to blame. That wasn’t the only notion the narrative dovetailed nicely with… Read More…
Why I Stayed:
Because my church, teachers, other relatives, and even a cop (after the incident of the broken collar bone and gash that required stitches) told me that sometimes a father has to go to extremes to make his son a man.
Because when you are raised from birth by your abuser, you think bruises, fractures, and lacerations are normal.
Because my church, other relatives, and even movies and TV told me that standing up for myself was being rebellious.
Because if my story didn’t match his version of events, I would be hurt worse.
Because if I got away, he’d still be able to hurt my mom and my little sister.
Why I Left:
Because the judge hearing my parents’ divorce case actually asked me which parent I wanted to live with, and why.
Unpacking some of the above:
To someone who isn’t in the abusive relationship, the solution always seems simple… Read More…