I came out of the closet far later in life than I should have, and when I finally decided to go through with it, it was largely out of fear of becoming Jim McGreevey.
McGreevey, you may or may not recall, was the openly straight governor of New Jersey—complete with a wife and two kids—who was forced to resign in 2004 following a sexual harassment claim from a male underling.
Finding himself boxed in by events of his own making, McGreevey opted to kill two birds with one stone by stepping down and coming out at the exact same moment. “My truth is that I am a gay American,” said McGreevey at the press conference that would end his career, adding, “I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violates my bonds of matrimony. It was wrong. It was foolish. It was inexcusable.”
It took McGreevey 47 years and two marriages to work up the nerve to reveal his true self to the world, and were it not for the sordid circumstances that more-or-less forced his hand, he may well have gone to his grave without owning up to who he really is, denying himself the chance to pursue a happiness that every straight American takes for granted.
What a sad little life that would’ve been—and what a rotten way to free himself from it once and for all.
To a then-closet case like me, McGreevey’s misadventures were a major wake-up call as to the miseries that come from living a lie for decades on end, be they sham marriages or professional ruin. While I had no immediate plans to run for statewide office, I determined then and there that my own coming out would occur entirely on my own terms and long before I entered middle age and made a series of irreparable, self-defeating life choices.
In the end, I succeeded on both fronts, and though I hadn’t thought of McGreevey for quite some time, recent events have caused me to consider his case anew—and also to reflect how McGreevey is no longer the gold standard for how not to announce your homosexuality in public.
The new champion in that department is Kevin Spacey, the beloved Oscar-winning star of stage and screen, who confirmed his long-rumored queerness in late October after being accused of sexually assaulting the actor Anthony Rapp at a house party when Rapp was 14 years old. In a widely-panned “apology,” Spacey claimed no recollection of the incident in question, proffering that he must’ve been six sheets to the wind and (by implication) behaving totally out of character.
In the fullness of time—i.e., within a couple days—it became clear that Spacey’s plea of ignorance was a big bucket of baloney: He had, in fact, engaged in decades of predatory sexual behavior toward vulnerable teenage boys, several of whom have since come forward with their stories of abuse—all backed up by assurances that, within the Hollywood bubble, Spacey’s secret life of pederasty was no secret at all.
Initially, Spacey attempted to spin this horrific saga of sexual menace into an inspiring Big Reveal about his complicated sexual identity—and, in so doing, resurrecting the toxic age-old assumption that every gay man is a pedophile at heart—and major news organizations went along with it until the collective wrath of Twitter forced them to see the forest beyond the trees.
And yet, to my mind, Spacey’s life is a cautionary tale about the consequences of living duplicitously, which in certain ways is a uniquely gay problem. While very few gay men share Spacey’s predilection for underage boys—let alone the pathology and chutzpah to act upon it—it stands to reason that anyone who chooses to conceal his true sexual desires for an extended period will inevitably be prone to unsavory (if not outright immoral) expressions of those desires at some point down the road.
Hence the imperative for every gay person to come out as soon as humanly possible.
Just as marriage can serve as a stabilizing force in any halfway-meaningful relationship, so does the act of coming out enable one to behave in a healthier, more mature fashion in virtually every aspect of life—not least in the physical realm. This is precisely why marriage has so long been regarded as the brass ring in the LGBT rights movement: By legitimizing same-sex unions, society encourages openness between consenting adults and the broader public, thereby reducing the prevalence of the sort of surreptitious—and morally fraught—sexual encounters that anti-gay crusaders are supposedly so concerned about in the first place.
The implication here—totally unprovable, of course—is that had Kevin Spacey summoned the courage to embrace his gay identity early in his career—and had Hollywood fostered an environment where such a thing were feasible for a talented and ambitious actor—he might not have felt the need to slink around at parties and in bars in search of fresh meat.
Then again, maybe not. Perhaps Spacey is simply a dirty old man who enjoys feeling up clean young men, and no amount of social acceptance of LGBT folk would’ve made a dime’s worth of difference in how he behaved when the movie cameras were turned off. You certainly can’t blame the booze: I’ve been drunk as much as anyone in my time—both in and out of the closet—and never once found my hands creeping into places they shouldn’t be (except maybe the cookie jar).
All the same, the fall of Kevin Spacey—like the fall of Jim McGreevey—is a critical reality check for anyone who thinks he can maintain some grand fiction about his sexuality from one end of his life to the other and somehow not cause others (or himself) any pain along the way.
In fact, you can’t, and you’d best not even try. There is no happiness in the closet, and to be gay is to come out—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.