Ibtisam Ahmed looks at how the closet can play a toxic role in situations relating to sexual abuse.
Trigger warning for discussion of a personal experience of sexual abuse, the Kevin Spacey abuse allegations and related emotional trauma
I have been a victim of sexual abuse. It is not the easiest thing to admit, and any conversations on the topic make me, at the very least, extremely uncomfortable. But I find myself becoming increasingly tougher with each new scandal, as if the repeated dissections of my feelings that inevitably follow the news somehow lessen the pain, even if it is by just an inch. I hate it, but there is a perverse sense of relief in knowing I can compartmentalise and distance myself for self-care when it is needed.
Any such odd comfort went out the window on 30 October, 2017. Anthony Rapp bravely shared his story about being abused by Kevin Spacey when he was just 14. It took an immense amount of courage to open himself up in such an honest but vulnerable way, especially given the clout that Spacey (and many other abusers) have in Hollywood. Since then, there have been more people who have felt supported enough to share their own encounters with the now-fallen star.
Having a family member involved in the London theatre scene, I must admit that the revelation, while utterly reprehensible, did not necessarily shock me. There had been many rumours and speculation about Spacey’s sexuality and his pattern of abuse for decades within the industry. But many of his victims had not come forward due to the professional power that their abuser held over them. Horrific. Abhorrent. And tragically common.
What unnerved me and took me back into a very dark part of my own experience was the way in which Spacey manipulated his own sexuality and that of his victims’ into playing a part of the agonising silence. When I had my own encounter, a million thoughts went through my head. One of the loudest was a very clear aversion to reporting it to the authorities.
I was a deeply closeted young man at the time, having struggled with my sexuality for more than half my life and having only come to terms with it myself a few years prior. Although many of my close friends knew about me, I was careful not to share my personal details on social media as I did not want my family or old acquaintances from back home to find out. (On a related note, I would urge readers to not tag me in any shares of this piece as it is still a criminal offence to be gay where I come from.)
That is information my abuser had. Whether or not he actively thought about it is something I can never know for certain, but he was certainly not oblivious to the possibility that being closeted would make me even more hesitant to seek help. Kevin Spacey knew and, as reports indicate, he definitely used the situation to his advantage. Some of his victims have spoken about being wary of outing themselves in the process of reporting the abuse they suffered. An anonymous journalist has gone on record to say that he suppressed his trauma because he knew writing about it could potentially out his abuser, an unbelievable act of empathy that is arguably undeserved by Spacey.
My abuser took advantage of the closet, unknowingly or maliciously. Spacey weaponised it, hiding behind a veil of privacy that many of use as a survival method and exploiting it for completely immoral ends. That many of his victims were minors makes it all the more reprehensible; they were probably unsure of their sexuality at the time and facing such behaviour would only make that delicate navigation so much more tumultuous.
There are a multitude of reasons why we do not feel safe to come forward with our stories. Within the queer community, the dynamic of outing and closeting makes the entire situation much more complex, and hardly ever to the detriment of the abuser.
I reach out in rage and solidarity with Spacey’s victims, from a place of affinity, compassion and regret. And I sincerely hope that the many conversations that are happening now that the story is out – often behind closed doors, often within our own selves – leads to a society where we can hold these monsters accountable without putting ourselves through even more trauma.
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