It was not lost on Kevin Spacey that he was hosting what it is often called “the gayest night of the year.” Or, considered the off-putting tone of his jokes, maybe it was.
Opening the Tony Awards on Sunday night, Spacey made two baiting jokes mocking the rumors that he is a closeted gay man.
In the middle of a musical number paying homage to the night’s four Best Musical nominees—Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day, Come From Away, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812—Whoopi Goldberg made a cameo appearance, stepping out of a closet on a bedroom set.
“Whoopi, how long have you been in that closet?” Spacey asked. “Well Kevin, it depends on who you ask,” she responded, winning an uproarious, though easy, laugh from the audience.
Later, as a part of a bit in which Spacey is getting advice from previous award show hosts, Billy Crystal advises him, “If all else fails, put on a dress.” He then dresses as Norma Desmond, Glenn Close’s character in the current Sunset Boulevard revival, and dramatically belts, “I”m coming out,” before stopping, “No, wait, no…”
Rumors that Spacey is gay have followed the Oscar and Tony winner for decades. As Gawker (R.I.P.) laid out in a 2014 post, a 1997 Esquire profile, “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” strongly insinuated that Spacey was gay. Since then countless suggestive paparazzi images of Spacey with young men have hinted at his sexuality.
Andy Cohen even has a line in his memoir about it. “I still get enraged when I think about [Spacey] talking about being in love with that woman on 60 Minutes,” he wrote. “Come out, sir.”
Cohen’s bluntness hints at how big of an open secret Spacey’s sexuality has been, while the actor himself, without flat-out denying his sexuality, has only talked about the rumors on a spectrum from coy to dismissive.
As the Gawker piece notes, “Let’s let people live their lives and do it the way they want to do it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “All the chips will fall in the end, and we’ll all be judged by a much higher power than Entertainment Weekly can.”
That makes Spacey’s cheekiness at the Tonys the closest thing to a confirmation or coming out as Spacey has given.
Listen, they were hacky jokes. And we are certainly are not of the mindset that public figures are compelled to be out about their sexuality—though we are of the mindset that the world would be a better place if they were.
But the jokes did seem a little off, a tad tone-deaf, particularly at the Tony Awards. The jokes were written with the knowledge that they’d get a rise out of that audience, and that rise comes from the insinuation that coming out of the closet is a laughing matter.
It’s a particularly off-putting notion coming a year after the James Corden-hosted Tony Awards ceremony, which took place the day after the massacre at the Pulse gay club in Orlando, where 49 people lost their lives in a hate crime that targeted them because they chose to be out.
Corden was wonderful at the time, reminding viewers of the theatre, and by extension the Tony Awards, as a safe space for the LGBT community to be themselves—or, especially for young viewers, to maybe discover who they are.
“Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality, and gender is equal, is embraced, and is loved,” he said. “Hate will never win. Together we have to make sure of that. Tonight's show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle.”
As writer Tim Federle posted on Sunday, and I can certainly corroborate, countless young people watch the Tony Awards and for the first time feels seen, which is a monumental thing for a young, questioning person. “Some kid out there who doesn't know anything about theater is waking up right now,” he wrote. “Tonight he's gonna happen upon the Tonys and be saved.”
Tonight, he watched the Tony Awards and saw that coming out of the closet is a joke.
Spacey continued his gay panic humor later in the show. Talking about his former co-star Chris Cooper, who was a nominee Sunday night, he said, “He kissed me in the garage and shot me in the kitchen. Then we did American Beauty together.” Ay-o.
To be clear, we’re not ridiculous enough to really find offense in Spacey’s jokes. Our general reaction can be summed up in our loud groan and dramatic eyeroll after it happened. Kevin Spacey joking about his sexuality at the Tony Awards in 2017 is just... annoying.
Thankfully, we had Cynthia Nixon’s beautiful speech, in which she thanked her wife and all the people who have fought back against hate in the age of Trump, right after to cleanse our palate. The Falsettos cast performed a number from their show, about how an unconventional family comes together when a gay father’s partner is diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic in the late ‘80s.
Moments like those are why people tune into the Tony Awards, and the message the Broadway community sends: love, acceptance, and the urgency of being yourself and fighting for what’s right. Sure, the community has a great sense of humor, too, so they—and we—can laugh at lazy jokes like Spacey’s. But we can hope for something better.