It began as a conversation between two out musicians.
In 2001, Rent actor Anthony Rapp and Dennis Hensley -- a former freelance writer for The Advocate -- were both promoting CD releases at the time. Hensley believed he asked the LGBT magazine's then-editor in chief, Bruce C. Steele, for "a little online space" to help promote these projects.
In that era, an online article was not a medium for breaking important news, as it is today. There were no social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook. Print was still king, and online was seen as "the little stepsister," Hensley recalled.
Nonetheless, Hensley was grateful for the opportunity. So, "over coffee at the Virgin Megastore in New York's Union Square," the two artists had a talk -- not a formal interview, Hensley stressed. Topics included, as the description of the published article notes, "their full-on dedication to their music, being out, and whether Flashdance is better than Manilow."
But at one point during the brief back-and-forth, Rapp broached the topic of closeted actors. And a bombshell dropped. "That makes me think of [a certain leading man] in [a certain award-winning film]," said Hensley at the time -- the name and film were redacted in the final published article.
"It's hard for me to evaluate his acting because I'm so angry at him," Rapp responded. "I met him when I was 14 because we were both in plays and he invited me to a party at his house. I was bored, so I was in his bedroom watching TV and didn't know everybody had left, and he came to the bedroom and he picked me up and lay down on top of me."
"Oh, my God! What did you do?" Hensley replied.
"I squirmed away and went into the bathroom," Rapp replied. "I came out and I excused myself, and he's like 'You sure you want to go?' I always wonder if he remembers it, because he was pretty drunk. And he's had so many."
Then the conversation turned back to CDs.
Sixteen years later, Rapp retold the story of this encounter to BuzzFeed News, which published the name of Kevin Spacey, who was 26 at the time of the alleged 1986 encounter. In response, Spacey stated on Twitter that he was "horrified to hear his story. I honestly do not remember the encounter." He also came out as gay in response to the news -- a move that outraged prominent members of the LGBT community. George Takei accused him of using his coming-out as a "distraction."
A lingering question, however, is why Spacey's name was redacted from The Advocate's 2001 online piece. For answers and context, The Advocate reached out to Steele and Hensley, who no longer work for the publication.
Hensley's memory is fuzzy about the conversation with Steele, regarding how Spacey's name was redacted. He said he may have been "seasoned enough" at the time to not even type Spacey's name in his first draft, because he knew "it would never run" if he did.
"It just felt like a lot more of a legal mess than we'd want to get into. We weren't doing a big expose. We were just having a conversation about music and stuff. It didn't seem like the time or the place to try to break that big nugget," he said. Afterward, Hensley had forgotten that Rapp had told him Spacey's name on the record -- the pair knew each other casually, so he filed it away as a private conversation -- until it was noted in the BuzzFeed article 16 years later.
"I cannot tell you for sure. I don't really remember the conversation in any detail," echoed Steele, regarding the editorial decision to scrub Spacey but keep the conversation about the encounter. "I think Dennis and I talked about whether we should include it at all, but there was never any question that we would name the actor. The question was whether we would go with a blind item, which is a thing that we didn't really do then. But I think Dennis and I decided that it was in character of the piece to leave that story in there."
Why was there "never any question" about naming Spacey? Steele pointed to The Advocate's "no outing" policy -- a long-standing rule that the publication would not reveal the LGBT identity of those in the closet. The policy is common in mainstream media as well. Today's policy at The Advocate allows for outing whenever it's relevant to stopping harm to others or when a person is hypocritically acting against LGBT people, and The Advocate wouldn't keep a celebrity closeted in media when they are otherwise out in public life.
Spacey's homosexuality has been long described as an open secret in Hollywood. But because the House of Cards actor had never discussed his identity with the media, the media deemed the topic off-limits. This had led to the Hollywood phenomenon of the glass closet, in which high-profile actors may be out privately to friends and family but will only receive coverage of this part of their lives through tabloid innuendo and speculation.
"We cajoled, befriended, and pressured, but we did not report on anyone's sexuality without their cooperation," Steele wrote in a Monday op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times, where he is now planning editor. "Just as each of us had reached the decision to come out in our own time, celebrities needed the same opportunity, even if it took them years and years."
"Of course, many close friends knew of Rapp's encounter with the actor in the 1980s, including some of us in the media. But what could be done with that story? There were only two people in the room, they had never met again and no parade of additional accusers was forthcoming -- so, right or wrong, we told ourselves we could not report it," Steele said.
"Rapp understood the decision, and he didn't share the story again via the news media until now," he added.
To The Advocate, Steele clarified that he may have known of Rapp's encounter with Spacey "years before we put it in the magazine," as early as 1994. Many others did as well, he said. BuzzFeed confirmed that Rapp had told friends and partners as early as 1990.
Critics today may note that such a rule may be used to shield predators. For Steele, The Advocate's "no outing" policy had exceptions -- but at the time, he did not consider Rapp's case among them.
"If the situation crossed the line from private sexuality to a hard news or criminal case, then yes, we would have reported on someone's sexuality, the same way any other news outlet would have reported on someone's sexuality," Steele said.
Rapp's case, he said, "did not" cross that line, he said, because "it was not treated at that time as a criminal case." (The BuzzFeed article noted that although Rapp met with a lawyer, he was told the case was not worth pursuing.) Steele also said the publication "didn't have any resources" to pursue a more thorough investigation into Spacey's alleged misconduct against Rapp or others.
Hensley also pointed to the media landscape as a factor -- the 2001 article, even with the redacted name, would have reached far more eyes at a greater pace today. Another is the change in culture, which has seen accelerated LGBT visibility, acceptance, and rights in recent years. The #MeToo campaign, following myriad accusations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, opened a door to reporting alleged misconduct that would not be possible without social media.
"It didn't feel like a bombshell in the way it would now," Hensley said. "It really was a different time. I mean, it was upsetting and provocative, but it wasn't something you felt like you needed to do something about, you know? Which is one good thing about the way the culture's changed."
Both said they would have handled the situation differently today.
"If I had to advise Anthony over again, yes, I would have advised him to go public sooner. But at the time, that didn't seem to be an option," Steele said.
"Absolutely," said Hensley. "I would feel differently today ... I think we weren't as cognizant then as we need to be now."
Shortly after The Advocate's interview, Hensley overheard two people sitting in a cafe discussing Kevin Spacey and questioning Rapp's account. Then he reached out again to add one more comment.
"I felt awful after I spoke to you," Hensley said. "And if I feel awful about talking about a conversation from 16 years ago, what must the person that it happens to carry with them?"
"Did I say the wrong thing? Did I do the wrong thing?" he wondered, regarding his 2001 piece. He heard from a mutual friend that his article may have helped Rapp document the timeline of his ordeal -- he hoped that's the case. And he hoped all survivors of sexual assault will find the justice they deserve.
Rapp has not yet responded to requests for comment.