In early November 2017, the weeks-old #MeToo movement was rapidly harvesting alleged sexual predators. Three police departments were investigating Harvey Weinstein; Senate candidate Roy Moore stood accused of preying on girls decades earlier; Kevin Spacey was axed from “House of Cards” after apologizing to one of his male accusers; and comedian Louis C.K. admitted that the accusations of five women against him were true.
In the avalanche of stories, an accusation against actor George Takei, best known as Mr. Sulu in “Star Trek,” by an unknown former model didn’t cause as much of a splash. But that made it no less devastating for the 80-year-old LGBT rights advocate, perennial Howard Stern guest and social media troll of President Trump . The accuser, Scott Brunton, told a reporter that in 1981, Takei took him to his condominium, where the actor drugged him, pulled his pants down and groped his crotch. Takei’s denials didn’t stop the story’s rapid spread or schadenfraude from his opponents, including Donald Trump Jr .
Lists of alleged sexual miscreants now included Takei, and numerous advertisers and publishers cut off paid promotional deals with him as a social media influencer . “Saturday Night Live” used him as a punchline in a skit about sexual harassment. Takei had joined, in the popular estimation, a growing parade of sexual predators, devastating his fans. (Brunton also faced fallout, including a flood of cruel comments on his Facebook page.)
But there was always a lot wrong with the Brunton story. Unlike Weinstein, C.K. or Spacey, Takei had never been known — even in whispers — for sexual misconduct. And Brunton’s tale didn’t quite hang together. He didn’t accuse Takei of drugging him until days after he first contacted the media, and, as detailed in a recent Observer article , he hadn’t even suspected that Takei had spiked his drink until years after the incident, when he read about the accusations against Bill Cosby. According to Shane Snow’s reporting, if Brunton had been given one of the date rape drugs in use back then, he probably would have no memory of what happened. Finally, Brunton told the Observer that he didn’t recall any touching by Takei. What began as an accusation of sexual assault was now, for Brunton, “a great party story” and “just a very odd event.” Takei responded to the Observer article with relief, tweeting, “I wish him peace.”
The remaining question is how this story took off at all. Certainly the #MeToo era has been marked by a willingness to believe, or at least take seriously, allegations of sexual misconduct, and Takei is hardly the only public figure accused to face instant condemnation. But he is so far one of the few whose accusations have crumbled, and under such slight pressure. The Weinstein story didn’t break until the New York Times interviewed dozens of people and obtained a statement from him; Bill O’Reilly and Moore weren’t exposed until similarly thorough investigations were conducted. Why wasn’t Brunton’s flimsy accusation against Takei put to some proof when the accusers and accusations against so many others were so carefully scrutinized?
One answer could lie in Takei’s sexuality and the long-standing belief that gay men are hard-wired for aggression. This toxic idea, the residue of more than a century of anti-gay discrimination, has not been fully purged from our social consciousness or our legal system. It’s impossible to say definitively that Takei was treated differently because he is gay, but it’s not unreasonable to think so. “We have a tendency to believe sexual assault charges against gay men because we see them as driven by sex alone, not by anything else,” says Matthew Coles, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and former director of the ACLU’s national LGBT and HIV Project. “Gay men are still seen as natural-born predators.”
In the popular imagination, gay men are still sometimes reduced to what Coles calls “hypersexual beings” — walking libidos incapable of emotional connection with others. One of the flash points for this stereotype is when straight men enter the picture. When heterosexual males face advances by men — transgressions that women endure daily without redress — the law has long given them broad latitude to guard their straight self-esteem and strike back with lawsuits and sometimes even violence.
Starting in the early 20th century, medical experts explained the desires of gay men not only as a perversion but in terms of aggression, to the point where the word “homosexual” came to be synonymous with child molester, sex criminal and sexual psychopath. There was never evidence that gay men were more sexually violent than heterosexuals, but facts rarely impede a compelling myth. By mid-century, 26 states and the District of Columbia had laws targeting homosexuals as sexual psychopaths, and for the next 50 years, publications such as Time and Newsweek flogged the tale that homosexuals were more likely to be sexually predatory than heterosexuals. The more homosexuality was linked with brutal sexual crime, the more the law turned a sympathetic eye toward those who killed gay people.
According to psychological researchers, even a nonviolent sexual advance by a homosexual can so threaten a straight man that he might lose control and respond with homicidal violence. Given that the killing was triggered by the sexual advance, he supposedly lacked the requisite mental state for the killing to be called murder. What came to be known as “homosexual panic” was classified a mental disorder from 1952 until 1980.
While there has never been an official homosexual or gay panic murder defense in courts — the idea has popped up as temporary insanity, provocation, diminished capacity or heat-of-passion — it has nevertheless protected some killers from the gallows. In 1936, 12 years after Nathan Leopold and Richard “Dickie” Loeb were imprisoned for murder, Loeb was slashed to death in the shower with a straight razor by another prisoner, James Day. Day claimed that he was defending himself against Loeb’s sexual overtures. The jury took less than an hour to acquit him of murder. Loeb was already reviled, but it was his homosexuality that brought Day an acquittal.
Even after homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness, killers of gay men were often permitted to argue in court that they were provoked to homicide by the victim’s sexual advances. In 1973, as two North Carolina men were driving in a car, one grabbed the other’s crotch. A few minutes later, the man who had made the advance was beaten and kicked to death by the other man, who also robbed him. Despite abundant evidence of murder, the jury found that the victim’s sexual advance put the killer out of his right mind. He was convicted only of manslaughter. In 1988, on almost identical facts, a court let an Indiana man claim that his victim’s sexual advance had produced “sudden heat” and that he wasn’t thinking clearly. He also escaped a murder rap.
How anyone could have believed that these men could be provoked to homicide can be explained not just by powerful anti-gay bias but also by “the fear of straight men that they will be treated as they treat women,” said Coles. “Talk to American women and ask them about unwanted advances and touching,” he added, “and they will tell you it’s a part of daily life.”
Of course, there has never been such a defense for women who attack men who grope them. Even civil protections against sexual harassment in the workplace have been limited. Consider Patricia Brooks, a California woman whose co-worker, in the late 1990s, placed his hand on her stomach and then, after she pushed him away, forced his hand under her sweater and bra and fondled her breast. She lost her sexual harassment case, the court reasoning that this “single, rather unsavory episode” was not “severe” or “pervasive” enough to create a hostile work environment. Imagine what a court’s reaction would have been if she had killed him.
By contrast, straight men who face even one instance of sexual harassment at work by men often find a much more sympathetic audience in court. For example, a Louisiana man whose male supervisor rubbed his buttocks at work in 1998 said he fell into a depression, lost weight and began to drink. The court allowed his harassment case to go forward. So did a Colorado court in a similar case at about the same time, after a male supervisor rubbed the thighs of a male employee and later made suggestive remarks.
The point is not only that women face a much harder climb seeking redress against men’s unwanted sexual advances than men do — although that is troubling enough. It’s that uninvited sexual advances by gay men remain radioactive, fueled by a century of noxious slanders against them. The gay panic defense has come under broad criticism lately, but it has been formally barred in only two states, and the bias it embodies lives on.
The result is that we are too ready to believe that George Takei committed sexual assault and to assume that gay men are prone to it. We don’t know exactly why there was a rush to judgment against Takei — in the immediate wake of #MeToo, there were so many accusations being hurled, it was hard to keep track — but we can reflect on why so many of us are inclined to think the worst.