Cosby Allegedly Blacklisted Janis Ian, and Other Stories from “The Empty Chair”

After Monday’s stunning New York Magazine cover featuring 35 Cosby accusers was published (and then hacked and re-posted), more stories and discussions about misogyny, sexual assault and now homophobia — both relating to Cosby and more broadly — have continued to swirl around the internet.

The Twitter hashtag #theemptychair began on Sunday night,  inspired by the final empty chair on the cover, representing the known accusers who didn’t wish to talk to magazine or potential victims who haven’t come forward publicly at all. It soon extended its meaning to victims in other cases of assault and abuse who haven’t spoken up themselves.

People used the hashtag to tell their own stories and also to point out all the stories we’re probably not hearing. Even New York Magazine‘s own social media team was astounded by the reaction, writing, “We were unprepared for the massive social-media response to that lone chair on the cover.” Elon James White, who began the hashtag, started receiving heartbreakng testimonials via DM (warning, they are upsetting):

That symbolic empty chair has left room for a deeper discussion that goes beyond this one high-profile case. As author Teju Cole wrote on his Facebook page, in a message to other men about rape culture, “Above all we must listen, to women, and to the significant but vastly smaller number of men who have also been assaulted. So that, gradually, we can collectively begin to slough off this wretched state of affairs in which the first thing someone who has been assaulted thinks is ‘no one will believe me.'”

Another public figure, Janis Ian, had similar words — and a personal story about Cosby on her own Facebook page. Ian makes the same observation that many others have made about the way the Cosby story resurfaced, and the voices that were ignored for so long:

There’s a lot to bother a sensible person about this. The years these women were ignored. The years they were derided. That the story finally really “broke” because a male comedian named Hannibal Buress kept bringing it up, kept calling Cosby a “rapist”. Not because woman after woman after woman went to the police, to the press, to anyone who’d listen, with horribly similar stories.

Ian also offers her own damning anecdote: a striking and disturbing new story about Cosby himself, and one that is not about sexual assault. She describes, essentially, being blackballed by Cosby in the 1960s. The reason? He thought she was gay after she fell asleep in her chaperone’s arms backstage at the Smothers Brothers show, where she was somewhat ironically performing her ballad about forbidden interracial love, Society’s Child. Ian, who now identifies as bisexual, wrote about the incident:

A while later, my manager called me into her office. “What happened at the Smothers Brothers show?!” I had no idea what she was talking about, and said so. “Well, no one else on TV is willing to have you on. Not out there, anyway.” Why? I wondered. And was told that Cosby, seeing me asleep in the chaperone’s lap, had made it his business to “warn” other shows that I wasn’t “suitable family entertainment”, was probably a lesbian, and shouldn’t be on television.

Ian’s story fits in well with the moralizing figure that Cosby later cut in his public appearances, touting himself as an old-fashioned family man and scolding Black America for less conventional choices.

Interestingly enough, another motion from Andrea Constand, the Cosby accuser whose high-profile lawsuit has brought much of this information to light, also brings up her sexuality — swinging back at Cosby’s deposition that paints himself as a seducer and lothario. “As [the] defendant admits in his deposition,” Constand’s motion noted, “despite his talent for interpreting female reactions to him, he did not realize Plaintiff was gay until the police told him.” Furthermore, the motion continues, Constand had been listening, since the deposition was made public, to “descriptions fed to the media of celebrity parties and ‘disco biscuits,’ knowing that she never attended a celebrity party or requested to take a disco biscuit (or ever even heard that term, for that matter), or any drug or other medication that would render her unconscious.”

Thanks to Ian and Constand speaking out, homophobia and diverse sexualities have been brought in to the “empty chair” discussion created by the Cosby case and the New York Magazine cover. And that makes sense, because rape culture and misogyny don’t bypass LGBT people: if anything, they target those people more acutely. And homophobia is part of a parcel of constricted, conservative notions about human sexuality, all of which feed into the toxicity of rape culture. The problem is much bigger than one celebrity and his growing list of accusers, and it may be that we’re at a tipping point in beginning to create a media environment that actually encourages victims to speak out.