Kevin Clash, Take Two

So there’s a second lawsuit against Kevin Clash, formerly the voice of Elmo, alleging that he had sex with an underage teenager. As a result, Clash has resigned from Sesame Street, according to the New York Post, which explains:

Clash’s sudden downfall came hours after published reports emerged that a man in his mid-30s filed a lawsuit against Clash, accusing the beloved puppeteer of having underaged sex with him when he was just 15.

The federal civil complaint, filed in New York by Cecil Singleton, alleged that Clash—now 52—picked him up in 1993 on a gay phone chat line.

Singleton said he was 15 at the time, while Clash was 32.

"[Clash] trolled gay telephone chat line rooms to meet and have sex with underage boys,” Singleton claimed in his explosive lawsuit.

"[Clash] groomed [the accuser] to gain his trust by, among other things, taking him to nice dinners and giving him money."

Now the first accuser wants to “recant his recantation,” again levying his allegation that the sex happened when he was underage. Maybe it was just too lonely, being the only person accusing an icon of wrongdoing. Here’s what we know by now: If someone has acted on unhealthy predilections for inexperienced and naïve teenagers (who are still children emotionally), he’s usually perpetrated more than once.

Folks, I was ready to withdraw my comment from last week. A number of you chastised me for my post. Some of you told me that I was being “judgmental,” which made me smile. That’s my job: The columnist or commentator offers facts plus interpretation, which necessarily involves judgment. In my post on Savita’s tragic death for lack of an abortion, I judged the public policy of an entire country—albeit in a way that garnered the approval of others who believe in the freedom to choose.  

But I understood what my critics meant: In general, when looking at adult sexual relationships, I try to understand rather than condemn. Not, however, when it comes to adults having sex with teens. When I work with interns or talk with college students, I am struck by how young and naïve they are. I was going to conclude that there’s a big difference between 15 or 16 and 19 or 20. More than one woman told me stories of how they went after older men at age 19, explaining that their experiences left only happy memories. Others told me that at 19, if you can marry and join the military, you are old enough to make and learn from your own mistakes in sexual relationships. I was ready to post today that I had reluctantly come to agree. Yes, there has to be some moment where society steps back and leaves you on your own. Forty-five and 16: That’s just too young. Forty-five and 17 would make me grit my teeth. By 18 or 19, I might think it’s generally creepy when someone over 40 takes a sexual interest, but it might be none of my business.

Now that there’s a second accuser, I’m not so sure. One teenager is an affair. More than one is a predilection. Trolling teen chatrooms—if true—is predatory. If Clash serially sought out teens, grooming and perhaps even bedding them while they were underage, that’s appalling.

But there is a criticism that really stung, and for which I must still apologize. Several of you—including a good friend—took me to task for including this phrase: “In case you missed it, Kevin Clash is a six-foot-tall African American man." Why would I do that, except to evoke (consciously or not) the image of the scary black sexual predator?

I am appalled. I was wrong to include that. Thank you for calling me out.

Let me tell you what I was thinking—consciously, at least—when I put it in there. I had only recently found out that Elmo was played by a big black man and was absolutely thrilled. As I’ve noted here before, my nine-year-old is African American and is on track to be a very large man. He towers over everyone in his class. He’s wearing men’s adult shoes and clothes sizes. He will clearly be at least six feet tall, if not more. I try to show him—without talking about it—a wide range of healthy models for how he could grow up as a black man, even beyond those in our family’s life or on our street. Those childhood pictures of Barack Obama with his white mom? Those were on our table for awhile. (Little brown-skinned boys with white moms—like you!— can grow up to be president!) Our state’s governor giving a rousing speech? The African American principal of a nearby school? Yup, he sees all those pictures. Tall strong black men can do anything: football (like his uncle), president, principal, engineer, whatever they might want to do.

So when I first learned about Kevin Clash, a six-foot-tall African American man, I delightedly clipped a picture to show my little guy. (President! Principal! Engineer! Hockey player! Muppeteer! Lots of possible models!) That phrase—six-foot-tall African American man—was in my head because I was so thrilled with it. But with the allegations, that potential role model became the opposite. I think that’s why I was especially upset about Clash: I felt personally let down. Which has no business making its way into my political judgments. I felt a moment of queasiness when I put that in the piece, but I didn’t step back and think why. I should have. As a result, I perpetuated precisely the stereotype I had been hoping to dismantle.

Remember that I wrote that our brains are racist? That means mine is too. I flunked the Elmo test. I apologize. In my brain, there’s more work to be done.

Please keep holding me to account, y’all.

You may also like