Kevin Clash: Making Sense of a Tragedy

I was hoping for a quick, happy ending for Kevin Clash, but there may not be one.  Not yet.  And certainly not for the younger men who have accused him of rape and who are seeking thousands of dollars in damages from him.

Shannon Clash, Kevin Clash’s daughter, with her father and Elmo at an opening of “Being Elmo” last year (Courtesy: Huffington Post)

And I am very sorry for Clash because I was proud of him.  He was a black nerd who went into puppetry and ventriloquism rather than gangs or basketball.  He had fought his way up from ridicule and underestimation to be admired and respected for his work with Sesame Street and as the voice of Elmo, who was his creation.   He was an heir to the late, great, taken-too-soon-from-us Jim Henson.  One could not think of Elmo these days without envisioning that big guy of a black man who brought him to life.

And while I heard nothing about his being currently married or coupled with a woman or a man, I thought about Clash as being as diligent and productive about his private life as he was about his career, and thought no more about it.  To me, he was a good guy.  According to Wikipedia, his one marriage had ended in divorce in 2003, but not before he and Genia  became parentsTheir daughter, Shannon, now college age, lives with her mother.  I feel for his daughter at this moment.  

It is said that Clash reentered his daughter’s life on a more regular basis only about 2-3 years ago to repair the rift engendered by his absence throughout her childhood, which in hindsight may not have been predicated by work and career, but finding out who he was.  Understand that Clash had a loving and supportive father and mother while growing up; and he also believed in family in his own way; so this too must be a shock to his parents and close relatives as well.

So when I first heard of the charges leveled against Kevin Clash; that he had raped first one and then another young man when they were in their middle teens, I was appalled.  I thought that it was a genuine set-up.

How?  We had barely weathered the vicious presidential campaign, in which GOP nominee Mitt Romney at the second presidential debate said he would cut PBS from the government trough, along with Sesame Street.  His words, one of several statements that pointed to a general tone-deafness about what Americans value and esteem, began a mini-uprising on Facebook and on other social media sites and among child, media and education advocacy groups across the nation.  Posters of the Sesame Street Muppets were shared on FB in which they were making some rather provocative but humorous statements against Romney, accompanied by thousands of thumbs-up and hundreds of comments.  A large pro-Sesame Street group marched in support of the beloved PBS program and of Big Bird and his friends.

So after all that, I don’t think that I was the only one who thought that the accusation was a smear; that it was in revenge for what did not turn out well for Romney.  But it wasn’t.  To expose one of PBS’ own as committing one of the most egregious crimes imaginable against children seemed unbelievable.

Because Kevin Clash was not a Bishop Eddie Long as far as I knew.  He did not appear to mix his public and secret life very much beyond using his office computer to talk to these young men, and asking his assistant to make travel arrangements for one of them to come to New York.  For this, he was reprimanded by the Sesame Workshop when the first accuser emerged.  Clash did not appear to form programs or schools to help teenage boys.   There was not a gaggle of boys that publicly hung on to him;  there were no previous accusations or instances of inappropriate behavior that would point to a pattern.

He did, however, work with the Make a Wish Foundation, bringing Elmo to dozens of children facing catastrophic disease or death.  Even with Make a Wish, no complaints have yet surfaced regarding his behavior towards these children, which might mimic what occurred in the second Michael Jackson molestation case.

The documentary about Clash, Being Elmo, shows his early life in Baltimore as well as how he became the voice of Elmo in 1983.    It is only about his work and career, and up to this point, it appeared that these was the only things that he was wedded to.  But even that does not make one sexless.  He had not even come out as a gay man in that documentary.  I have since learned that Clash also wrote a book, My Life as a Furry Red Monster, in 2006.

There was a deceptive lull in the controversy, when Clash said that he would take time off to address the charges against him.  The  news later broke that the accuser, later identified as aspiring male model Sheldon Stephens,  had recanted his original charge that Clash had raped him at 16, and that the relationship had been between two consenting adults.  I thought that was it, especially since Stephens’ previous larcenous activity was also retailed in the press.  But then, reported that Stephens had recanted the recant after signing a document, along with a rejection of a $125,000 payoff from Clash and his lawyers (Stephens now refuses to say whether he had recanted or received a payment).

The coup de grace, the second accuser Cecil Singleton then emerged, influenced by the Stephens suit, along with the statement from his attorney that two other young men were in the wings about to file suit against the puppeteer, and Clash’s career with Sesame Street crashed and burned.  By this time, I do believe that Clash was forced out by Sesame Workshop for possibly having sex with youth who were older than the viewers of Sesame Street.

Kevin Clash‘s newest accuser, Cecil Singleton, held a press conference Tuesday afternoon in which he described in detail the nature of the sexual relationship he had with the puppeteer nine years ago when he was just 15 years old.

“[There was] groping, masturbation, and just a lot of intense kissing, touching, that kind of thing. Dry humping,” he said. “But we did not have sex and it’s imperative to note that. We did not have…sexual intercourse until years later when I was an adult.”

Singleton added that he broke things off after two weeks.

“I just remember telling myself that he seemed to really like me and… let me spare him now because I know that I can’t do this,” noted the accuser. “If I had to make an educated guess and say if we had stayed together we more than likely would have had sex at that age.”

This is Cecil Singleton’s complaint against Kevin Clash.

Before the scandal broke, Kevin Clash was said to be worth about $12 million dollars in 2011.

After reading and running this case over in my mind, I do not want to believe that Kevin Clash is a pedophile like  Bishop Long and the notorious Jerry Sandusky have been depicted.  There has got to more to this story to prove this level of criminal activity for me.  The other shoe has got to drop.  That shoe?  Evidence of sexual activity and coercion with children younger than Stephens and Singleton.

For another thing, whereas Long and Sandusky were powerful heads of large, closed communities where whatever they did was unquestioned and where proving misconduct within these communities was more difficult, there was nothing like that going on with Clash and these individual young men.  There was no incident presented that Clash threatened them with harm or juvenile court if they did not submit to him.  There were no visits to clinics or to shrinks if they were physically or emotionally harmed from intercourse, no friends (yet) who were witnesses to the aftermath of sex with Clash.  Until recently, the young men claim that they didn’t even know what Clash did for a living and who he actually was.  They just knew he was rich.   Be that as it may, I sincerely hope that this particular shoe—an accusation of raping younger boys—doesn’t drop from any quarter.

What saddens me, and possibly millions more of his grown-up fans, is Clash’s lack of judgment as a public figure and role model.  Some others, however, feel that Clash was already convicted via and the rest of the media on charges that have yet to be substantiated, which served a bigger purpose.

Katherine Franke, a professor of law and the director of the center for gender and sexuality law at Columbia University, said she worried that Mr. Clash was “the most recent victim of what we call in my world a ‘sex panic.’ ” She named a second recent example, David Petraeus, who admitted having an extramarital affair and resigned as the C.I.A. director earlier this month.

“At precisely the moment when gay people’s right to marry seems to be reaching a positive tipping point, sexuality is being driven back into the closet as something shameful and incompatible with honor (in the case of Petraeus) or decency (as in the case of Clash),” Ms. Franke said in an e-mail message. Mr. Clash, she added, “has not been convicted of a crime, but merely accused of one in a completely unsubstantiated, vague complaint.”

Understand too, that I am not an expert like Katherine Franke, but this is how I am piecing things together from my experiences and from what I have read to form my own opinion.  Here is why I think that Clash is not a pedophile, but may be a pederast or in gay speak, a chickenhawk:

The scandal has fixed on Clash’s partners who are effeminate, beautiful but poor young black men who already appear to be gay, and not young men who are straight or ambiguous or unknowing about their true sexual identity. This is Clash’s type.   Moreover, Kevin Clash may not have been their first man or even their first or only romantic interest.  This is not to imply that gay men cannot be raped. Or that these young men got what they deserved.

Rather, that these then 15- and 16-year-old boys willingly went on gay sex chat rooms to explore their sexuality with grown men who’ve already have had experience.  If Clash was looking for gay sex, then so were they.  The young men liked and admired men, and frankly a few gay men do return the admiration from a distance.  On the whole, older gays would rather wait until the youngsters are legal before engaging in anything.  Even then, these youth aren’t that interesting yet.  This is from a guy calling himself Little Kiwi writing in the Comments on Towleroad about this aspect.

i can’t understand a rational sane adult engaging in any form of relationship with anyone whose age ends in the suffix TEEN.

heck, ever brought some cute and LEGAL twink home? eek. the worst part is when you wake up the next day and discover that not only have they already added you on facebook, they’ve proceeded to “like” everything you’ve said or posted for the last 5 months. and will continue to do so.

leave. the. young. folks. to. each. other.

Another view is supplied by Don Bachardy, the portrait artist, who was 18 when he became the long-term companion of novelist Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the books that became the film and musical Cabaret.  I’m sure that Bachardy and Isherwood met several times in their courtship before they decided to be together.  But people may think that even that 18 is too young to engage in what one might call a marriage for life with someone who would be considered old at 50.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met teenaged Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Reports of Bachardy’s age at the time vary, but Bachardy later said “at the time I was, probably, 16.”[11] In fact, Bachardy was 18. Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood’s life.[12]

During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished—and Bachardy typed—the novel on which he had worked for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a course on modern English literature at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early 1960s.

The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy, in his own words, “regarded as a sort of child prostitute”,[13] but the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society with many Hollywood friends.

To get back to Stephens and Singleton: they may not have been ready to go all the way with Clash.   (I doubt whether virginity is at issue here; merely that they may have feared intercourse with him and what that would mean for them.)  But calling Clash predatory because he surfed the Internet for multiple encounters and met young men on chat lines  just does not hold up.  Obsessed with sex yes, but not predatory.  A lot of gay and straight men trawl for sex, whether they are married or otherwise, no matter if they are staring at video porn or meeting a callgirl from Craigslist.  It is  like calling the kettle black.

The boys seemed to be, to coin a phrase, hot to trot, just like straight young men and young women are at that moment in their lives.  This was not joking by straight boys who want to see what they can trawl up on a chat line.  These boys were seriously looking for pleasure and danger—furtive gay sex if not smut talk— that they could not find among their peers.  Were they also looking for father-figures?  Sugar daddies?  Gentle initiators?  My first response to the fact that these young men had met Clash on phone chat lines and the Internet was to roll my eyes and say to myself,  what in the world?   Where were the parents?  But this is how some grow up into relationships with other men in finding out what works and what doesn’t work with them.

Some more knowledgeable gay men are frankly astonished that men were still using gay chat lines as late as 2003.  I mean, for them, it’s a passé way of meeting men for sensual connection: “been there and done that.”  It’s a phase.  At any rate, some gay men still haven’t grown out of using this venue.   Clash, unfortunately, seemed to be one of them.  I just wish that Clash had been able to wise up and come out publicly rather than remain quiet, semi-closeted, in the dark, and subject to blackmail by youngsters like Singleton and Stephens.  And the way things were going socially, he really did not have to remain in the closet.  He could have worked it out with Sesame Workshop and gone the PR route in coming out.

But on second thought, in coming out, Clash’s predilection for boys would have quickly surfaced as well.  Again, I am speculating, but it appears that he was not ready or unwilling to examine or to alter his desires, thus upping the ante that he might be exposed.  And this went on for years.   That’s probably the reason why he stayed halfway in the closet.  It is also unknown whether Clash presently has a grown-up lover or lovers closer to his age.  Clash may have continued his conquests until the spring, when Sesame Workshop was first presented with Sheldon Stephens’ allegations.

For Clash may have skirted the thorny issue of sexual consent with his underage conquests by merely fondling and dry humping them.  That was Clash’s big, big mistake besides having anything at all to do with these youths.  He was the only adult in the room, and he was looking for love in all the wrong places.  His decision shows that he was trying to freak the law and still obtain some satisfaction being with them.  No doubt, some of these young men may have lied to him about their ages.  However, in the case of Cecil Singleton, Clash was willing to wait until he was of age before they actually had sexual intercourse.  Even then, Clash was smitten, joyous, excited and willing to woo, wine and dine him and give him presents of money like a date.  That’s right, like a date.

There is a fine, distinct difference between this and grooming.   Two of the young men identified what Bishop Long would say and do to break their defenses and make them submit to him.  It is not necessarily the same.  For another example, here is what Andrew Vachss, the noted writer and criminologist on the subject of child molestation, has presented on his website about grooming.

It’s easier for me to see Kevin Clash—rather than the Bishop and Sandusky—as a middle-aged, wealthy and creative workaholic with a case of arrested development trying to grow up gay.  I think that he was trying for a healthy sex life denied him when he was much younger and was considered straight.  But the route Clash chose was not the right way to act out.  I think that Clash would have promised anything to have these young men in his life.  However, the secretive puppeteer may not have been able to deliver the kinds of things that would have made “[their] dreams come true.”  Those things were not just based on sex and love, but on connections and avenues provided by money that would allow them to create themselves apart from him, as what occurred with Bachardy and Isherwood.

Why didn’t these young men go to the cops with the allegations long ago?   Maybe they were scared.  Maybe they thought that it wasn’t abuse, just life experience (and it takes time for a victim to admit that s/he had been abused, and now even Stephens is changing his story that he did have intercourse with Clash).  Maybe because there is more involved in trying to prove criminality in abuse cases.  Filing a civil suit can bring in all sorts of reasons for asking for redress of damages (see the civil suit the Browns and the Goldmans bought against O.J.).  Asking for damages out of court also involves a low threshold for proof, as when Stephens’ lawyers met with officials at Sesame Workshop.  But Singleton filed his lawsuit in  the Federal Court of New York.   What does that mean?

While reading Singleton’s complaint, though, I could not shake the feeling that I was being emotionally manipulated.  I didn’t get that feeling from reading the complaints of the young men who filed against Bishop Long.    The document was straining to show that Kevin Clash was a predator by coloring his actions to fit a frame.  Instead feeling fully informed about what had happened, I was disgusted at Singleton and his attorneys.  There is little evidence, at least for me, that Clash was a child predator from the account given, and I have a feeling that the $5 million dollar lawsuit with a jury trial is going to be dismissed.  For one thing, the statute of limitations on personal injury cases in New York is three years.  Check this opinion from plaintiff’s attorney Max Kennerly (and I suggest you read the whole thing from this link):

I, of course, don’t know if the allegations are true or not, but I do know that the case has a big problem in terms of whether it’s likely to succeed: the statute of limitations in New York has already expired for all of the usual claims alleged in sexual abuse cases. Apparently in recognition of that, his lawyers have not raised any of the typical state tort law sexual abuse claims — for example, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress — but have instead filed for damages under a federal criminal statute most commonly used for child pornography victims.

Note too that the ages of consent vary among states.  In Maryland, Clash’s home state, the age of consent is 16In New York, where Clash resides, the age of consent is 17In Pennsylvania, where Sheldon Stephens lives, it is 18, but there is an exception.

In Pennsylvania, the age of consent is 16. If the minor is under the age of 18, the adult can be charged with “Corruption of a Minor”. This is a misdemeanor. [3]. If the adult is in a position of power (teacher, clergy, or Police for example), this is a felony[4]. Even though the age of consent is 16, it is still a crime until the age of 18. Becase of this, Pennsylvania is normally listed as if it had an age of consent of 18.

Clash could have been arrested in all three of these states.

The fact that these young men are suing Clash for cash damages is what really turns off everyone, no matter whether they believe Clash did rape these boys or not, even more so than in the Bishop Long case.  People generally think that this is a shakedown, and it may well be.  Many are calling the young men nothing less than hustlers.  Stephens, in an interview, claims that he doesn’t want to hurt his family or his brand by delving into what happened.  His brandHe’s infamous, not famousThis with a mom lately accused of attempted murder against her husband?

Clash seems needy, even starved for contact and affection from the leaked e-mails submitted to TMZ, so much so that even Singleton admitted in his press conference that he had to stop seeing him because Clash’was way too overwhelming.   And Singleton was right to withdraw, and it appears that Clash did let him go, but continued having  communication with him here and there.  But when the crush was over, the crush was over.  Unfortunately,  there is no explanation yet regarding who made and how the final break(s) occurred, and whether those finishes were amicable or much more rancorous.  Particularly if the break was rancorous, it may have partly been for revenge that these young men filed suit or sought damages:  that they did not get what they wanted from Clash, that they felt used, and that the dinners and money were gone.

Which makes me ask the same questions that I asked regarding the Julian Assange rape case.  If sex with someone you liked was far less than what you expected—rough, perfunctory, frightening or unsatisfying—and he or she didn’t listen to you or your needs, does that constitute rape?  Was he or she just a lousy, disgusting, insensitive lover, or a rapist and abuser?  If it was a bad sexual encounter between two consenting adults, was it rape or was it a mistake?  Where does coercion begin and sensuality end?

I still think that rape is rape, understand me?   It is up to that person who feels mistreated to name what it is.  But in situations like this, I really have to wonder.

What will happen to Elmo, the giggly alter-ego of Kevin Clash?  One Facebook friend of mine, when Clash finally resigned, asked whether he would be around, stating that even if Clash couldn’t voice the puppet, she would not deign to pay attention to it. She’s not the only one to evince that feeling.

In an earlier story in Speakeasy, Michael Davis, who wrote the bestselling book, “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street,” expressed doubt that Sesame Street could replace Clash. “Elmo is a projection of Kevin Clash’s sensibilities. Kevin thinks like Elmo, his inner voice is Elmo,” Davis said.

Some marketing experts claim that Elmo’s zenith was in 2006 (others say 1996 with the Tickle Me Elmo toy); that he no longer has that pull with Americans—children as well as adults—that he used to have.  Others demur, saying that people are still buying the little red monster for Christmas gifts for their toddlers and young children.  Hasbro, the maker of Elmo, maintains that it is too soon to tell whether the puppet remains unaffected by the scandal.  In other words, Elmo remains on toy store shelves for the moment.

According to other sources, Clash had recorded two years’ worth of voice-overs for the puppet to be used in future Sesame Street segments.   The puppeteer had also identified several other puppeteers who could step into his role as Elmo.  Was he already anticipating retirement?

At the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it was indeed Clash’s voice singing as Elmo above, but it was someone else who was manipulating the beloved puppet.  So Elmo will go on, but it stands to reason whether Kevin Clash will eventually rise above this fall from grace..

~ by blksista on November 24, 2012.

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