Well, so much for 15 minutes of fame.
Gary Alan Coe—or, as we lovingly (and laughingly) came to know him, “Gary from Chicago”—barely got five to enjoy being a media darling after the unexpected hilarity he brought to Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony. Aside from the surprise ending (and triumphant underdog win of Moonlight), most agreed that the spontaneous appearance of a group of tourists—comically led by Gary and his fiancee, Vickie Vines—was the high point of a dragging Oscars midsection. It was a quirky (if somewhat condescending) counterpoint to the unadulterated glamour and excess that typify the film industry’s biggest night, initially hailed as an inspired play by host Jimmy Kimmel.
Gary and Vickie veritably stole the show, snapping selfies with both celebs and their Oscars, and even being pre-emptively pronounced man and wife by Vickie’s favorite actor, Denzel Washington. And far funnier than any of Kimmel’s off-color jokes (Oscars not being so white this year, after all) was Gary’s answer to Kimmel’s suggestion that he was ignoring the white celebrities:
“Because I am, though!”
In true Hollywood fashion, Gary from Chicago was such a sensation that Kimmel booked him on his show the following evening—an offer that was almost immediately rescinded, presumably because the other shoe inevitably dropped: Gary Alan Coe was discovered to have been newly released from prison.
Gary and Vickie were likely celebrating his release—only three days earlier—when they were offered a free sightseeing tour. It must’ve seemed a good omen, since Gary had just served 20 years of a life sentence for stealing perfume, an aggressively excessive penalty, but perfectly legal under California’s since-reformed “three-strikes law.” Gary’s prior criminal record, which included a conviction for attempted rape at age 18, required his registration as a sex offender. Subsequent theft convictions made him eligible for mandatory sentencing. His freedom was a near-miracle.
Gary apparently used his time in prison productively, learning several trades, overcoming a drug addiction, dedicating himself to Christianity and seeking redemption for past transgressions. He even managed to meet and fall in love with Vickie while inside. However, when his convictions were discovered by the media, redemption was not the story most outlets chose to tell.
“Oscars Sensation ‘Gary From Chicago’ Is Attempted RAPIST,” the Daily Mail’s headline screamed. Wochit Entertainment took to YouTube to dish about the “Oscar Tourist’s Shady Past,” while Extra couldn’t wait to give us all the “Details on Gary From Chicago’s Dark Prison Past Before Oscars Surprise.” Conservative site Liberty Unyielding even claimed that “Jimmy Kimmel Invited a Convicted Rapist to Attend Oscars.”
The vultures descended, ready to discredit and demean a man who by all accounts had paid his debts to society. How ironic, since, in that very Oscar night audience, was best actor winner Casey Affleck, far more recently accused of sexual predation. Twice.
Affleck has been an especially sore spot this awards season, in part because of Hollywood’s seemingly unilateral dismissal of Nate Parker, accused and acquitted of rape 18 years ago—a matter I addressed in an open letter when those charges resurfaced last summer.
While Affleck was civilly sued for sexual harassment versus Parker’s criminal charge of rape, many have questioned why Affleck’s alleged transgressions have seemingly been given a pass by Hollywood, while Parker’s—even after trial and acquittal—have not. But while we can’t discuss Hollywood’s treatment of sexual predators without acknowledging its race-based disparities, I consider it dangerous to compare the white establishment’s measures of accountability with the standards to which we hold our community. As noted by the Black Youth Project’s Elizabeth Adetiba:
‘[C]ommunity’ revolves around the belief that we are all responsible for one another, and can only be sustained through love, justice and respect, especially for those who are further marginalized due to gender, sexual orientation, ability and/or socioeconomic status. ... So, while the accusations against Affleck might be easily disregarded by nonblack America, we cannot and have never been able to afford doing the same for Nate Parker.
In short: I will not allow the standards of my oppressors to guide my moral compass. But there are those who might consider it hypocritical that I’m inclined to defend Gary Alan Coe when I couldn’t muster the same compassion for the reluctantly repentant Parker.
A technicality of prior sexual contact with his accuser exonerated Parker, while his co-defendant was initially convicted (notably, both were also accused of harassment after the incident). By contrast, Coe’s story evokes the harsh realities revealed in another of this year’s Oscar contenders: the Ava DuVernay-directed documentary 13th. While it’s unknown what punishment was meted out for his attempted-rape conviction, his eventual life sentence for theft reflects a justice system deeply invested in the incarceration of black men and women.
Sadly, the average sentence for sexual assault in California is two to four years—far less than the two decades Coe spent in prison. While that alone is questionable, a petty theft almost cost him the rest of his life. Isn’t it fair for the media to consider his time served?
Because here’s the thing: Gary Alan Coe didn’t ask to go to the Oscars. He didn’t even ask to go on a tour. He never offered himself up as a paragon of innocence, infallibility or morality. As the Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser admirably notedr, Coe didn’t ask for our attention.
In fact, “Gary from Chicago” never asked for anything beyond his freedom and forgiveness. He certainly never asked for anybody’s sorry-ass handout of celebrity. To smack his hands for something he wasn’t reaching for is to indict him all over again.
Thankfully, Coe doesn’t need Hollywood’s approval. As he told his hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune: “Am I a changed person? Yes. Do I have regrets? Hell yeah ... But I can’t be chained to the past ... I want to show people if you don’t give up on yourself, anything can happen. People let public opinion crush them, but I served my time. I’m a changed man.”