Coming Out Doesn’t Excuse Colton Underwood’s Abusive Past

Colton Underwood sits with Robin Roberts for an interview on Good Morning America on April 14, 2021 (Photo credit: ABC)

On April 14, Good Morning America aired a “deeply personal” interview with Season 23 Bachelor star Colton Underwood in which he publicly came out as a gay man. “I came to terms with that earlier this year and have been processing it,” he revealed to Robin Roberts. “And the next step in all of this was sort of letting people know…I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.” It was a surprising announcement considering that the former NFL defensive end spent much of his Bachelor season repeatedly explaining his reasons for being a virgin. So after the interview aired, fans, celebrities, and former Bachelor contestants showered Underwood with support on social media. While some were happy that he was able to overcome his hesitation about coming out, others felt conflicted about his announcement receiving such positive press. After all, he’s a known domestic abuser.

When Season 23 ended in 2018, Underwood began dating contestant Cassie Randolph, and they remained together until May 2020, when they parted ways on seemingly amicable terms. However, a judge issued a temporary order of protection against Underwood in September 2020 after Randolph accused him of harassing and stalking her. She said her ex-boyfriend sent her harassing text messages from an anonymous phone number and even planted a tracking device under her car. Regarding their relationship, Underwood told Roberts he wished he hadn’t “dragged people into my own mess of figuring out who I was.” He apologized to Randolph for how things ended, saying he messed up and made “a lot of bad choices.” Yet, when Roberts asked him if he was ever in love with Randolph, he said “yes” without hesitation. He claimed he “loved everything about her,” but “had an internal fight going on,” before continuing to apologize for his behavior: “I would just say that I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart. I’m sorry for any pain and emotional stress I caused. I wish it wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I wish that I would’ve been courageous enough to fix myself before I broke anybody else.”

Reflecting on the interview, Roberts, who is openly gay, seemed sympathetic and supportive toward the reality star. She told her coanchors that Underwood “is not trying to make excuses for his behavior,” but his own statements contradict her sentiment. For starters, the conversation about his abusive behavior was a sidebar in an interview focused on his difficult journey and the joy he feels now that he’s accepted his sexuality. Beyond that, he was vague about what his behavior toward Randolph entailed, and he consistently centered himself in his apology. While he says he’s sorry, he also seemingly believes the tumultuous nature of his relationship with Randolph was an inevitable part of unlearning internalized homophobia. Accepting this narrative is a disservice to queer folk who are or were closeted and have never abused their partners in the process of finding themselves. 

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Underwood is yet another abusive man who has disclosed his trauma and mental health struggles in order to escape accountability. In 2017, actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of sexual misconduct when Rapp was still a minor. In response, Spacey tweeted: “I honestly do not remember the encounter, it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.” Spacey also said that Rapp’s story “encouraged” him to open up about being a gay man. High-profile members of the LGBTQ community were highly critical of Spacey publicizing his sexuality. “No no no no no! You do not get to ‘choose’ to hide under the rainbow! Kick rocks!” Wanda Sykes tweeted. Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive officer of GLAAD, said in a statement, “Coming out stories should not be used to deflect from allegations of sexual assault. This is not a coming out story about Kevin Spacey, but a story of survivorship by Anthony Rapp and all those who bravely speak out against unwanted sexual advances. The media and public should not gloss over that.”

By conflating his sexual identity with his predatory behavior, Spacey was also feeding into the perception of gay people as child molesters. “Coming out as a gay man is not the same thing as coming out as someone who preyed on a 14-year-old. Conflating those things is disgusting,” Richard Lawson, chief critic at Vanity Fair, tweeted. “This exposes the gay community to a million tired old criticisms and conspiracies. The distance we’ve had to walk to get away from the notion that we’re all pedophiles is significant. For a famous person to deflect these accusations with a long-in-the-making coming out is so cruel to his supposed new community it stings.” In 2018, several women accused Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz of inappropriate sexual behavior, including harassment, forcible kissing, and touching without consent. Díaz initially took responsibility for the accusations and issued a statement that read, in part: “That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue…. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

To accept any disclosure of trauma, addiction, or sexuality as a rationalization for abusive behavior is unfair and stigmatizing to people that go through the same without inflicting trauma on others.

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The author had published a lengthy essay in the New Yorker a month before the accusations became public about being sexually assaulted as a child by a trusted adult. “I’m neither the brother who can’t touch a girl nor the asshole who sleeps around,” he wrote. “I’m in therapy twice a week…. I don’t hurt people with my lies or my choices, and wherever I can I make amends; I take responsibility. I’ve come to learn that repair is never-ceasing.” Shortly after, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Díaz denied the accusations and retracted his original statement: “There is a line between being a bad boyfriend and having a lot of regret, and predatory behavior…that statement is the worst thing I’ve written, the worst thing I’ve put my name to. Boy, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to rewrite the damn thing…. I did not kiss anyone…. It didn’t happen.” It’s hard to ignore that Díaz’s first instinct was to highlight his own trauma after being accused of harming women.

Similarly, after FKA twigs sued her ex-partner, Shia LaBeouf, in December 2020 for “sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress” during their relationship, and other women subsequently spoke about his abusive behavior. He swiftly denied the allegations before deflecting in a statement. “I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalizations,” LaBeouf said. “I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt.” His publicity team also announced that he would be entering inpatient rehab and seeking further treatment. LaBeouf, following Díaz and Spacey’s lead, attempted to shift the focus of FKA twigs’s survival story toward his struggles with addiction. Now, Underwood is employing a similar strategy.

Unlike the men previously mentioned, whose prominent careers were slightly derailed by abuse accusations, Underwood isn’t a household name outside of the Bachelor universe. So people who don’t follow the Bachelor franchise may be unaware of his history of abuse. Underwood has also just been granted massive exposure and support for being the gay former Bachelor. His coming out has afforded him new career prospects and the opportunity to rebrand himself, including starring in a new unscripted Netflix show. He’s able to begin a new private and public life as a happy and liberated gay man, while the people he harmed are left to pick up the pieces. To accept any disclosure of trauma, addiction, or sexuality as a rationalization for abusive behavior is unfair and stigmatizing to people that go through the same without inflicting trauma on others. It’s a collective responsibility to reject these narratives that benefit privileged mostly white, cis men at the expense of those they have victimized.

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by Gabriela Ramos Tavárez
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Gabriela Ramos Tavárez (ella/she/her) an Afro-Puerto Rican freelance critic, multigenre writer, and Africana Studies graduate student based in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find her on Twitter @gaba_rt.