IN RECENT WEEKS, TWO GAY SEX scandals have created steamy headlines, overheated blog commentary, and lots of talk radio froth. Out of Portland, Ore., came the story of the openly gay mayor, 45-year-old Sam Adams, who admitted that several years ago he had a sexual relationship with a then-18-year-old he'd previously described as a young man he'd "mentored."
Then, out of Colorado Springs, Colo., yet another chapter in the Ted Haggard saga unfolded: A 25-year-old man charged that Haggard had made repeated sexual advances toward him-once even masturbating in front of him-during a rather lengthy relationship they'd had a few years ago, when Haggard had also sent him many sexually explicit e-mails. New Life Church, where Haggard was pastor before he resigned in 2006 at the age of 50, amid revelations that he paid for sex with Denver escort Mike Jones, had apparently been paying this young man hush money to stay silent. But the man broke the agreement and decided to talk.
Both of these cases had me doing intellectual somersaults. I changed my mind over and over again regarding what was right and what was wrong, what was abusive and what wasn't-no matter what may be technically "legal." And I'm sure I wasn't alone.
Haggard admitted to Grant Haas's charge, just as Adams admitted to the affair with Beau Breedlove. Both men went on to try to rehabilitate their public images: Adams apologized for lying but announced that he wouldn't resign in the face of calls for him to step down. Haggard, coming out of exile as the subject of an HBO documentary the week the new allegations broke, went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry KingLive, apologizing to Haas and claiming he'd straightened out his life. He said he and his wife, Gayle, have a story to tell (which surely involves a book deal, a speaking tour, and perhaps a new pulpit).
But that's where any similarities between these stories ends. And it's where I came to realize that we, as a people, need to look closely at our own fears regarding older men and younger men. These are fears that often have us holding people to standards they shouldn't be expected to meet-fears that only set in motion a cycle of disappointment, anger, and still more fear.
We're so afraid of the Ted Haggards of the world-and what their pathetic, sensationalized stories of shame and abuse telegraph about homosexuality-that we've become obsessively concerned with putting up appearances and, as a result, hold the Sam Adamses of the world to an ideal that is much higher than anything expected of heterosexual public figures.
Yes, Adams was playing with fire by dating the much younger Breedlove and, more so, by couching it as a "mentoring" relationship when an accusation about their affair first surfaced in 2007. Expressing outrage at the time about what he called a "smear," Adams managed to repel the story, which had been floated by a mayoral campaign opponent-who was also gay. But that was the biggest mistake Adams made, because it eventually played into one of the oldest stereotypes in the homophobic book: that older gay men shouldn't mentor younger gay men because they can't keep their hands off them.
It's tragically unfortunate because so many gay teens--to make their way in a homophobic world--desperately need the kind of guidance from older gay men that mentoring provides. Yet many older (as well as younger) gay men are afraid of that interaction, precisely because of the stereotype that Adams--who lied about the relationship because he, himself, was fearful of the perception--ultimately helped foster.
In truth, there was never any mentoring relationship between Breedlove and Adams, at least as the facts have now played out, and we'd all have been better off if we'd known that from the outset, unsettling as it might have been to some people's sensibilities.
Breedlove didn't work for Adams, nor was Adams in any position of authority over him. …