Op-ed: Stop Judging Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black

Is it jealousy or experience making everyone freak out about the age difference between the diver and the writer?

BY Neal Broverman

December 05 2013 7:00 AM ET

When we think back on 2013, say in 20 or 30 years, will we ask each other where we were when we heard 19-year-old British diver Tom Daley was dating 39-year-old director/screenwriter Dustin Lance Black? You’d think it was the most pivotal news of this year judging by The Advocate’s web traffic or the gay gossip that spread like a wig store fire; curtains seemed to billow from a collective eye roll. Here’s some pearl-clutching comments from The Advocate story on this Gay/December pairing: 

“uh once again the old Queens going after the twink half his freaking age!!!”
“19 & 40?! I guess they're the Tom & Katie of the Gays. Kinda creepy.”
“I give it a year.”
“What's he looking for? A father figure? Won't last!”
“Mark my words, Tom is too young to be experienced in relationships. Their age will hinder their relationship, and they will not be together at some point. This will not last.”
“This is a disturbing age difference, regardless of who it is.”

My reaction wasn't as extreme; when told, I said, “Oy vey” and went back to work. Not until I realized the outsize reaction to, let’s call them Tustin, did I give thought to my judgment. Yes, yes, as gay people we’re not supposed to throw shade on (legal) relationships that stray from the norm; we’ve endured that our whole lives. But let’s be honest, even if you wished the new couple the best of luck on Facebook or told your boyfriend or wife that, “it’s so sweet,” you initially thought, Ew.

Maybe we’re simply jealous. Who wouldn’t want to make waffles on Tom’s abs or run your fingers through Dustin’s hair while stroking his Milk Oscar with your free hand? Here are two exceptional, good-looking men at the top of their game. And they get to sleep with each other on 1,500-thread-count sheets! “Not fair,” we say, as we curse them and check BuzzFeed to forget our lives of quiet desperation.

Of course, Dustin is on the receiving end of most of the envy. This middle-aged guy snagged a young cutie with a million-dollar smile and a ticket to Rio in 2016. Some of us assume his “conquest” wasn’t made on the merits of his appearance, because unless the older man is Joe Manganiello, why would a teenager be attracted to someone two decades older than him? DLB — that scoundrel! — must have used his brains, charm, and success to woo that baby dreamboat.  Even if their love is as legitimate as Barack and Michelle's, their pairing reminds us of those rich, older men with status symbol beauties on their arms; those men who don’t want an equal as a partner, just a play thing to toss aside when she gets her first wrinkle.

When we see matches like this, we assume the men are shallow and the women gold-diggers. Make both participants male and we think the same (e.g Calvin Klein, Bryan Singer and their youthful coteries). But that formula doesn't work with Tustin: DLB is dewy and good-looking in his own right, while bronze-medal winning Tom was a judge on a reality show, so he’s probably doing fine financially.

Maybe we’re all wondering, what can a 19-year-old and a 39-year-old possibly get from each other? I can’t imagine they had similar childhoods (Tom just graduated from his) or many shared experiences. But that’s not to say they can’t offer up something tangible to each other besides silky hair and 0 percent body fat. 

For Tom, maybe DLB embodies confidence, intelligence, and passion; an example of a gay man he can admire. Describing DLB as a “father figure” to Tom is off; he’s too youthful for such a description. But many newly out gay and bi men want a sort-of fraternal figure to guide them through the queer door. In his famous YouTube video, Tom twice said his new boyfriend made him feel “safe.”

When I came out, about the same age as Tom, I yearned for a man sure of himself and knowledgeable of what being gay was about (in my mind that equated to keeping lubricant in the house and owning Heathers on DVD). If you didn’t have a boyfriend at 14 or know you were LGBT at 11, having an older lover really makes the coming-out process less frightening. It’s so easy to forget where we were at certain ages.

Now that I’m in my 30s, I don’t need an older man to guide me through life. I crave an equal; someone with shared experiences and a similar worldview. I’m just three years younger than DLB, but I can’t relate to his experience. I certainly find young men physically attractive, but can’t picture a long-term relationship with anyone more than a decade younger than me (if I slept with someone 20 years my junior, I’d be arrested). But maybe Dustin doesn’t see this as a relationship for the ages; maybe it works now and simply feels right. We really never know the longevity of any pairing; everything’s a crapshoot.

Dustin could also be genuinely besotted with Tom’s innocence and affability (as well as his many other gifts — like his intelligence, I mean). Nothing wrong with appreciating the sweet bird of youth, as long as the affection doesn’t hinge on that; that bird will eventually fly the coop.

The odds are against them, but Tustin thankfully has a blueprint for success: the three decade-plus relationship of writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. If you’ve ever seen Chris & Don: A Love Story, you won’t doubt the affection between the men, who were separated by 30 years. Who knows if Tom and Dustin will last the test of time like Chris and Don, but we should wish them all the best and not dump our own crap on them. Maybe the best we can hope for them is not to care what anyone else thinks. Dustin may already have gotten that memo; yesterday he tweeted, "Slept all day after my trip to Russia. Did I miss anything?"

NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman

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