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 WinfreyShow and Larry King Live , 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. Breedlove was an intern in the state legislature when he met Adams, then a Portland city commissioner. They were attracted to one another and exchanged numbers. It's true that Breedlove was 17 at the time, and, according to both men, they did kiss before he turned 18, though they didn't have sex until he was of age. But Breedlove, by all accounts, was a fairly well-adjusted openly gay young person -- accepted by his family and happy to be working in politics. He said the relationship with Adams was a positive experience.
It was Adams who appears to have been a bit emotionally lost and vulnerable. He'd just come out of an 11-year relationship and, as a man in his 40s, was certainly in the midst of midlife anxiety, which, in a gay world focused on youth and beauty, can often be a full-blown panic (even if you're as good-looking as Adams). Having a 17-year-old cruising him was flattering, as Adams put it, and Adams made what he now views as a mistake by engaging the young man and eventually (after he turned 18) having sex with him.
Whatever you think of this personally, it was no political crime -- and it was disappointing to see some LGBT people call for Adams's resignation. He hadn't done anything, after all, that would have pushed a heterosexual politician in a similarly liberal city from office. In 2006, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who is much loved by the LGBT community, was dating a woman who was 19 (20 years his junior). And while this upset some people, I'd be willing to bet that it made more of them envious. There certainly was no serious threat to force Newsom out of office; he won reelection handily the following year.
Because Adams lied about aspects of his personal life, which no one had any business knowing about, the lie had no consequence; he did nothing illegal, nor was he a hypocrite who railed against older men and younger men having relationships. The LGBT critics were holding him to a higher standard because he'd become something much bigger than a mayor for them: He was the first openly gay person to hold the position in a major U.S. city, and he could go much further. They felt betrayed because they'd bought into the idea of the role model-Sam Adams had to be the perfect gay.
But it was because of Ted Haggard, and people like him, that so many tried to hold Adams to such a high standard. Haggard had posed as a mentor to Grant Haas, who, in our interview on my radio program,
described himself as being confused, vulnerable, and filled with self-hatred at the time. He'd grown up an evangelical Christian and was struggling to come to terms with being gay. Haggard, he says, lit up upon learning this and became his "counselor" shortly after the two met at New Life Church. Though Haas, who was 22 at the time, was well over the age of consent, from his own description he was clearly psychologically, emotionally, and sexually exploited and abused by a drug-addled, self-loathing, closeted gay man who, according to Haas, created a whole world at New Life where he got off with similarly confused men. Haas describes a period of turmoil where the mixed messages from Haggard -- sexual advances, followed by Haggard's decrees not to "sin" any longer -- took their toll: Haas had panic attacks and even attempted suicide. A lot of people wondered how he could stay in the relationship for so long -- over a year -- if he was so damaged by it. But that's the point: He hated himself so much he thought that was how he should be treated. And Haggard knew it.
Haggard, though a victim of a homophobic culture himself, is what we want to tell the world we aren't -- and certainly what we want to tell the world our openly gay politicians aren't. But not being like Ted Haggard doesn't mean openly gay people, including our politicians, must be -- or can be -- perfect. We fall into a trap when we hold ourselves to heterosexual ideals, ideals even heterosexuals can't uphold, particularly when it comes to sex and our sex lives-the very things that make us different. Some of our greatest gay political heroes -- from Barney Frank, whose boyfriend ran a prostitution ring out of the congressman's house, to the late representative Gerry Studds, who was involved in an underage page scandal -- have been at the center of sex scandals much more serious than Sam Adams's. I hate to think where we'd be if, at the time, Frank or Studds had resigned and slunk away. We certainly would have made much less progress. And, when it comes down to it, we'd definitely have far fewer truly human role models.