The most exciting event since the expedition of Lewis and Clark recently hit the state of Oregon. Sam Adams—the openly gay mayor of Portland who had been hailed as America’s “great gay hope”—was embroiled in scandal last month when he confessed to lying about an affair he’d had with an 18-year-old political intern named Beau Breedlove. Despite the fact that Adams denied the affair throughout the course of his mayoral campaign, Breedlove insists that he welcomed Adam’s advances and had never felt victimized—he was a legal adult throughout the sexual aspects of the affair.
When the story of Adams's and Breedlove broke, the most broadcast cause of public ire was the fact that Adams had lied about the relationship—not that he’d cultivated a homosexual liaison with a younger person. Yet the calls for Adams to resign and the media coverage of the issue have tinged the affair with a pallor of homophobia and judgment of Adams’s sexual behavior.
Outside Portland’s City Hall, people waved placards and shouted “pedophile” in protest of his continued service. Major papers such as The Oregonian dubbed the affair a “sex scandal” and the relationship, “inappropriate.” Rare is coverage of the affair that doesn’t in some way construct the relationship as the older, experienced man taking advantage of a young boy, confused and overwhelmed by his own sexuality. Yet critics insist that their disgust at Adams’s behavior comes about not as a result of the nature of his sexual preferences, but because of his choice to lie about his behavior. This claim is preposterous. To assert that the Sam Adams scandal exists independently of his homosexuality is either patently duplicitous or laughably naïve.
In many ways, the Adams affair is a double disloyalty. Hidden behind the fervent insistence that the scandal isn’t about “gay predators or gay anything” (as Timothy Egan insisted in his blog for the New York Times) is the implicit acknowledgement that Adams’s “betrayal” was not just of his constituents’ trust, but also of the gay community at large. When Adams denied the relationship during his campaign, he smeared his accuser, insisting that the charges were indicative of the worst kind of homophobia. Now, some gays rightly feel duped by someone who was supposed to be a leader. Adams’s insistence that he never had the relationship was emphatic, and critics’ insistence that their objections to Adams are based on his dishonesty and not on his sexuality are similarly vehement; in both cases, the accused doth protest too much.
No one emerges clean from an affair such as this. Obviously, Adams is the clear loser in the situation. His first wrong—not fessing up when a reporter wrote a series of articles about his relationship with Breedlove—was compounded by his choice of defense against the allegations that were actually true. Adams brought his own sexuality into the picture by accusing reporters of homophobia during his 2007 campaign for mayor. Adams argued that the accusations played into “the worst deep-seated fears society has about gay men” in the Portland Mercury in 2007: “You can't trust them with your young.” In doing so, Adams reverted to a stereotype about stereotyping and became the boy who cried bigot. I would venture that Adams was indeed correct in his assumption that bigotry would inform the media’s treatment of his alleged affair. Whereas older men who hit on younger women are thought of as sleazy (read: Bill Clinton), men who solicit young men are dubbed “lewd” or “perverted” (Larry Craig, anyone?).
Gays feel the sting of Adams’s betrayal because he was their partner in the most literal sense of the word: a man who dealt with prejudice in the public arena and resisted it. But he turned from ally to enemy when his vehement protests were turned against him by his own misdeeds. It’s hardly surprising that the editorial board of Just Out—Portland’s oldest gay publication—called for Adams’s resignation. Tom Swafford—a queer supporter of Adams who donated to his campaign—told Just Out that his devastation sprung from the fact that Adams “was going to be the one to destigmatize gay people in positions of power.” That hope is now a dream, dashed and deferred.
It is dishonest to pretend that inherent judgments regarding the age and gender of a man’s sexual partner are not at play in the Adams scandal. The story of Sam Adams—that duplicitous homosexual!—indicates something we all already knew: sometimes, politicians lie, whether they’re gay, straight, male or female. End of story. People who insist that this alone is a shocking fact—independent of Adams’s sexuality—are woefully self-deceived.
The truth is that, unfortunately, Adams would not have won his campaign to become mayor had he not lied about the affair. Despite the fact that nothing illegal took place and no one got their feelings hurt, the nature of the relationship—between two men with a significant age difference—violated enough of our society’s sexual norms to prohibit Adams from ascending to office. The ultimate tragedy is that the private sphere is allowed to inform the public to such a drastic degree.
Emma M. Lind ’09, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.