A 21st-Century Sex Scandal
Would the mayor of Portland be out of office if he weren't gay?
When the public circus finally began, Portland made sure it was of the full three-ring variety: protesters bearing signs saying "Protect interns from our mayor" clashed with those pledging to "Stand by our Sam"; newspapers (including the gay publication Just Out) called for Adams' head while others admonished Portland for freaking out; local retailers churned out novelty T-shirts and "Breedlove Cock" doughnuts. Hundreds of supporters rallied for Adams at City Hall. Among the all-star cast speaking on his behalf were gay musician Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini, gay national sex columnist Dan Savage, gay Milk director Gus Van Sant (who, bizarrely, sent a member of the local Zoobomber bicycle clique in his stead), gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (who weathered his own sex scandal in the '80s and sent a message of support), and gay … you get the idea. In the strangest turn yet, on the same day (Jan. 25) that Breedlove revealed to the Oregonian that he and Adams had kissed twice before he turned 18—including once for a full minute in a City Hall bathroom—Adams announced he was staying in office. And this is where things stand today, with opponents pledging a recall drive (which, under local law, can't start until July) and boosters preaching forgiveness.
So now, flush with details, we return to our central question: Is this a political sex scandal that only a gay politician could survive? Before I tread any farther down this path, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I'm not saying Adams' sexuality makes his relationship with Breedlove or his subsequent lying any more right or wrong. It just changes the way the scandal's aftermath plays out, with the historically unique upshot that Adams' homosexuality may end up being his saving grace. Of course, that's not necessarily the way everyone sees it; most commentators have called Adams' sexual orientation completely irrelevant. "This isn't a gay or straight issue at the core," one prominent local gay rights advocate toldWillamette Week, while Adams himself claimed in his only scandal-related interview that his conduct isn't a gay-people issue any more than a hetero sex scandal would be a straight-people issue.
And to whom did Adams give that interview, you might ask? To Out magazine, a gay publication, which undercuts his own argument; saying sexual orientation is irrelevant to this case is wishful thinking, not reality. (But who could blame LGBT advocates for wanting to see it that way, after their historic electoral triumph devolved into a gay rights nightmare?) Adams' most prominent boosters, as we've seen, are gay. Many backers are denouncing his opponents as homophobes or, in Dan Savage's words, as "hysterical, terrified, sex-negative idiots." (Although Savage also proclaimed in a 2008 column that "Gay men in their thirties and forties who will date teenage boys are almost always scum," so that one's a wash.) In a perfect world we'd all be blind to sexual preference, but our world is far from perfect. It's not a question of whether it's different because Adams is gay; it's a question of how it's different—and how that affects Adams' fate.
To demonstrate the first way it's different, let's ask the obvious question: How would the Portland public react if Adams were straight and Breedlove were a teenage girl? The answer is, we'd see this as a garden variety, morally black-and-white sex scandal, and Adams would be jobless faster than you can say "McGreevey." After all, there's a massive double standard in how we think about the age of consent. When an older man courts a teenage girl, it's predatory and sleazy; but when it's a teenage boy receiving advances, gay or straight, we have trouble believing he's being wronged. (Indeed, Breedlove was aggressively chasing Adams; he even has a dog named Lolita.) Critics see the movie The Reader, wherein a 36-year-old Kate Winslet beds a 15-year-old boy, and they speak of a "tender sexual awakening," as every straight man in the theater (including me) thinks, "I would have sold my siblings into bonded labor to sleep with Kate Winslet when I was 15, you little bastard." Portray a 36-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl, though, and you're in … well, Lolita territory—no mercy there. Some have argued that if Breedlove were female, straight men would be high-fiving Adams, but this is preposterous. We'd understand the attraction—and when you peruse Breedlove's unbelievably porny Myspace pics, you can certainly see what was on Adams' mind—but we wouldn't excuse the behavior. "Yes, she's hot," we'd say, "but they call it jailbait for a reason. You don't touch underage girls, period." The male-male relationship brings a moral gray area that helps Adams.
And let's add another factor to this ethical calculus: For better or worse, the under-40, hyper-liberal Portlanders who make up Adams' support base automatically err toward nonjudgment when it comes to gay culture. Essentially, the years of school lessons on tolerance are coming to the fore; we were taught not to judge the lifestyles of those who aren't like us, and we're not inclined to start now. When you look out on the pro-Adams crowds, there are the gay advocates who champion Adams out of loyalty or out of fear over what's at stake, and there are the gravy-train riders who worry about their interests losing support if he leaves office, but you mostly see young, educated liberals who feel unqualified to spit venom about Adams' sex life—despite the fact that they'd be far less restrained with a straight politician. (Even if you fervently disagree with them, it's hard not to see this as progress in gay-straight relations.) Without them giving Adams the benefit of the doubt, how big would those rallies be?
For most Portlanders, though, Adams' lie is the crux of the scandal—yet when we're honest, that lie isn't quite the same as a straight politician's lie.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Photograph of Portland, Ore., Mayor Sam Adams by Bryan Grimes, Travisthurston.