A 21st-Century Sex Scandal
Would the mayor of Portland be out of office if he weren't gay?
Let's put aside for the moment the question of whether he broke any laws in his relationship with Breedlove (which looks increasingly likely, since their restroom makeout probably constitutes sexual contact). What are the political rules about discussing sex? For hetero politicians, they're simple: When asked about sex, just don't lie, and prepare to go down in flames if you do. (See Edwards, John.) For gays, though—and not just for public figures—these aren't the rules at all; society encourages them to conceal their sex lives. It's not just that gays had to hide their sexual orientation for much of recorded history, it's that our public acceptance of homosexuality today is somewhat conditional. Society doesn't want to see them kiss or hold hands, and it doesn't want to think about what goes on behind closed doors. Adams' lie was callous, orchestrated, and self-serving, but at the same time, do we really expect him to suddenly open up about sex after a lifetime of burying the subject with the general public? Even a "no comment" would have been suicide. This doesn't necessarily make the lie less wrong—if anything, it makes the shrewd Adams look like a fool for putting himself in such a questionable situation—but it's another moral vagary that leans in his favor.
So far, these quirks of gay-straight perception have let Adams cling to his job when a straight mayor would likely be holed up in his basement with a case of cheap whiskey, but no one knows how long this will last. One more damning revelation could sink him tomorrow, but he could also ride out the storm and find the public willing to forgive or forget—not least because no local leaders appear eager to lead a recall push and risk the charges of homophobia. Every morning on my way to the office, I now pass a large sign that admonishes me in scrawled black letters to "FORGIVE," but after a couple of weeks spent wading through shrieking headlines and cultural conflict, you become less inclined to think about forgiveness or indictment and more inclined to think about how wrenchingly tragic the whole mess is. As with President Obama, we elected Adams not for his minority status but because he was the best man for the job, and the hope we felt about our new, boundary-shattering leader soured into the kind of scandal that could actually make the city more intolerant and divided. Soon enough, we'll see how progressive a city Portland truly is—and whether that will haunt us in the years to come.
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.