Earlier in the week, 19-year-old British diving champion Tom Daley made a YouTube video in which he revealed that he's in a relationship with "a guy." Several reports have since claimed that the guy in question is Hollywood screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who, at 39, is 20 years older than Daley, a fact that headline writers worldwide made sure to focus on.
Almost immediately on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere came the comments. "He could be his father," one gay man tweeted. "Yuk!" That was just the beginning.
A lot to unpack here:
1. Let's cut the ageist crap. The "yuk" is a display of nothing but disgust for someone older. Yes, Black is old enough to be Daley's father. But he's not. If Black were just a couple of years older than Daley, he could be his brother too. But he's not. Shocking news for you: You're all going to be old. And your tastes are going to evolve over time. Some younger people are attracted to older people, and vice versa. There's even a gay website called Daddyhunt. The famed novelist Armistead Maupin's 27-years-younger husband, Christopher Turner, founded it. They met on another one of Turner's sites, HotOlderMale.com. If that's not your thing, it's totally cool, but in that case just shut your mouth.
2. Deal with your homophobia, including your internalized homophobia if you happen to be gay. There's an undercurrent in these comments -- the "chicken hawk" charge -- that suggests that gay men are more likely to sexually abuse underage teens, the ugliest lie about gay men out there. Hardcore homophobes are predictably pointing to Black and Daley as supposed proof. But many gay men too, so defensive about the charge and deathly fearful of how it's used, overcompensate by saying "yuk." Look, we live in a world where youth and beauty are heralded, and where 77-year-old Bob Dole appeared in a Pepsi ad in which he had the hots for a 19-year-old Britney Spears. We've put an age limit on what we can and can't do because we live in a civil society and abide by the rule of law. And this particular relationship falls well within the limit. So let's drop this crap too.
3. Gay people are different from straight people. I know, another newsflash. But really, we've been so focused in recent years on how we're all the same -- we want many of the same things in life, including a job, a home, a relationship -- that we've obscured some real differences in how we've constructed our community and our relationships. Historically, gay men have engaged in intergenerational sexual encounters, brief romances and long-term relationships -- among consenting adults -- probably much more than straight people have. One reason is simply that, historically, we've had to find each other and teach each other about ourselves, coming together in a larger world that doesn't teach us our history, our culture or simply how to be gay, how to protect ourselves, how to have families -- even how to have sex. And often, but certainly not always, that's been about older people teaching younger people -- again, consenting adults.
Yes, there are older (and younger) gay men who are selfish and narcissistic and exploit people who are young and naïve, just like a lot of older (and younger) straight men. But that's often a gross generalization that doesn't account for the great many nurturing intergenerational bonds. One thing that's different about gay men -- and lesbians, for that matter -- is that we often become very close friends, sometimes lifelong friends, with our former lovers, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends and flings. I think every gay man I know has had a good friend whom he slept with at least once. Many of my lesbian friends have ex-girlfriends (sometimes a lot older) who are their best friends even as they're deeply involved in new relationships.
I bring this up because there are those saying about Daley and Black, "This isn't going to end well." First off, how many relationships, straight or gay, "end well" (whatever that means) when you're 19? Most of us have been heartbroken five times over by the age of 25. (And it may be Daley who has a fun time for a few months and then moves on, being the heartbreaker himself.) Tom Daley's got lots of growing to do. Let him do that. This financially well-off champion diver with many resources at his disposal doesn't need your paternalism, thank you very much.
But to the previous point, there's quite a possibility of deep friendship for a 19-year-old gay, bisexual or questioning man, long after sex ends, with someone older who, in this case, has had enormous accomplishments and has a wealth of experience to offer. Or it could turn out to be a long-term, deep and committed relationship with passion that lasts, just like the many couples I know who are 20, 25, even 30 years apart in age.
That gets to something else that's different about gay or lesbian relationships and straight ones: Major differences between two people in a couple often work better, actually. Why? Because there should be some tension in every relationship, straight or gay, to keep it spicy; otherwise you just become bored. In heterosexual relationships there's a built-in difference that maintains lots of tension: The two people are of different genders. So straight people tend to look for similarities in other areas when looking for a mate, including in ethnicity, race, religion, age, even where they grew up.
Too many gay and lesbian people, raised in a heterosexual society, copy this model and believe that they need to look for someone just like them. That's a mistake. They already have a lot in common: the experience of their genders and of being queer. Differences in other areas, including in age, often work.
So let's all open our minds, refrain from the impulsive outbursts and stop feeding the bigots.