The Rise and Fall of Sam Adams

3.29.2009

By Aaron Scott

The idea that teenagers are immature individuals unable to make legal decisions is relatively new, said David Greenberg, a professor of sociology and criminology at New York University and author of The Construction of Homosexuality. Over the last century, in the process of trying to move teenagers from the factory into the classroom and to protect girls from sexual abuse, 'we've created juveniles as a distinct category, and part of that Freudian idea of childhood is that children are innocent and need to be protected from sex.'

If Adams had kissed Breedlove in a bathroom in almost any other state in the nation, even if they'd had sex, the legality wouldn't be in question. The majority of U.S. states give teenagers the right to consent at 16. Nevertheless, even liberal gay critics and Adams himself have described the age disparity as inappropriate, regardless of its legal standing. Breedlove has contended that he knew what he was doing, that he consensually embraced the relationship, and that he has no regrets. Breedlove's following two-year relationship, which has been mostly ignored by the media, was with a man twice his age. Asked by a reporter on Portland's KGW TV on February 9 whether he liked older men, Breedlove nodded and smiled.

A growing body of research has found that adolescent boys who consensually engage in relationships with older partners are as well adjusted as those who do not -- findings that run contrary both to public opinion and research on adolescent girls. One explanation is that gay teens who face rejection and violence from their peers can more safely explore their sexuality with an older, affirming partner, says Greenberg. Certainly Adams's decision not to say 'nice to meet you' and ask for the check when he learned Breedlove's age was political folly, but there's little evidence it was exploitative or harmful.

'We want to make this into a morality play about the old fag and little twink with a butt cherry,' said Savage, who coined the 'campsite' and 'Tea and Sympathy' rules to guide intergenerational relationships -- respectively, that 'The older partners of younger people should always leave 'em in better shape than they found 'em,' and 'If no harm was done to you, then you should strive to do no harm in return.'

'The times where [such relationships] aren't exploitative are rare, but it seems to me that the person doing the exploiting here is Beau,' says Savage. 'Beau's being a hypocrite -- he can't run around saying, 'I love Sam' and 'He's great,' and then dribble out details.' Although Breedlove told a local television station he didn't stand to profit from his notoriety and spoke out only to relieve stress on his family, he agreed to pose for the gay adult magazine Unzipped, for which he was paid an undisclosed amount of money.

Eighteen-year-olds can go to war and they can go to jail as adults, but the idea that they can make adult decisions in the bedroom appears to have incensed many of Adams's critics. 'It's outrageous to me that the serious efforts of feminists to protect young girls from unwanted, coercive, or violent adult sexual predation should have morphed into an effort to discipline politicians for fully consensual relationships with actively desiring young people,' said Lisa Duggan, an NYU professor of social and cultural analysis and coeditor of Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest. 'A progressive social justice movement becomes a reactionary sexual purity posse in the middle of a sex panic.'

On January 31, hundreds of revelers filled the Nines, a swank new hotel, dressed in Portland's quirky take on black tie. Looking like a tattooed Marilyn Monroe, singer Storm Large and an orchestra serenaded the crowd in a ballroom of opalescent turquoise curtains and frosted white chandeliers. Originally called the Mayor's Winter Gala, the benefit for the gay and lesbian Q Center was to have been a giddy, celebrity-studded celebration of the city's first gay mayor. Instead, the name had been shortened and the focus broadened, and the ballroom was empty around the edges.

'Welcome to the Winter Gala,' author Marc Acito said with a flourish to an incoming friend. 'We've decided what the mood is for the night: world-weary laissez-faire.'

Adams arrived in a black suit to a brief barrage of media. After shaking hands, he entered the crowd, just as he always had.

So euphoric just a few weeks before, many in the gay community saw the swift and vitriolic condemnation of Adams's actions as evidence that, although his election was no doubt a step toward equality, any celebration was premature. Should Adams survive and go on to be a successful leader, perhaps they would be another step closer.
'Equality means we can have our errors too,' said Savage. 'We can have gay mayors who are fallible.'

Of the tangled knot of questions surrounding Adams, the one hanging most heavily is: Will he survive?

'In the end, I can offer at least six to nine months of relative stability by staying, and I can make amends better by staying,' Adams told Out, as uncertain of his fate as anyone else. Portland's charter protects newly elected mayors from recall for at least six months. Given the state of the economy and the importance of the stimulus package, those months could be critical for Portland's recovery, and, arguably, Adams knows the city like no one else. What remains to be seen is whether the city will follow his lead.

Halfway through the Winter Gala, Adams was introduced and stepped up to the microphone. Applause thundered through the ballroom. Although brief, his speech buoyed the crowd. No doubt it was one of the most sympathetic audiences he would yet face, but it was a start.

For the full interview with Sam Adams, click here.

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