Here in the great evergreen-and-gray metropolis of Portland, Ore., we like to think of our city as a thriving wonderland of forward thinking. We prefer our urban planning carefully considered, our light-rail and bicycle routes plentiful, our indie musicians erudite and inscrutable, and our movie theaters stocked with beer—progressive policies, all. So when we kicked off 2009 by swearing in Sam Adams, as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, the occasion left a lot of us pretty pleased with our nonchalant open-mindedness: “Oh, did we just make civil rights history? Funny, we weren’t even paying attention.” But the back-patting didn’t last long. Within weeks of taking office, Portland’s new mayor found himself embroiled in a scandal so lurid and combustible that it resembles a plotline from The Young and the Restless. Which now leaves Portland as an innovator of something quite different. The Adams imbroglio may be the first true 21st-century political sex scandal: one that only a gay politician could survive.
Our saga begins in September 2007, when the young and wonkishly handsome Adams—a popular, ruthlessly effective city councilor who seemed all-but-destined to win the following year’s mayoral race—faced a sudden, shocking threat to his political career. Local real estate developer Bob Ball, also gay and a political rival, had planted a rumor to end all rumors within Portland’s political set: Back in 2005, he alleged, the then-42-year-old Adams had entered into a clandestine sexual relationship with a 17-year-old legislative intern from Salem. The teen’s name? (Cue Y&R opening theme …) Beau Breedlove.
When the charges hit, Adams handled the situation with Clinton-esque political deftness, flipping the story line from that of a shady relationship with a teenager to one of a role model seeking only to counsel a young gay man. Of course they were friends, Adams announced in a press conference, but it was a friendship of mentor and protégé—in fact, he’d even gone to Breedlove’s 18th birthday party to show his parents that one could be gay, happy, and successful. Breedlove confirmed the story, and in one swoop Adams vanquished a political adversary and bolstered his own image. With an air of wounded nobility, he told one local paper that such slander merely “plays in to the worst deep-seated fears society has about gay men: You can’t trust them with your young.” He won the mayor’s race in a landslide.
All was blissful in the Adams camp until last month, when Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter for the alternative paper Willamette Week (disclosure: and my former colleague), came calling. Jaquiss, who famously uncovered another Portland mayor’s underage sex abuse, confronted Adams with evidence that he had lied about his relationship with Breedlove—which may have included sex while he was still a minor. The rattled Adams maintained his innocence, but when it became clear that WW intended to publish the story, he had no choice but to come clean. The day after WW’s revelation, Jan. 20, Adams hosted another press conference, this time to admit that he’d never really mentored Breedlove and that he had persuaded the teen to lie about their romance—even asked political consultant Mark Wiener to teach Breedlove how to speak to the media. (For the record: Yes, this gay sex scandal features a Breedlove, a Ball, and a Wiener.) Yet Adams also avowed that there had been no sexual contact before Breedlove turned 18.
It actually took a day or two for all hell to break loose. Other than the obligatory “Holy shit,” many Portlanders seemed confused about how to react. Everyone was disappointed, sure—but was Adams’ transgression actually criminal? (An investigation into this question is pending.) Should they condemn the lying, or do all politicians lie? I had friends call me, infuriated, asking why this scurrilous gossip about a legal private relationship merited a newspaper story at all, while others told me Adams should resign immediately in disgrace. Though seldom spoken aloud, a larger question hung over it all: Is it different because he’s 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.
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.