Alex Morse, a 31-year-old gay man, suburban mayor, and congressional candidate in western Massachusetts, has been accused of having consensual sex with other men. Because of this, the media have forced him to defend his sexual habits in ways no heterosexual man ever has had to or would be. Questions about the power dynamics and ethics of consensual casual sex between gay men several years apart in age have been made into a public concern by debate moderators and journalists.
Perhaps these people were unaware that his opponent, Congressman Richard Neal, claims to have exclusively sought out sex partners who make 70 cents to each dollar he makes, who are subject to forms of discrimination that he is not, and who are encouraged from a young age to see themselves as subservient to men. Maybe they are unaware that these power dynamics describe the romantic and sexual history of most of the men in their newsrooms and in Massachusetts. Or maybe they just see the power men hold over women as natural, and this is a transparently homophobic (and obviously sexist) double standard.
My interest in Alex Morse is not about elections. Certainly the politics are disturbing, but he could be running to be head of a PTA chapter or a union local and I would still feel the same sense of disgust toward politicians and the press in my home state. I would still feel ashamed to be from Massachusetts, as should any decent person.
My interest in Alex Morse is because I am a gay man in his 30s; one who grew up in a family involved in Massachusetts progressive politics, and who wanted to do the same when I was a child. When I first realized I was gay, the idea of being involved in anything high profile became a site of intense fear, pain and depression. The only thing I knew about gay sexuality in the late 1990s was from the kind of misleading, salacious exposés trading in the exact same homophobic stereotypes that news outlets across the Bay State have run in the past weeks. The idea of being in the public eye in any way and being subjected to what Morse is now experiencing — being shamed, forced to defend sexual feelings I was not yet fully comfortable with — was my greatest fear. It scared me into denial and self-loathing for nearly my entire adolescence, into thinking that who I am is something dark and scandalous that would hurt me if anyone ever knew.
I’m very glad not to be involved in electoral politics, but it infuriates me to know that this is happening to other young LGBTQ people. And it’s all because of the shameful behavior of media outlets across the state and the cowardice of supposedly gay-friendly politicians unwilling to make a stir.
My other interest in this is as an LGBTQ historian. In my work, I help others understand the immense damage done to members of our community by entrapment and blackmail schemes like the one run against Morse. This brutal form of homophobic violence relies on and promotes dangerous stereotypes of gay men as sexual predators and pedophiles. It promotes the idea that gay men are incapable of being sexual without exploiting others.
Maybe the Boston Globe is unaware that for decades it and other papers in the area ran articles validating these stereotypes with the exact same formula they are now applying: framing consensual sexual activity as exploitative or criminal, invoking the safety of young people in the abstract, and letting the audience fill in the rest with homophobic tropes of their choosing.
Maybe they don’t understand that this issue is not isolated to Massachusetts. Across the country, every anti-LGBTQ+ hate group and politician is learning how to run homophobic smear campaigns in a way that will receive support in some of the most ‘gay-friendly’ places in the country. We can’t be sure yet what the full implications of this are for LGBTQ+ people in public life, but I bet Mike Pence is dying to find out.
Maybe they don’t realize this. Or maybe they just don’t care.
Benjamin Egerman is a librarian and LGBTQ+ historian living in Baltimore. He has provided research to statewide LGBTQ historic preservation initiatives, is currently establishing an LGBTQ oral history archive, and presents on our community’s history across Maryland. He was born and raised in Massachusetts. His views are his own.