Civilities is a new column in The Washington Post covering LGBT and straight etiquette.
Dear Civilities: My 19-year-old son (I’ll call him “Tim”) just came out to me. I have no problem with that, but he also announced he’s seeing a man who’s 20 years his senior. They met last year when Tim was still in high school! My husband, Tim’s father, died three years ago, and I think Tim is looking for a father figure. The other man — “Justin” — worries me. What could a 40-year-old man have in common with a teenager? I think he’s a predator. Should I keep quiet and pray it ends soon or speak up? Tim starts college this fall, and I am hoping he’ll find a more appropriate boyfriend there. Please help! — Name withheld
I completely understand your angst about this — who would want her son in the arms of a “predator”? Still, before you label Justin this way, I’d ask you to consider a few “May/December” opposite-sex couples. Some that quickly come to mind: Alec Baldwin is 26 years older than his wife. Even the White House witnessed an intergenerational first family: President Grover Cleveland was 49 when he married Frances Folsom, then 21. (Cleveland had been friends with Folsom’s father, who had been killed when she was only 10 — talk about a father figure!) Of course, no such list could leave off Donald Trump and his current wife, Melania, 24 years his junior.
If nothing else, this list makes clear that one answer doesn’t fit all and that this isn’t a same-sex issue. Like me, you may consider some of these pairings weird or even creepy, but I’d venture that in each situation, the “junior” partner no doubt found something she needed in the “senior” — wealth, status, experience, stability (and vice versa). This could also be the case for Tim. An older partner isn’t by definition a parent substitute.
I took your question to my Facebook page, where reactions were pretty much equally divided. Many agreed with you and found your son’s relationship objectionable. One gay man spoke for many when he posted: “I find middle-aged men who date teens of either gender to be emotionally stunted and chock-full of control issues.” Others volunteered their personal stories, often with happy endings. “Joseph” met his husband, who’s 14 years his senior, when the younger man was 21; they’ve now been together for 27 years. Wrote Joseph: “To me, age is only a number. You fall in love with who that person is, not their age.”
Meanwhile, Carl Sandler, who runs Age Appropriate, a blog about intergenerational dating, told me: “In the gay community, it is very common for younger and older men to date. Common interests are the new demographic — not age.” I’m not exactly sure how “common” such dating is, but I’m familiar with many same-sex couples with significant age differences. Armistead Maupin (“Tales of the City”) is 27 years older than his husband; Ellen DeGeneres has 15 years on her wife. Then there’s the late novelist Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy, who had three decades between them. Bachardy was 18 when he met Isherwood; they remained together for 33 years, until the novelist’s death.
So, what’s a good-hearted but freaked-out mother to do? First, please drop the sharp tone and accusatory remarks, especially that you think Justin is a “predator.” That’s a very loaded term, as Kenny Levine, a psychotherapist who works with LGBT individuals, told me: “I think we need to reserve this word for individuals that engage in sexual behavior with someone who cannot give consent to sexual activity.”
Second, appreciate that your son has come out to you and is not having a clandestine relationship. He trusts you — and I’d suggest you follow his example. Have a talk with Tim, adult to adult (and he is an adult, even if he’s still your baby). If you approach it like a mama bear trying to save her cub, you risk pushing him further into his boyfriend’s arms. Try not to judge or psychoanalyze him — that means don’t mention your theory about a father figure. It’s fine to explain that you don’t understand the relationship and even that it worries you. Perhaps you’ll find some comfort in his answers.
With your husband (and Tim’s father) gone only three years, I can only imagine you’re both still grieving. Use this new situation as a way to deepen your relationship with your son. In that vein, why not invite the couple over and get to know Justin yourself? I don’t know whether he’ll turn out to be a catch or a cad, but at least he’ll know the kind of mama bear he’s dealing with.
Do you agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.
Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his new column, Civilities. E-mail questions to Steven at email@example.com (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can also reach Steven on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on May 6.