News & Opinion

LGBTQ issues

Is scandal-hit Massachusetts Mayor Alex Morse really a victim of homophobia?

The Daily Beast

August 12, 2020

Alex Morse, a Massachusetts mayor running for Congress, claims that coverage of his sexual relationships with students has been homophobic. Is that true, or a useful deflection?

Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Democratic challenger in the state’s 1st Congressional District, has become the subject of controversy with potentially major political consequences, sparking debate about consent, abuse of power, and alleged homophobia.

The College Democrats of Massachusetts issued a letter to Morse on Aug. 6 alleging that he used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” in having and pursuing sex with college students, both at Amherst College, where he served as an adjunct professor, and in the greater consortium of associated nearby universities.

The group also claimed, in a letter first obtained by student newspaper The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, that Morse made advances, both at in-person events and online, that made its members uncomfortable.

The Daily Collegian reported that “Morse regularly matched with students on dating apps, including Tinder and Grindr, who were as young as 18 years old. These students included members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Democrats, and other groups in the state.”

Morse is also alleged to have used College Democrats events “to meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and DMing them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable.”

He is also alleged to have had “sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium,” the publication reported.

College Democrats have banned Morse from attending any future events.

In a statement on Twitter, Morse, who is openly gay, acknowledged having sex with college students, claiming every encounter was consensual, and apologized for having made any students “uncomfortable.” He also expressed outrage at the “age-old anti-gay stereotypes” invoked by the controversy, and believes he’s “being held to a different standard, one deeply connected to a history surveiling the sex lives of people like me.”

The College Democrats said the notion that they had sent the Aug. 6 letter because of Morse’s sexuality was “untrue, disingenuous, and harmful. The mayor’s sexuality in no way excuses his behavior. Many of the people involved in writing our letter to the Morse campaign are members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves.”

Their response to Morse concluded: “Accountability is necessary.”

UMass has launched an investigation into whether Morse’s actions violated federal Title IX laws on sexual harassment and discrimination; it’s not clear whether students who had sex with Morse or those who’ve anonymously accused him of inappropriate advances were enrolled in his classes. University policy refers to dating or sexual relationships between faculty and students as “inherently problematic” and prohibits them in cases where faculty have direct supervision or responsibility for students.

Timing of the accusations, just weeks before the primary on Sept. 1, has led Morse and his supporters to question the role of longtime incumbent Rep. Richard Neal in their release. (Neal has denied any involvement.) Morse has the support of Justice Democrats, the political action committee behind victories for progressive reps like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As a contentious debate about the allegations continues, culture critic Naveen Kumar and The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman discuss what’s at stake.

Editor’s note: After the below conversation took place, The Intercept reported that members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst College Democrats had allegedly plotted to leverage Morse’s use of dating apps against him. The Massachusetts Democratic Party would now investigate the allegations, Politico subsequently reported.

The Intercept then reported that “the state party had been coordinating with the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA) to launch those very allegations, according to five sources within the state party and connected to the CDMA, a review of messages between party leadership and CDMA leadership, and call records.”

In a statement, Hayley Fleming, president of CDMA, said that the group condemned any homophobia that had been leveled at Morse as a result of the allegations. Fleming added that the organization felt that concerns that had been expressed by students over Morse’s alleged behavior had been “genuine.” The individual stories of those students had not been shared, Fleming said, because of concerns for their safety.

Naveen: I’ll start by pointing out what I don’t think this is about. An age difference of eight to 10 years in romantic/sexual relationships isn’t inherently inappropriate or anything unusual, maybe especially among gay men. Obviously, a decade between partners raises fewer eyebrows as we get older, but I consider folks over 18 capable of making adult (if not the most mature and sensible) decisions about sex.

Nor do I think this is really about Morse’s sexuality. Opponents may in fact be seizing on what Morse calls “age-old stereotypes” linking homosexuality to pedophilia, but as far as we know, we’re talking about consensual sex with partners of legal age and murky behavior, including on social media, that students say made them uncomfortable.

If Morse were a straight, successful professional trying to pick up college-age women at what is essentially a career networking event, the power differential would seem even more clear, in the context of three years worth of #MeToo revelations about men leveraging their position to make various advances toward women.

That’s what I think this is ultimately about—recognizing that Morse is in a position of power, not just some dude fishing for sex partners in a small town.

Tim: I agree. I am always puzzled when gay men caught doing something that could be deemed bad whatever one’s sexual orientation accuse others of homophobia who question their own poor behavior or judgment. Bryan Singer has done the same. It’s not the age difference that’s an issue here; it’s the fact that Morse is in a position of power as a teacher and politician.

One, he doesn’t seem to get how that can change the dynamics of any kind of personal interaction, sexual or otherwise. And two, as someone in power, your private life is going to be of interest. Just ask the heterosexual Gavin Newsom. It is not homophobic in and of itself to ask what was going on here, if some of those students went on to complain that he made them feel “uncomfortable.”

It is Morse’s behavior that is being questioned here, not his sexuality—and he should face up to that and ditch the straw man ‘I’m a-victim-of-homophobia’ argument. My significant query in his favor is the amount of work “uncomfortable” is doing here in the condemnation. However Mayor Morse behaved or didn’t behave, “uncomfortable” is a lousy way to hang him out to dry in public. It can run the gamut of innocuous to grievous, and feels more innocuous here than anything else. Unless someone wants to elaborate on specifics?

Naveen: The veiled language in the student statements makes it tough to adjudicate what’s going on here. I don’t personally have a “Close Friends” list on Instagram (maybe I’m boring!), but it’s one thing to say that Morse added students to his and slid into their DMs “in a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy.” It’s another to say he sent nudes or propositioned them. I understand these students, especially as young political hopefuls, wanting to remain anonymous in their accusations. But generally there’s more meat on the bone for something like this to rise to the level of a sex scandal.

Tim: I find it telling that Morse knows all the right things to say in his statement about #MeToo and power, and yet reveals he actually doesn’t understand it when he adds that “I never used my power in a problematic way.” How would he know that? It isn’t him being acted upon. That line showed me he really didn’t understand his right-on spiel about power dynamics that preceded it.

Also, #MeToo on campuses specifically is a huge issue and has been for some time—what did he think he was doing, if he was aware of all these issues as he says he was?

Then comes the self-righteous diatribe about “age-old, anti-gay stereotypes” being used against him. He claims his behavior is being held to a different standard than heterosexual people. That isn’t true, but it’s a highly convenient smokescreen. Morse wants us to debate the iniquities of homophobia—which he, me, and many others will likely agree on—when really the issue is his alleged behavior.

Naveen: To me, what College Dem members are alleging about Morse’s behavior at their events is what’s at issue here. That’s a professional setting, for all intents and purposes. These are ambitious young people hoping to get into politics, and Morse is an elected official running for a significantly higher office. Yes, he’s relatively young, but holding public office comes with responsibilities—including not cruising young supporters at their official events.

Some people may think that Morse hooking up with college students off Tinder and Grindr is creepy and gross; I don’t think that was very smart, but I don’t consider it inherently wrong if they were not in his classes or hoping for a career in politics. That much could have remained his private business. But taking advantage of his professional position in events full of aspiring campaign interns, that is creepy and gross.

Tim: I’m not sure a straight person would be judged differently, or better, in a comparable situation. #MeToo has meant that straight men being held to account for a variety of behaviors. In the name of equality, I think it is good and proper that Alex Morse, and gay men like him, are forced to examine their behaviors, too.

As gay men, we know—even on a pedestrian level—how physical space can be invaded, and how unwelcome attention often has to be endured and batted away in certain situations in clubs and bars. Call this kind of stuff out and you run the risk of being called a killjoy, or not being “sex-positive.” Gay men’s sexual expression was part of our liberation; we tend to think a whole bunch of different rules flow from that and that sex has a primacy—which is all fun and good until it isn’t. Sometimes there are basic rules—don’t be a jerk; if someone isn’t interested, respect that; don’t abuse whatever power you have—that should hold true for all of us, LGBTQ or straight.

Morse’s age has nothing to do with this. So much is blamed on the follies of youth, when come on, as humans we know when we are crossing boundaries, or being douchey. You either recognize that, and come back from the edge, or try it on even more. And if Morse and others like him really feel they are too young to know these things about themselves, or if they feel their youth means their behavior is in some kind of do-what-you-want bubble, or if they really can’t judge their own behavior for what it is, then perhaps they shouldn’t go out into social spaces and impose themselves on other adults. Stay home, be a big kid, play with their LEGOs.

Naveen: I hear what you’re saying about advances between gay men in bars and clubs, and how we’re encouraged to shrug it off and consider it all part of the fun. I will again point out that we’re talking about events organized by College Democrats, not Friday night at The Abbey.

Morse has repeatedly said he won’t apologize for being a young gay man and behaving the way many of us do in our twenties—looking for sex, including on hookup apps. To his credit, this level of candor about his sexuality and sexual behavior is bold, refreshing, and a pretty major development in politics. A young, openly gay mayor gunning for Congress may seem like small potatoes after Mayor Pete’s historic run for president, which I swear ended eons ago but was actually earlier this year. Compare his response to the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who’ve been caught with their pants down—with men!—after a career of pushing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Larry Craig he is not.

Tim: Yes, the hypocrites are the worst, they always have been—voting against LGBTQ equality in their suits and ties, then having gay sex behind the scenes. There’s a brilliant film by Kirby Dick called Outrage (2009), which unpacks all that. And that hypocrisy is all around us still. Just look at Aaron Schock, and others whose closet doors will eventually rattle open. Alex Morse’s case isn’t in the same category, but it’s worth examining because it is not the first time “homophobia” has been used as the get-out-of-jail card by a gay public figure caught doing something dumb.

It’s offensive, because there is a real homophobia in the world. It informs public policy, it is used in elections, it puts us at risk of violence and discrimination in our daily lives. And I worry that when it is used as a decoy, when it is not for real, then it devalues what it really is. Here, a gay man did something stupid. Morse should own his behavior. The response to the revelation of this misbehavior has been questioning of that behavior—just as it would be for a straight person doing a similar thing. That is the very opposite of homophobia—it’s equality.

I agree it’s not uniquely disqualifying in his bid for political office. I question the wisdom and ethics of any public figure who invokes “homophobia,” instead of just apologizing for acting in a not-great way. Morse is doing LGBTQ people suffering real homophobia no favors at all. It’s selfish, self-interested excuse-making.

Naveen: The other thing that many of us did as young gay men in our twenties was make bad decisions about sex! He may as well own that part, too. Because regardless of whether more serious and specific accusations emerge, the bottom line is all of this was pretty dumb. Politicians are people, too, but it’s literally their job to make good and smart decisions—that’s what we elect them for! It’s tough, because I may agree with Morse’s progressive positions on policy, but I can’t say I think he’s demonstrated stellar judgment in the public sphere. As much as politics is about being informed on the issues, fighting for constituents, and unsexy work behind the scenes, it’s also about being a master of self-perception.

It matters how you conduct yourself in every aspect of life, even those you’d prefer to keep private, and it matters how you respond to a crisis. Whether and which of those private activities are subject to censure is obviously in the eye of the beholder. And specifics are essential to parsing alleged misconduct. If Morse’s blanket move in this moment, as you say, Tim, is to cry wolf, i.e. homophobia, rather than taking more honest accountability, that doesn’t signal to me that we’re talking about the party’s next rising star.

Tim: Morse is an intriguing case of gay-politician-done-bad, because this is not the classic Republican hypocrite; this is the gay, liberally sound, LGBTQ- and social issue-literate Dem. I don’t agree with his smokescreen charge of homophobia, but he is right in one thing—and it was clever of him to invoke it as a diversion: that LGBTQ people, particularly gay men, are judged for the sex they have.

The most ancient laws against us are based on sexual acts. That is what we are often reduced to. The brouhaha around Alex Morse reminds us of that tightrope that gay men walk in their public and private lives: that gay people are people who have sex, and that sex still makes bigots and certain lawmakers queasy. Morse invoked that prejudice as a cop-out, which was wrong and damaging.

Bluntly (and apologies if further revelations complicate this read), the Alex Morse case comes down to: Some gay men—in power and not in power—sometimes, just like heterosexuals, behave questionably. They abuse their positions without thinking, and then claim they are the victims. That’s immature, stupid, and in Alex Morse’s case, not a great advertisement for him as a politician.

Here he has made the wrong argument to defend himself, instead of just apologizing. But in so doing, he also makes a worthwhile point about how gay men are judged, and have been historically judged. Hopefully, that won’t always be the case. But if Alex Morse was being honest with himself, and with us, the questionable behavior was solely his—not the response that it was met with.