opinion

'Age gap relationships remain a target for the most harmful stereotypes about gay men - I should know, I'm in one'

The online abuse of Labour MP Luke Pollard and his younger partner is a reminder of the dark stigmas faced by gay age-gap couples, writes Christopher Sherwood.

2021-02-22

Reflecting on the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for 'gross indecency' in light of his relationship with Lord Alfred, 16 years his junior, the historian Jeffrey Weeks writes: “The most pervasive stereotype of the male homosexual was as a “corrupter of youth”.”

And here we are, 126 years better-off but with the same old stereotypes rearing up in the form of homophobic tweets on Valentine’s Day at the expense of Luke Pollard MP and his younger male partner after posting a photo of themselves in tender embrace.

 
 
 
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Stephen Fry and his younger husband, Elliott Spencer, experienced the same when they married in 2015. So did Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black.

When I eventually 'came out’ at the age of 24, having recently met my 61-year-old partner who I’ve now been married to (with a pre-nup) for nine years, someone close to me said, “It’s drugs isn’t it? He’s got you into drugs. That’s what this is about…How can you possibly be attracted to someone that old?”. I’ve never been a drug-taker and my husband doesn’t even drink. It was also I who first approached him with an invitation for a drink.

I’m under no illusions that these homophobic views might disappear any time soon, or indeed that I might change the hearts and minds of those who harbour them by writing this here.

But there’s another audience: people like me who never get to see themselves portrayed on TV, stage, film or in the press, unless as some kind of tabloid absurdity or victim of exploitation. Not even the academic or psychiatric fields provide any detailed context that might alleviate our sense of being alien.

Christopher Sherwood (right) and his husband Paul Gambaccini entered a civil partnership in 2012 in the UK, before marrying a week later in New York in US. (Image: supplied)

Stories like that of Luke Pollard MP and his partner may shine a light on age-difference relationships, but they also serve to remind people like me how society views us, reinforcing our notions of isolation and shame.

When invited to comment on the story, therefore, I made it my objective to redress the balance a little, to share a younger partner’s perspective, to dispel some of the myths around age-difference relationships and in doing so provide some comfort and reference for people suffering in silence with their equivalent attractions to older people.

I grew up in a very typical English family in a town in Leicestershire. I have three siblings. My parents were and are together. Dad worked in logistics for a large confectionary firm, Mum was a supply teacher in primary schools.

I only tell you this in anticipation of the first questions people always ask when making attempts to understand or explain my sexuality. Had my dad left us? Was I abused? No. It’s my experience that my attraction to older people has nothing to do with emotional or material needs, and is grounded completely in a seemingly innate sexual attraction to the mature physical form.

Christopher Sherwood (left) and his husband Paul Gambaccini (Image: supplied)

This sexual journey began as a 10-year-old, with my earliest relevant memory being a physical fixation on aspects of the male headteacher of my primary school. As I moved up to middle school at 11, these notions solidified and I became very aware that the subjects of my sexual desires were not my peers, but my teachers.

This weighed heavily on me, but the idea of it was so absurd, unusual and unprecedented to me that I made peace with it as a sort of quirk in my psyche, an additional facet of my core sexuality, rather than my core sexuality itself. I convinced myself it was something to do with the hormonal imbalances of puberty, and would pass once I achieved adulthood. That I was heavily involved in sport also helped me feel comfortable that nobody would suspect me of being anything but straight and ‘normal’.

These were my coping mechanisms and they worked. I was very lucky to have enjoyed my school days. What also happened is that I worked really hard. We all behave in ways that we think will impress the people we are attracted to. For me that was doing my homework on time, doing it well, and behaving in class. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my sexuality for my academic achievements.

My ‘straight’ life started well with a standard churn of girlfriends, but gradually faded out as the novelty of sex wore off and I began fearing for my ability to ‘get it up’. By the time I was at university, sexual encounters with females became a great source of anxiety for me, to the extent that I would sometimes have panic attacks during the event - my hands would distort and go numb, with pins and needles in my arms and face. I would explain it away to my deflated lovers as over-arousal.

Christopher Sherwood is an actor, writer and producer: (Image: supplied)

It was also while at university that I had my first close encounters with older men, though never actualised. It was the first time I’d knowingly crossed paths with older men who were attracted to me. Each time I ran away scared, though longing for what could have been.

After university I excitedly moved to London to commence working life, where the chance encounters happened more frequently until one day I finally mustered the courage to let nature takes its course.

I finally felt what sex should feel like - natural, pure, utterly free of anxiety or stress. I was home. Home for a bit, anyway. Home until I had to return to my house where I couldn’t possibly tell anyone about the ecstasy (not the drug) I’d just experienced.

I lived a double life for a few years, during which time one of my sexual partners told me that I’d come out when I fell in love. I fell in love, I came out, and have been very happily together with Paul for 11 years, finding wry amusement in the many times when people have assumed we’re father and son, then observing their reactions when we explain the reality.

Christopher Sherwood (left) and his husband Paul Gambaccini (Image: supplied)

Indeed, I’m still coming out on a regular basis. As an actor I regularly work with new people on new projects and I still dread the moment when people see my wedding ring and ask what my wife does.

When they discover my wife is in fact my husband and he’s over twice my age, I see their faces change and we ride the discomfort. I prefer it when people are curious and want to ask questions. At least then I can explain it and aid understanding. It took me over 11 years to come to terms with it - I’m very willing to give other people a bit of time to come to terms with it themselves, and I’m thankful when they do.

I’m also thankful for meeting many other people like me in age-difference relationships, mostly through the LGBTQ+ sports teams that I’m involved with - Stonewall FC, Graces Cricket Club and Irons Golf Society. I’m thankful to no longer feel alone, to be home, and uncorrupted.

Christopher Sherwood is an actor, writer and producer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.