Summary

I was on the cusp of 50 when I met the man who was later to become my husband. He was 30. Some reactions to our relationship left me stunned.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I met my future husband in 1996, two years after losing my partner Brian to cancer. A former British army recruit, Brian was 47, I was a couple of years older. We’d been together for two decades.

Then I met Marcus. Frankly, I thought nothing would develop out of our chance encounter on a tube train on a freezing December night in London. I was the worse for wear after a company Christmas booze-up, and he, with his shaved head and boyish looks, appeared far too delectable to be true.

I’d just passed 50 at that time—older than God in gay years—and wondered what Marcus could possibly see in me. Our first date after that encounter provided the answer: he, at the age of 30, was simply attracted to older men.

But friends and acquaintances were suspicious of his motives and I got whispered warnings about rent boys, escorts and gold-diggers.

Worse was the suggestion that I was a cradle-snatcher, lusting after tender young flesh. In other words, a predator and a “chickenhawk” who’d found himself a “toyboy” in middle age.

A quarter of a century on, that attitude towards relationship age gaps still prevails, with many thinking there’s something perverse, even disgusting about May/December romances or marriages—and it’s an attitude that is destined to get worse.

Writing for the BBC’s Lovelife last month, Katie Bishop said:

Societies are increasingly progressive; today, many people accept that love presents in many ways. So why do people still judge couples who are many years apart?

She pointed out that research had shown that young people seem even more judgemental of age-gap relationships than their older counterparts, particularly when a man is older than a female partner.

Given that young people are generally at the forefront of social changes, their disapproval could mean that the age-gap taboo might become even more deeply entrenched. 

But it wasn’t always this way. Bishop’s article points out that, in 1900, the average age gap between couples was about double the gap in 2000;  historically, people (particularly those in the middle and upper classes) would have been much more likely to marry someone far older or younger than themselves. 

Bishop’s piece focuses on heterosexual unions, but a Daily Beast article from 2015 points out that age differences in gay relationships are regarded as more disgusting than “straight” ones.

What prompted Samantha Allen to write her piece was the fact that Stephen Fry, the brilliant British writer, actor, raconteur and outspoken atheist, had married a man 30 years his junior—the gorgeous Elliott Spencer.

Allen noted that in the media, the couple’s age gap has been treated less like a scandal and more like a spectacle, with headlines predictably highlighting Spencer’s youth:

The major outlets have remained more or less respectful beyond these gawking headlines but, tabloid and entertainment sites have taken a more sensationalistic approach which has only been amplified by their comments sections, where people have been calling Fry a ‘pedophile’ a ‘pervert’, and a ‘dirty old man’. As for Spencer, the British tabloid that leaked the news referred to him as a ‘toyboy.’

Allen then pointed out that plenty of straight men—”especially famous straight men”—have wives that are decidedly their juniors, such as Michael Douglas, who is 25 years older than his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The news of Fry’s engagement has stoked the flames of a particularly virulent brand of homophobia that sees male homosexuality as a synonym for pedophilia and pederasty.

Samantha Allen, writing for The Daily Beast

In 1970 Gregory M. Herek, a University of California at Davis psychology professor, meticulously documented (and discredited) the history of this unfounded association.

Herek found that over 70 percent of respondents to a national survey agreed with the statement:

Homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children.

In the 70s, Allen said, this myth:

Kept openly gay people out of teaching positions. In the 90s, it kept gay men out of leadership roles in the Boy Scouts of America. Today, it continues to circulate freely on the far Right. Even the tired old yarn about homosexuality being just a stone’s throw away from bestiality got some recent attention when Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson said as much during an interview with GQ.

Do wide age-gap relationships present problems? Of course they do. No relationships, with or without age gaps, are without the occasional clashes, but I can only address the ones that affect my marriage to Marcus.

The most irritating is the blank stares he gives me when I refer to notable events or people I remember from my past. For example, I recently told him that, to my mind, no one has ever rivaled Fred Astaire‘s dancing talent. I should have anticipated that his response would be, “Who the hell is Fred Astaire?”

Russ Tamblyn. Screenshot from MGM’s Hit the Deck

Last week, after he confessed that he’d never heard of Russ Tamblyn, who gave me wet dreams back in the day, I did something really sneaky: I borrowed a copy of MGM’s 1955 musical Hit The Deck from a friend, popped it into the DVD player, and told Marcus we were about to watch an SF movie.

He sat speechless for a second as the MGM lion roared, and the words “In Cinemascope” spread across the screen, then he asked whether I’d made some mistake.

I replied with a grin that we were gonna have a Saturday night filled with all the campness and humor MGM deliciously incorporated into its 1950s musicals. Plus he would get to see Tamblyn in action and others he’d never heard of.

He managed one or two chuckles during this 112-minute-long extravaganza, but, as the credits rolled, he warned me that any further attempts to dupe him into watching “prehistoric” cheesy movies would wind up in a divorce. This from someone who thinks One Million Years BC, made in 1966, is simply “fabulous.”

My retort was that I’d divorce him if he ever chose another of Netflix’s crappy ouija board horror movies for our evening entertainment.

It’s time we stopped thinking that significant age gaps in relationships are perverse and disgusting | Barry and Marcus on their wedding day
Marcus and Barry signing a marriage register in 2017. Image via Sweet Gibraltar Weddings.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....