When news broke earlier this week that British actor and comedian Stephen Fry, 57, is now engaged to 27-year-old comedian Elliot Spencer, homophobic social media users suddenly decided they should try to be comedians, too. There have already been innumerable and equally unfunny variations on the joke that Spencer looks young enough to be Fry’s son, as Hannah Jane Parkinson relays on the Guardian. (And yes, someone has already called Spencer a “Small Fry,” har har.) The Internet reaction took an even darker turn when “Stephen Fry disgusting” reportedly trended on Twitter for a brief time following the announcement.
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, as the Advocate reports, 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,” which, to be honest, would make a great novelty license plate for the Aston Martin that Fry lent him if he’s ever in the mood to reclaim the insult.
If it’s not obvious by now, the outsized reaction to Fry and Spencer’s age gap is deeply homophobic. Plenty of straight men—especially famous straight men—have wives that are decidedly their juniors: Harrison Ford is 22 years older than Calista Flockhart, Michael Douglas is 25 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Clint Eastwood is a whopping 35 years older than his ex-wife. George Clooney’s paramours, too, have waxed ever younger over the years. Sure, these Hollywood May-December relationships are surrounded by plenty of hubbub about “trophy wives” and “gold-digging,” but no one thinks that Clint Eastwood is a pedophile just because he married a much younger woman. However much we gossip about heterosexual couples with large age gaps, we at least refrain from calling them sex offenders.
The news of Fry’s engagement, on the other hand, has done nothing but stoke the flames of a particularly virulent brand of homophobia that sees male homosexuality as a synonym for pedophilia and pederasty. University of California at Davis psychology professor Gregory M. Herek has meticulously documented (and discredited) the history of this unfounded association. In 1970, Herek reports, 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, 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.
But you don’t have to be an ideologue for the decades-long association between homosexuality and child sexual abuse to shape your thinking. When Bradley Cooper, now 40, started dating the now 23-year-old model Suki Waterhouse, the Daily Mirror called them “the sweetest celebrity couple ever” and repeated the old adage that “age is but a number.” This same outlet worked the phrase “engagement to toyboy lover” into the headline of their article on Fry. What happened to true love knows no boundaries and all that? Cooper had to put up with some gentle ribbing when he started dating Waterhouse but now that Fry has come out as the fiancé of a 27-year-old, he has to face down a half century of sedimented sexual suspicion. No one has to outright call him a pedophile for the old myths about gay men to do their work, they just have to not call his relationship “the sweetest celebrity couple ever” and 50 years of conservative scare tactics will do the heavy lifting anyway. And while we’ve probably moved past the point where most people would honestly think of Fry as a sex offender—according to Herek’s report, those percentages were looking a lot slimmer by the year 2000 and they’ve likely fallen since—that doesn’t mean that he and Spencer are immune from being endlessly psychoanalyzed for their age difference.
My friend Jeremiah Bratton, who co-hosts the gay video gaming podcast Gaymebar, is familiar with all of the stereotypes that surround gay men who date across an age divide. His partner is 16 years his senior and he has heard it all.
Without missing a beat in our phone conversation, Bratton can perfectly mirror the sort of pop-Freudianism that outsiders bring to bear on his situation: “They look at me and [according to them] I have daddy issues and [my partner] is a pedophile. I’m a child from an early divorced family and my father was never around and I was raised by my mother so, if I was straight, I’d be dating my mother but now I’m looking to have sex with the father I never had.” And then he finally takes a breath.
For his part, Bratton is disappointed but not surprised that the same narrative is already being mapped onto Fry and Spencer. He likewise observes that straight men like, say, Billy Bob Thornton receive nowhere near the degree of pushback that Fry is facing when they wed their much-younger lovers.
“It’s scandalous but it’s not disgusting,” he says. “And [the controversy] doesn’t last as long. It doesn’t seem to stick.”
But while the media is busy rubbernecking at Spencer’s youth, few gay eyebrows seem to be rising, likely because large age gaps are relatively common among same-sex couples. A Facebook study from last year found that both gay and lesbian couples tend to have much higher age gaps than their heterosexual counterparts with the difference—or the age gap gap—widening as people leave college and start new relationships in adulthood. The reasons for a gay age gap are as varied as the couple. For some, it’s about finding stability and maturity. For others, it’s simply about accepting love wherever you find it.
Whatever the reason, people in same-sex couples are already living their lives orthogonal to one major taboo, so what’s another one at the end of the day? To gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, the oft-whispered heterosexual rule that older partners should date someone who is at least half their age plus seven years feels weird and arbitrary. In fact, one popular lesbian blogger jokingly suggested that the equivalent rule for same-sex couples should be “one-third your age plus ten years.”
Even using that generous formula, Fry and Spencer’s age difference still seems quite large but it’s certainly not unheard of nor is it unacceptable. June Thomas at Slate has a better guideline: “As long as everyone involved in a relationship is a responsible, mature adult, arithmetic should play no role in deciding a couple’s compatibility.” Sure, a 30-year age difference is nothing to sneeze at and, like any couple with that size gap, Fry and Spencer will have to do some extra work to make their lives coalesce across their generational divide. But that’s their business as consenting adults and not anyone else’s. Spencer is plenty old enough to know what he’s getting himself into and, in all likelihood, he’s thrilled to have landed one of the savviest, smartest, and funniest men in Britain.
Or, as Bratton put it between bursts of laughter after learning Spencer’s age: “I’m sorry. He’s not even ‘chicken’ anymore. Twenty-five is the absolute breaking point for homosexual adolescence. You’re done. You’re old now and you’re lucky you’ll get a man. Between 25 and 30, you’re trying to decide how much longer before you start growing a beard and calling yourself ‘Daddy.’”
And while we often highlight the difficulties of relationships that take place across large age gaps, we hardly spend any time at all looking for their beauty. With Fry and Stephen, there’s plenty of beauty to be found. Two handsome, funny, and well-dressed men—one late in his career, the other early on—holding hands in public while beaming from ear to ear? Whatever their ages, whatever their orientations, that’s sweet no matter what anyone else thinks.