The Seattle Times dropped a bombshell last month, publishing a lengthy account of interviews with three separate men who claim that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray paid them for sex and then raped them for years while they were underage gay drug abusers in the 1980s. The men – two of whom met Murray beginning in 1980 when he lived in Portland, and the third, a Kent man who filed a civil suit today alleging Murray did the same to him beginning in 1986, after Murray had moved to Seattle – gave similar stories, including collaborating details like Murray’s intimate physical characteristics.
This is truly gnarly stuff. Pederasty. Money for sex, which was then used to feed drug habits. These sort of allegations, when credible – and these are – can abruptly end political careers. No doubt a lot of would-be mayoral candidates, scared off this year by Murray’s formidable warchest, are looking anew at their contact lists.
There’s a lot I don’t like about Murray’s record as mayor, starting especially with how he exploits our most vulnerable residents for political points while doing far less than you’d think to help them. But this is much bigger than that. The civil suit doesn’t even need to go anywhere for Murray’s career to be over. The court of public opinion can do that if the allegations are bad enough, and the details here sound really, really bad.
And yet tonight there are plenty of people, especially gay men of A Certain Age, who are defending Murray. To understand why, you have to appreciate two critical bits of context that won’t be included in most news accounts, because those accounts are being written by people who weren’t young gay men in the ’80s. I was.
The very first national gay/lesbian march was held in 1979; the gay rights movement was still a fringe cause in its infancy, and gay male culture was still in thrall to the sexual promiscuity of the ’70s and the reflexive secrecy of since forever. There were no positive role models on TV, or anywhere else, for young gay men.
And, so, a common feature of gay male culture of the era was the notion that young men needed to be “initiated” into their gayness by older, usually middle-aged men. I helped pay for my college expenses (at considerable higher rates than Murray’s more desperate teens supposedly got) catering to the edgier desires of older men like Murray – horny or lonely or predatory or all three. All of them rationalized their interest in me as not just lust for a hot, barely-of-age twink, but as passing their hard-earned carnal wisdom on to the next generation.
Well into the ’90s this attitude lived on strongly enough among older gay men that NAMBLA – yes, that NAMBLA – was allowed to march in gay pride parades around the country, its members arguing that they were just misunderstood gay men who loved little boys. Seriously.
Almost nobody defends those types of practices today. But 30 years ago? It was, in circles Murray surely circulated in, a cultural norm. As personally nauseating as I find today’s allegations – and I didn’t care for such men too much back then, either – part of me wants to give Murray a pass. How fair is it to hold him to a shifted cultural standard of a generation ago, and alleged crimes long past the statute of limitations, just because he’s now become a powerful public figure?
But then there’s that second bit of context. AIDS.
I was really, really lucky; my sex work ended just before AIDS (initially, the “gay cancer”) exploded on the scene. We knew how it was spread long before we understood what it was. For a full decade until initial treatments were developed that could keep it at bay, getting AIDS was a cruel, agonizing, utterly final death sentence. It was an invisible holocaust; countless men died while President Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter a word about it. The pandemic thrived in secrecy, shame, and the open glee of religious zealots around the country. AIDS decimated every gay community in the country, and those of us who survived were haunted and terrorized.
Murray’s alleged Portland abuse of runaway foster kids began just before AIDS struck – but by 1986, the year today’s plaintiff says Murray began paying him for sex in Seattle, the New York Times reported that over a million American men had been infected. With no known treatment, let alone a cure.
By the time of the allegations in today’s suit, many tens of thousands of people had already died, including a lot of the people who did sex work for gay and bisexual guys. We knew far more about how AIDS was spread at that point than about what kind of safer sex practices would prevent infection. At that point, the kind of behavior Murray stands accused of wasn’t just abusive – it constitutes an unforgivably reckless disregard for the lives of the young men he was paying.
The salacious details of these accusations are going to consume a lot of local air time in the months to come – and someone’s also going to notice that nugget, buried in the Seattle Times story, that when the Portland men first publicly accused Murray in 2008, he spent campaign re-election funds to help quash the story. That is a potential legal problem well within the statute of limitations.
But there’s this: by 1986, a lot of the young men trading sex for money (or drugs, or housing, or whatever) were dying – because gay men who knew or suspected that they might be infected, and didn’t wish to harm their usual lovers, often turned to desperate – and usually drug-seeking – sex workers instead.
I hope the gay men who inevitably react to this story as an anti-gay smear remember that the sorts of teenage boys Murray allegedly groomed were often themselves gay.
And I wonder how many other 40-something men might also be accusing Mayor Murray if they had lived.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based journalist whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Alternet, Seattle Weekly and the Stranger. This story originally appeared on his website, Geov.org.