What do older men with younger partners have in common? Why are they attracted to each other? And why does it offend some members of the gay community so much? With Tom Daley  making headlines for his engagement to to Dustin Lance Black  this year, GT talks to five gay men to discover whether or not we should mind the gap.
You’ve seen him in the bar – he’s the grey-haired, much older man sitting with his hand on a much younger guy’s thigh. Immediately you assume the attraction is either based on a mutually satisfactory financial agreement, a daddy fetish or a mid-life crisis.
But does an age gap relationship need strings attached to work? Can’t it just be two people who have fallen in love despite the years that separate them?
Most of us in the gay community have dated, or at least had a one-nighter, with someone considerably older or younger than us. Friends of Tom Daley, who recently revealed he’s in a relationship with a man, say that finding love with Milk writer Dustin Lance Black, a man 20 years older than him, was the catalyst to him talking publically about his sexuality.
However, it’s often the case that being in a long-term, committed relationship with an older or younger man must still raise eyebrows from some quarters. And in some cases, it can find the older man branded a pervert or manipulator while his younger counterpart is dismissed as a gold digger.
There’s a 24-year age gap between Michael and Dennis*. They began dating three years ago after meeting online. “My last boyfriend was ten years my junior and I was dubious about dating someone younger again,” explains Michael, 53. “When we split up, I started internet dating and was adamant I wanted to meet someone my own age. I went on several dinners with men in their 40s and 50s, but we didn’t click.
“Then I met with Dennis at a bar in Vauxhall, London, and we hit it off straight away. But the age gap worried me, even though the more time we spent together, the more we got on. And soon I realised I was being prejudiced about younger guys. Just because my last boyfriend turned out to be an immature idiot, it didn’t mean everyone younger than me was too.”
Dennis, 29, adds: “I’m not into older or younger guys, it’s about how we get on, and Michael and I just fit. I like the grey bits in his hair, the fact he’s lived a bit more of life than me, that he’s had experiences I haven’t. The only time our age difference gets in the way is when we’re doing a music quiz down the pub. He knows everything about the 1970s and I wasn’t born until 1984.”
“Some guys in bars have suggested Dennis is a kept man, but he actually earns a lot more than me,” Michael continues. “One friend says I’m a dirty old man for falling for a younger guy. We don’t speak any more.”
Age differences between gay couples are much more common that straight ones. A study in the UK, USA, Sweden, France and the Netherlands revealed that gay couples are almost three times more likely to have an age difference of more than ten years between them, compared to heterosexual couples.
“In speaking with thousands of people about relationships, gay men are more open to a relationship with an age gap,” says Lemarc Thomas, managing director of Seventy Thirty, the exclusive matchmaking and introduction agency. “Most gay men over 30 will understand the feeling of going against what’s considered a societal norm, which makes them more open to breaking such barriers.
“There is still a stigma attached, even among other gay men. Freud might encourage the assumption that there are a few father issues for both the younger and older man. We may see manipulation, a life crisis, one being kept or something worse. However, an age gap relationship can be functional and successful if built on solid foundations with mutuality. But it’s more difficult to achieve long term compatibility.”
Gay age gaps like that between Tom and Dustin are nothing new. French poet Arthur Rimbaud was 17 when he started a relationship fellow poet Paul Verlaine, 11-years older than him. Oscar Wilde was 36 when he became involved with the 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas. There are 15 years between Sir Elton John, 66, and husband David Furnish, 51. Stephen Fry made headlines in 2010 when he started dating actor Steven Webb, despite their 26-year age difference. And designer Calvin Klein was 48 years older than his ex-partner, model Nick Gruber.
There’s nine years difference between Joe Marsden, 28, and James Hilton, 19, who met on a phone dating app. But that nine years was enough for Joe to be on the receiving end of a flurry of nasty Facebook messages when the two began dating.
“I didn’t notice James’ age straight away, but he did look quite young. And when it turned out he was 17 I thought, ‘ahh, okay this could be a problem,’” recalls Joe. “James was still in college, and that sounded so young. Even if he’d been 18 or 19 it would have sounded better. But he didn’t seem bothered about my age.
“I’m a member of a few groups on Facebook that help young people to come out. Most people I’ve dated have been in similar situations – they’ve had no or few friends and struggled to meet people without the help of the internet. A lot of younger people look for older people because there’s potential for a deeper relationship there.
“I had 110,000 Facebook followers. But when it came to talking about my relationship with James, I got so much hate online. They asked why he’s with me because he can do better. If I post pictures of us I will get more than 100 messages saying they want to sleep with him.
“Eventually it got too much and I deleted my account. The age gap comments were a whole new level of nastiness and jealousy. I put a lot into the gay community so it was a surprise to get such negative comments just because I’m going out with someone younger than me. At one point I even thought about ending the relationship; it would have been so much easier to go out with someone my own age.”
According to Lemarc Thomas, an age gap is just one of many factors which can contribute to whether a relationship is functional or dysfunctional. “At Seventy Thirty, when we’re matchmaking for our members, we don’t look at age per se, instead we think of life stage. We also consider shared core values, background, lifestyle, goals, personality and attraction.”
Some therapists believe younger gay men are attracted to older men because, when they were boys, they were deprived of their father’s attention and became isolated in their own closeted gay world. So older gay partners can become a role model, a teacher and protective elder friend. In return, it can bring out the paternal side of an older gay man. Others claim it’s an issue of control – the older men want to be in charge in a relationship.
It’s that reason which has put Jeremy*, 24, off dating anyone over 30. “Most men I’ve been out with have been at least a decade older than me,” he begins, “and without fail, those relationships have all gone wrong because they don’t trust a younger guy. They think we cheat on them, that we want them to come home, but behind their backs we’re fucking around with people our own age. Older men are very, very insecure. They want a good-looking lad on their arm to control them. I’ve yet to meet one who is confident enough in themselves to trust me not to cheat on him.”
“Balance is important in relationships and each person must feel what they bring is equal to what they receive,” adds Lemarc Thomas. “A study on social exchange in age gap relationships suggested the younger partner was much more likely than the older to grant or refuse sexual gratification as a means of securing or maintaining power. Sex was not necessarily exchanged for financial compensation, the older partner offered intelligence and social accomplishments, which are often as strongly attractive to younger partners as material possessions.
“When we think of gay history, there has been rapid societal changes. In the early 70s, homosexuality was still listed as a pathological disorder; today we’re talking about gay marriage. The generation gap for gay men is potentially massive. This means that the couple may realise they’re from very different backgrounds, from which it is difficult to build a mutual understanding.”
*Some names have been changed by request.
Words John Marrs