The leader of Pride St. Louis
, the region's most visible LGBT organization known for its annual June parade and festival in Tower Grove Park, is causing a stir in the gay community for his romantic relationship with a high-school student.
Ethan Barnett, 30, was elected president of Pride St. Louis last August and tells Daily RFT
that he informed Pride's board about his relationship with the 18-year-old at a meeting in February.
"I brought it up because I had heard rumblings. The board was given a chance to discuss the matter. There was no vote, but the consensus was they were okay with it," says Barnett, who calls it "disappointing" that his relationship is distracting from his work organizing next month's PrideFest. "This year's festival promises to be the biggest ever. To me that's more newsworthy."
But while the board may have accepted Barnett's relationship, not all members were in agreement. Colin Lovett, a board member since August 2010, resigned from Pride within 48 hours of hearing Barnett describe his relationship. Lovett says Barnett's romance with Caleb Bender, a senior at Metro Academic and Classical High School in St. Louis, was the contributing factor to his resignation.
"Ethan has done wonders for Pride," says Lovett, who also serves as president of the board of the LGBT Center of St. Louis
. "He has great organizational skills and business acumen, but being president of Pride is a very public role in the LGBT community. It's a perception issue. And you don't want to be perceived that we're targeting youth."
Barnett's relationship with Bender has prompted several concerned calls to the LGBT Center, confirms executive director Leon Braxton Jr., who has personally met with Barnett to discuss the issue.
"I met with him leader-to-leader," says Braxton. "My position is that his relationship is not in the best interest of the community. Even if you're not doing something illegal, there is still an image that our leaders should uphold."
Fresh in the mind of Braxton and many in the LGBT community is the 2002 arrest of Pride St. Louis' then-president, Rolf Rathmann, for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Rathmann was later sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two other area men also served prison sentences for having sex with the boy who represented himself as being older.
The age of consent in Missouri is seventeen.
"It's not fair for people to judge us because the action of someone 10 years ago," Bender tells Daily RFT
. "Especially when it's a relationship between two people of age that the State of Missouri has declared as legal."
"I'm certainly aware of the Rolf situation," adds Barnett. "That's why I was uncomfortable with this from the beginning and only wanted to get to know Caleb as a friend."
That all changed on February 25 of this year, when, Barnett says, he asked Bender to be his boyfriend. The two met through mutual friends last year. Bender, who'll graduate high school this week and plans to attend Mizzou in the fall, says he was the initial pursuer.
"He rejected me several times because of my age," says Bender. "He was afraid people would prematurely judge us."
Since then the two have done little to keep the relationship under wraps. Barnett recently accompanied Bender to his high-school prom.
"I made sure he had approval of the principal," explains Barnett, a restaurant server who says he logs 40 hours a week volunteering for Pride St. Louis. "The biggest reason I went is that I knew how much it would mean to him. A lot of us in the LGBT community couldn't attend our own proms."
Until Daily RFT
called yesterday, photos from the dance (and other playful photos and discussions between the two) were viewable on both Barnett and Bender's Facebook page, which are open to the public. Those posts have since been deleted. But here's a screenshot of one:
Colin Murphy, executive editor of the LGBT monthly Vital Voice
, says it's the Facebook banter that has really riled the community.
"I think the question most people are asking of Ethan is, 'What are you doing parading this in front of everyone?' It doesn't seem very professional."
"Personally, I support everyone's right to a legal and consensual relationship, but for the head of any organization to be dating a high-school student would be troubling," says Murphy. "And for the head of an LGBT organization to be doing it only reinforces negative stereotypes."
Bender says his father, whom he calls a conservative, Southern Baptist, didn't approve of the relationship at first, but has come around. Bender's mother passed away last year.
"In my age group there aren't that many men to date," says Bender, who came out this year with the support of Barnett and credits his boyfriend with helping him cope with his mother's passing.
Last month sex columnist Dan Savage addressed a similar topic
when a father wrote in for advice on dealing with his 18-year-old son who'd come out and
informed his father he was seeing a 31-year-old man.
Savage's advice to the dad:
"Tell him that you realize gay guys his age sometimes date older men because there aren't a lot of boys his own age to choose from. (If you didn't already know that, now you do.) And tell your son that this gay dude you know -- that would be me -- told you that something's usually wrong when a 31-year-old is dating a teenager. Something's usually wrong with the 31-year-old."
But nothing is wrong with him or the relationship, responds Barnett.
"I've never told Caleb he has to do anything," he says. "I've just tried to be supportive and treat him like an adult."
Adds Barnett: "Unfortunately, the LGBT community can be prone to gossip and drama in a way that can harm ourselves more than help ourselves. In this case, there seems to be some negative interests fanning the flames, which is what makes it difficult."