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On such a landmark day for gay rights and marriage equality Wednesday, it’s so dispiriting that the number one trending story in Detroit was of allegations made against openly-gay Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh. We’ve all heard them. An anonymous mother of a now 18-year-old young man has come forward, through her attorney, to say that Pugh had inappropriate contact with her son while he was a part of the Charles Pugh Leadership Forum, a mentoring program Pugh ran at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Boys, formerly Murray Wright High School and Pugh’s alma mater.
Pugh, she claims, purchased her son a cell phone and gave him cash and other gifts. Friends of Pugh have been quick to point out that he often gave to students in the Leadership Program from out of his own pocket, bestowing upon them gifts such as a Kenneth Cole briefcase, Pistons tickets and ties. Complicating matters, the mother’s attorney, Ivan Land, attests to having a stack of text messages Pugh exchanged with the student that allegedly illustrate Pugh was attempting to “seduce” the young man.
Let’s pause here to review a few facts. First, we’ve only heard from this nameless mother through her attorney. She declined the help of school authorities in investigating this matter and told them she preferred to handle it herself. Further, she questionably chose not to report the matter to the police fearing, she claimed, retribution from the second most powerful man in the city. Instead, she chose to go straight to an attorney who has promised to file a lawsuit within days seeking upwards of $25,000 from Pugh, the school district and the city.
Second, nothing the attorney has alleged so far, or that has been reported from any other source, indicates that Pugh actually did anything illegal. Pugh was not the young man’s teacher, and the student was 17 when the contact began. Nothing offered so far points to a sexual relationship between Pugh and the young man, but it’s worth noting that even if that had occurred, the age of consent in the state of Michigan is 16. So while Pugh may have exercised poor judgment, there’s been no indication thus far he’s done anything illegal.
The sad part is that he doesn’t have to have done anything illegal to have his reputation ruined, his future chances for elected office destroyed, and any post-city council career opportunities put in jeopardy. It is possible that Pugh is merely paying the high cost of living life as both a publicly elected official and an openly-gay man.
Talk on Facebook indicated that some users felt his behavior would still have been wrong had it been a woman interacting with the student. But is that the proper analogy here? A better question may be would these actions be viewed in the same light if Pugh were a straight man? Paying for prom clothes and a post-prom hotel room for an 18-year-old former mentee, would that really be seen as “inappropriate” if it were a straight man footing the bill? It’s a question worth considering.
At the moment, all we have are questions. Pugh’s not talking. At risk of losing his salary as a city councilman, he has remained in hiding. The mother’s lawyer has yet to actually file the lawsuit, so we can’t know with certainty what’s being alleged.
As we wait for more facts to emerge, we cannot help but be saddened and concerned. Pugh clearly loves the city of Detroit and has a passion for helping Detroiters. “I’ve worked hard to make myself a role model for young men in this city, and young people in general,” he told us in a 2004 interview that served as his coming out story. No matter what the result of the lawsuit, if it is, in fact, filed, his days as a role model may be over. But nothing that might come out in the days and weeks to come should overshadow his years of accomplishment and good works.
For now, we can only hold to the old “innocent until proven guilty” adage, and hope for the best for Pugh, and for the city of Detroit.