This weekend has been dominated by the coming out of Michael Sam, an elite college football defensive end, who helped lead the University of Missouri to an incredible season. Coming out as he looks towards the NFL draft and a promising pro career, he is an interesting landmark for American athletes.
I wrote an article last April about veteran NBA player Jason Collins, and his decision to come out. With each high-profile individual that discloses their status as an LGBT individual, the question of landmarks versus normalcy stick in my head. I ended the Collins article remarking:
So Collins is a member of another, more neglected front of the gay rights struggle. When he came out two days ago it was national news. Part of the goal is that one day an athlete will come out, and it’s not a media spectacle. It’s just someone living their life.
It’s clearly still a media spectacle, one managed for maximum effect, as a behind-the-scences feature by Outsports shows. It depends on the fame of someone and the nature of their fame. The last two years have seen several journalists announce their homosexuality, and in that area it’s certainly not headline news. Athletic competition is another world, and there is some sort of informal hierarchy of gay-friendly sports- in some one’s sexual orientation isn’t considered important, in others it can be.
American football is considered a hostile environment. Not without evidence- witness gay-friendly punter Chris Kluwe’s legal fight about homophobic coaches who may have kept him off the team. Strange, I feel, than an individual’s contribution to the fight for equality varies so much on unrelated traits. Race, religion, national origin- Mary Cheney gained much media attention and support because of who her father happened to be.
To some extent, this has always been true. While many Civil Rights icons were known for their organizing ability, their tenacity, their charisma, others are known for their odd place in history- the Little Rock Nine were courageous and some led impressive lives after the crisis, but their place in history is not about their qualities as people. They were not any nine, they were the nine.
There is a great inequality in our innate importance in struggles for equality and justice, what we carry by virtue of who we are. It’s more than that, however. Even with the rise of a Michael Sam- an elite-level athletes entering the prime of his career- in the long run those gay athletes and their allies who will make the difference do so by their long-term commitment to organizing and fighting for change. Athletes, gay and straight, who support the You Can Play project that fights casual homophobia, march in LGBT pride parades, and use whatever fame they have to speak out can do great things even if their own stories aren’t groundbreaking.
A big name coming out as gay is symbolic. But it’s progress is also symbolic, and must be underscored by action to mean something years from now.