Michael Sam, and what a LGBT milestone is

File:Michael Sam final Mizzou home game.jpg
Credit: Michael Qwertyus // License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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.

 

 

 

What is equality really about?

What is equality really about?

As you likely know even if you don’t follow professional sports, veteran NBA center Jason Collins has come out as gay. He’s the first active member of a major sport to do so.

I’ve linked to the Sports Illustrated editorial he wrote to explain his decision. My favorite section comes near the end:

Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I’ll sit down with any player who’s uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice. This is the tough road and at times the lonely road.

 
Mainstream society currently views gay rights and gay marriage as synonymous, and focuses more on marriage than any other aspect of gay life. As some of my queer friends have pointed out, the march to equality moves far beyond marriage. Not all gay people want to get married, or think that marriage is a good institution to promote. Society is slowly pivoting to gays being part of the norm rather than an error, an aberration. Even in a society used to the concept of rights, things aren’t moving quickly enough.
 
What is Collins’ action part of? The idea that gay people are woven into the fabric of this nation. There are gay athletes, teachers, ministers, and soldiers. Gay athletes like Collins, straight allies like NFL punter Chris Kluwe, and organizations like You Can Play attempt to make coming out a personal choice. Heteronormativity leads people to assume that certain groups of people are always straight, or that it seems natural for them to be. There are pervasive stereotypes about LGBT individuals being deviant, hypersexual, or insufficiently masculine (or feminine). When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was being reviewed en route to its repeal, gays were portrayed as unable to keep their professionalism, and couldn’t keep it in their pants. It’s insulting.
 
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.