I am an advocate for all LGBT folks coming out. I truly believe it would change the world in one fell swoop if everyone who was gay and closeted suddenly came out; intolerance of gay folks is fed by ignorance, and ignorance is fed by fear of the unknown. We all come out, no more fear; no ignorance, no intolerance, because our numbers would be greater, and people would see that we are like the Visa card; we’re everywhere they want to be. Living next door, working down the hall, eating dinner at the counter next to you; paying our taxes, mowing our lawns, raising our children living our lives. We are no different except in who we love, and when we are all out, if love is the only difference, but all love is equal, and then intolerance goes away.
Now, I am not wearing my rose-colored glasses and thinking this could happen overnight; it doesn’t work that way. My own coming out is proof of that. Most of my friends were accepting and understanding and welcoming; the ones who weren’t, well, they really weren’t friends if the two words — I’m gay — sends them running. And my family was especially understanding and welcoming, because I was raised by parents who wanted their children to be happy, and being closeted is not a happy place.
I think that a person who remains closeted, for whatever reason, is living a lie, a lie of mission, as Ellen Page said when she came out last week. And, in living a lie, how can you be your true self? You always qualify yourself, being careful not to slip and say something that might make folks suspect you’re LGBT. And if you can’t be open, how can you be happy?
Yesterday I read something Ian McKellen said about coming out, and happiness:
“I feel sorry for anyone who feels the need to lie about themselves. That’s not good for you. It doesn’t lead to a happy life. And I’ve never met a gay person who came out and who regretted it. Never. So, my advice to anyone in the closet — it doesn’t matter whether they’re a teacher, or a politician, or a priest, or an actor — come out. Join the human race.”
The human race. I remember once hearing Whoopi Goldberg say she didn’t like being defined as a Black actress, comedian, performer. She said something to the effect that she was, first and foremost, a human being, and then she was a female human being, and then, then, she was a black female human being. I can do that: I am a human being, a male human being, a white male human being, a gay white male human being.
See, in calling ourselves humans first, we are inclusive and accepting and understanding that we are all very much more alike that we are different. We are all human beings. Realizing that, then we can qualify ourselves down into subsets of human beings, the last one for me, being gay.
Years back Carlos played in a concert band in Ft Lauderdale; the band was comprised of musicians who were LGBT, and some in the band called themselves “gay trumpet players.” I remember Carlos finding that odd, and saying he wasn’t a gay trumpet player, he was a trumpet player who is gay. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a more inclusive way to think of yourself.
Which is why I think Michael Sam, the newly out, gay football player — and maybe, soon to be, the first openly gay professional football player — will make a difference in lot of people’s minds.
First, he smashes that stereotype that gay men are effeminate, swishing, lisping, limp-wristed queers, because, look at him, listen to him. He isn’t that kind of gay man, though there is nothing wrong with that kind of gay man. We are all unique in our personalities and the way we move through this world and show ourselves to the world, but Sam shows us that, that difference in what it means to be gay, by his own coming out.
Stereotype smashed; in your face smashed.
But it isn’t just the way he looks and acts, or the fact that he plays football. It’s more about what he says, and how he says it. Late last week Sam held his first press conference since coming out and it’s very clear that he knows who he is, what he wants, and how he’ll get it. Sam was not timid, hesitant, when he spoke; he never qualified his answers. He spoke for himself, about himself and what he wanted for himself.
When asked about the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal from last year, he made it clear he wouldn’t be afraid to deal with that type of situation:
"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization. I'm not afraid about going into that environment. I know how to handle myself, I know how to communicate with my teammates, I know how to communicate with coaches ... and whoever I need to communicate with."
But, what if that teammate or coach or manager hurls a gay slur in his direction?
“I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said. I don’t think anyone means it. It might be a little naïve and uneducated but as time goes on, everyone will adapt. If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with him. And hopefully that will be the end of that."
And that’s that. Have the conversation; remind people that gay slurs are unacceptable and you aren’t going to sit idly by while it happens. He’s making it clear, to himself, his future teammates, and to those young gay kids who are coming up, that the times of sitting back while someone calls us names is over. The time of sitting still while people discriminate against us — and I’m looking at you Arizona, and Uganda, and all the rest — is done.
Michael Sam wants to be more than the face, the new gay face, of football, even though he knows, for now, all anyone wants to hear is about what it might be like to be the first openly gay player in the game. But he does look forward to the day when the questions are less about his sexual orientation and more about his abilities on the field:
"I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's the football going? How's training going?' But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
And, like I said, that day will come. But first Sam has to deal with being the first, and that means questions and speculation about anything he says and does, at first, will be questioned because he’s being called a gay football player. One day, however, he’ll simply be thought of as a football player who is gay; a trailblazer in the movement towards equality. And when asked if he felt like a trailblazer, he quietly said:
"I feel like I'm Michael Sam."
And that makes a world of difference. It's not about being gay, because that's just a small part of who Michael Sam is, though it is a very definite part of him. But once we move from "gay football player," to "football player who is gay", to simply "football player," we've come a long way.