Michael Sam: Welcome to the Family

Joe Sola, Saint Henry Composition, 2001 (still)

It is a marvelous thing when an athlete tells the world that he is not going to bargain with his happiness.

It is marvelous thing that Michael Sam, a serious NFL prospect, has announced to the people who run the show that he’s gay – it’s just plain wonderful that he made this announcement as publicly as possible through mainstream and LGBT media. Michael Sam is daring the sports world to turn its back on him. Daring the suits to defy the (relatively) easy acceptance shown him by his teammates and coaching staff.

“And, by the way, I’m GAY” is something that gay men in the most macho of sports usually say on their way out the door. Retiring as a player is accompanied by a release – for many LGBT athletes, participation in a sport is synonymous with the suppression of one’s life as gay, lesbian or transgendered. A robust professional career becomes a straight-jacket. Hanging up the uniform is done with a certain joy, and a lot of bitterness.

In 2009, the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, a real star in an international game, asserted the possibility of a different story for men. Thomas came out to the media in 2009 (he retired in 2011). He was already out to his teammates and his coach: he was in his late 30s and in the rare position of being so loved, so admired that his coming out could not  have unsettled people’s understanding of his value as an athlete. Most queer folks walk away much sooner. As teenagers. They walk away from the track, they walk off the field. If they read as gay to the people around them – they get kicked off the team, they don’t get selected for national development programs, they are bullied and shamed and never get to a place where they might be offered a spot on a big college team. Most say something like, FUCK THIS BULLSHIT and do something else.

A few of these young people find it within themselves to fall on the sword and file lawsuits, and it is thanks to them that we have any legal tools for confronting the intense homophobia that shapes lesbian and gay athletes’ experiences of sports. Penn State basketball stand-out Jennifer Harris did so in 2007 when she was bullied by her coach – Rene Portland had a “no lesbians” policy which she advertised to the media for 20 years. Portland didn’t think there was anything wrong with her policy, it felt totally natural to her to ban lesbians from her team (lesbian, here, meant any woman who doesn’t appear feminine). Those people never get to take their sport up again – people who fight for social justice are not, according this side of the sports world, “team players.” That kind of attitude still prevails among the corporate drones of the sports world. The people writing endorsement contracts, making media deals – the people in the business of selling the game, the people who make selling out into a profession – they are the ones holding us all back. As Chris Kluwe told the New York Times:

The men in charge will pose problems, Kluwe said. “It’s the general managers and coaches who are going to say it’s a distraction.”

These are the people who force the lesbian, gay and trans athlete to choose. Sport or sex. And by “sex” here, I mean the whole things – everything that word means. The gender of one’s romantic partners, sexual acts and identities, one’s own relationship to gender and sexuality, one’s social relationships to gendered people, the gender-culture of one’s sport, the sexual culture of that sport. One is asked to suppress and participate; embrace and exile.

That suppression might require that one deep-six one’s happiness, all expression of gender rebellion, all expressions of same-sex love and attachment. It might require something lighter – but still quite heavy – an undercover cop’s level of discretion as one leads the classic double-life – and in which the more successful you are in your sport, the more vulnerable you are for having made even the smallest gesture towards that word ‘gay.’ Maybe, as is the case with a lot of women athletes, one “just” watches the team’s management, the Olympic committee’s administration, and corporate sponsors quash all things that signal “gay” – from the existence of a long-term, live-in girlfriend and the importance of a gay family as part of an athlete’s support team (athletes have gay parents!), to an athlete’s haircut, outfit choices, participation in Pride or mentorship of other LGBT athletes. All of that might be conducted “off-the-record” to make a bunch of out-of-touch assholes feel like they are stewarding the development of your sport. Which usually involves putting women athletes in bikinis, giving them make-overs, and finding stories about teammates who are getting married – to men. To reassure themselves that women are not lesbians, lesbians are not women. If Sam wants to talk to out pro athletes about negotiating all of that – new territory in men’s sports – he’d do well to seek out the women who’ve been out there in sports world’s genderwarzone for decades. Now that he’s out, he gets to navigate the problem of being visible.

It is interesting to watch the straight media struggle to describe the shape of Sam’s life. All media accounts describe him as open in a way that is perfectly commensurate with the lives of young gay men who are in college, who are finding their way through a homophobic world – telling friends, finding the right bars and making more friends. Right now, the media is making a lot out of his family’s homophobia, for example. The New York Times profile dedicates a fair amount to space to his father’s discomfort, and suggests that being closer to friends than family is some sort of tragedy – even given the hundred other things Sam had to overcome, the idea of a homophobic father – especially one who is a black man – will prove irresistible as headline fodder. For queer folks, a family’s homophobia is a misery, but it is often also part of a more complicated story. A family’s homophobia may be just one ingredient in a toxic cocktail, and homophobia has all sorts of shapes, textures and sounds. Sometimes a family just can’t support you for who you are and there might be a thousand reasons why that might be so. Discovering a whole world of people – friends – who are happy to mentor and guide you, who are dedicated to your happiness and to the realization of your potential – who will open up their homes, shelter you and more – that is a magic time in one’s life and queer folks turn away from all sorts of trouble in favor of this other family. The families we choose. Queer friendship, in fact, points out the poverty of the system that only validates relationships that fit a heternormative, reproductive paradigm. We should not look at biological families or friendships through the lens of that paradigm. Friends are not a poor substitute for a “real” family. It seems like Michael Sam is really good at making friends, finding family in the larger world. And that this is the place he’s coming from.

This is what I like about his timing. This is not just a coming out, this is an athlete who is already making a home for himself in the world as a gay man. His announcement to the media is a very public demonstration of the choice that LGBT athletes make every day, especially in their youth – a decision, often made by necessity – as a matter of survival – to live otherwise and to make the world into something different – something better. His message: “This game is asking something of me that I don’t want to give it. A denial of who I am. So I’m going to demand a different kind of game.” Few are in a position to force a game to change. Michael Sam is, and he’s going for it.

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