When Michael Sam finally got the call that the St. Louis Rams had drafted him, he turned to his partner, they embraced and kissed. This scene has played out every year during the NFL draft and rarely garners national attention. The difference this time is that Michael Sam is gay and he kissed his boyfriend.
While many around the nation and right here in St. Louis celebrated the history and equality of the moment, others — a silent minority — felt repelled. Yes, there are plenty of folks out there who view homosexuality as a sin and see the Michael Sam coverage as flaunting a “deviant lifestyle.”
While some took to social media with their rants, most remain quiet. When asked to go on camera to explain their views, they decline — saying they fear that they will be misunderstood, that they will be singled out and judged for their beliefs, asking: “Why would you want to hear what I have to say?”
The irony of this isn’t lost on me. For generations, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals lived in the shadows and felt a similar fear about coming out. “I’ll be misunderstood.” “I’ll be judged.” “Why would anyone listen to what I have to say?”
That’s why Sam’s coming out to the NFL is significant and is garnering national attention. For the most part, it’s been positive, thoughtful coverage. The kiss was a natural thing for Sam to do: turn to someone you care about in a special moment and share that moment of excitement.
For the foreseeable future, when broadcasters and journalists talk about Sam, as a player for the St. Louis Rams, it will be quickly followed by “NFL’s first openly gay player.” It’s a historical fact and I know he’ll wear that as a badge of honor as he does his job on the field.
But thanks to Sam’s coming out — others will follow and being gay on the field won’t be such a big deal. It is my hope that we see more celebrations like this, where the gender of the partner does not matter. When they enter the field, they will be judged as a player and it will matter not if they are gay or straight.
As for Michael Sam’s detractors, I think his coming out will help them as well. Every coming out story is unique and powerful. Visibility and interaction bring familiarity and a comfort level with what you don’t necessarily understand or particularly know. In short, living out and open changes hearts and minds.
Sam just wants to play football and do his very best, but realizes the significance of his being the first openly gay player in the NFL. He’s handled the national spotlight with the charisma of a pro. He’s also handled his critics with a particular grace.
Eventually, and probably sooner than we think, the national coverage will subside and Sam will be able to get down to the business of playing football. Sam has made it clear that’s all he ever wanted to do. After all, he’s just a regular guy.
A.J. Bockelman is executive director of PROMO, a a Missouri organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality.