*The reaction to Michael Sam hugging and kissing his boyfriend after finding out he would be drafted by the St. Louis Rams is all at once, surprising, troubling, and encouraging.
The background to all this is that there was a camera crew at Sam’s house in the first place. Undoubtedly Sam being the first openly gay player to attempt to be drafted and play in the National Football League makes him a story to follow. So Sam’s reaction to being drafted (or going undrafted) was something that was going to be captured and broadcast for the public to see.
This is where the reaction is surprising. NFL draftees often embrace their significant others. More universally, people usually celebrate milestones in their life with those who have supported them: when you graduated from school, when you got married, when you became a parent, when you got a new job (basically what Sam being drafted was) you probably hugged and kissed someone you hold dear. I find it surprising that there is a segment of the public that is shocked that Sam followed this pattern. At the end of the day everyone should have expected a scene of that sort to play out with Sam. In fact I’m fairly confident that television producers at ESPN were hoping for that exact turn of events.
I’m not sure that the shocked reaction is mainly based on an unprepared audience. In my opinion the real issue is about the discomfort of seeing Sam’s public display of affection rather than the novelty of it.
The reality is that many heterosexual (hetero) men have a hard time accepting sexual and/or affectionate behaviors that don’t reconcile with their personal sexual preferences. This is why many hetero men are fine with women having fluid sexual identities and why they pursue group sex scenarios in which they are the only male, but there is a hostility toward “butch” lesbians, gay men and transsexuals. Unfortunately most of American society is geared toward hetero men; more specifically most of the sexuality depicted in popular American society is geared toward male heterosexuality. Ergo hetero men feel insulted and put upon when confronted with a PDA between two gay men because the implication is that they should be as interested in that display as they were in everything else from Janet Jackson’s nipple to Britney Spears and Madonna’s kiss. And very few hetero men are OK with the implication that they are interested in anything related to male homosexuality.
The troubling thing about this episode then, is that hetero men are being catered to at such a large degree, and that because of that they are unable to see beyond their own desires. Hence we have all of the negative reaction of the past few days.
My wife argued that Sam’s embrace should be criticized because it was scripted. Her proof was that he embraced his boyfriend instead of his mother. I’m not sure I agree but even if this were true I highly doubt the men who have expressed their displeasure with Sam did so because of his slighted mother. Put another way: I don’t know how frequently this happens, but I’m sure there have been instances where a mother was first-hug-snubbed in favor of a girlfriend and this uproar didn’t happen.
It is worth noting that the complaints I’ve heard suggest that we are going to be able to move past this milestone in society rather quickly. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The complaints can be mostly categorized as anger (“I don’t want to see that”) but there is a bit of bargaining present (“why does ESPN keep showing this?”) as if it’s alright that Sam is gay but he just needs to keep it to himself. And my guess would be that no football fan (especially of the St. Louis Rams) is going to be depressed by Sam’s sexuality if he is contributing to winning football games; that is, they would skip stage 4 and go right to acceptance of him.
I recognize that American football fans are not our society at large but to a large degree football is the last bastion of condoned old-school masculinity. Football stadiums are places where each fall being a man means ritualized violence with females as the prize (cheerleaders are usually present in the skimpiest dress possible even in freezing temperatures). So if the football audience can accept Sam, it would signal to me that our society is no longer heading in the right direction – it actually reached the right conclusion.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.