Michael Sam matters

{Image via SFGate.com}

{Image via SFGate.com}

Time and time again, when movie stars, athletes, and other public figures come out as gay, I hear the same reaction: why is it such a big deal? The answer, time and time again, remains the same: representation matters.

This can be an especially hard concept to understand if you are coming from a place in which you have always seen yourself represented. White men, and to a lesser extent, white women, take the prize for this. Look critically at the media around you. White, straight men are used as the default for everything from what a doctor should look like to the friendly neighborhood Dad buying a car in the latest Toyota commercial. When you do not see someone who looks like you, talks like you, or, yes, loves like you represented in the media, it is difficult to envision the same for yourself in your own life. So Michael Sam, as the first openly gay NFL prospect, is showing little boys who may or may not be gay across the country that it is possible to play football, to be named the SEC’s defensive player of the year, to (maybe) be drafted into the NFL.

Major media outlets seem to be doing all they can to hype up the controversy, including conduct polls with questions that seem like they were written by that bully in 7th grade who still uses the word “gay” as an insult. players if they would feel comfortable showering with Michael Sam; 86% answered yes. While this is great news, my first concern is whether Michael Sam will feel safe showering. After all, as a gay man of color the risk of experiencing violence compared to his theoretical teammates in his life is astronomically higher. The need that ESPN felt to conduct such a poll illustrates and lends false credence to the myth of the predatory gay male in the shower.

What’s interesting is that there is never an outcry regarding sharing showers when a female athlete comes out as gay — at least not as public — and ESPN doesn’t run around polling everyone they can get their hands on to see if they’re scared to drop the soap in the shower now. The patriarchal code of behavior surrounding masculinity is never more apparent when discussing homosexuality and sports, a traditionally heterosexual bastion (if you listen to Rush Limbaugh, that is). While self proclaimed men’s rights activists rally around the idea that women are oppressing them and have more rights than men do in society, they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Patriarchy dictates the behavior of both men and women; and it negatively affects all genders by enforcing rigid codes of behavior.

Overwhelmingly, the media concern has largely focused on what his future teammates may or may not be feeling in the anticipation of having a gay teammate. What has been lacking, however, is how Michael Sam is going to feel being the only openly gay player on any team, and how comfortable he might feel.

Continually we focus on how to pacify the majority rather than how we are going to protect and ensure the safety of the minority. Michael Sam deserves respect, compassion, and recognition of his bravery — not cheap fear mongering by outlets that should be celebrating him.


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  • Reply February 19, 2014


    Clare – this is an awesome piece. You bring up so many great points and I think we really need to start thinking about these codes of gender and how we stereotype people, from the white Dad buying the car to the homosexual in the shower.

  • Reply February 24, 2014


    Thanks for the love Zoe! It would be great to see ESPN start a conversation about this, really, instead of just fear baiting people. Deadspin actually has an excellent takedown of the sources used for this Sports Illustrated article – you should check it out: http://deadspin.com/how-sports-illustrated-botched-the-michael-sam-story-1521621764

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