This past month an All-American defensive lineman named by the Associated Press as the South East Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year told an interviewer from ESPN that he’s gay. Michael Sam from the University of Missouri announced to the world what teammates and coaches already knew: “I am an openly, proud gay man.”
Media speculation began as to how this would affect his chances in the upcoming National Football League draft. But his University of Missouri coach expressed unambiguous pride.
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou,” Gary Pinkel said. “Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
The NFL also released a statement of support:
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello said. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
There were critical responses, some laughable if they weren’t coming out of still deeply entrenched homophobia and anti-gay bias. Most repeated was the anonymous comment of an NFL player personnel assistant worried about chemistry: “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
The majority echoed the positive support of Missouri’s coach. Some went so far as to challenge any of Sam’s critics to see if they’d be willing to denigrate the 6’2″, 260 pound defensive end to his face.
The assumption must be that this big, strong, manly, man’s presence would scare his critics into fear that they’d get their comeuppance in some manly violent sort of way. Don’t mess with a real man.
On the one hand we have another example of someone coming out who “does not fit the stereotypes of gay men.” That’s still a lesson society hasn’t learned — there’s no “the gay lifestyle” any more than there’s the heterosexual lifestyle.
Men who fit our culture’s masculine role can walk past someone, work with them, play along side them, and even be members of their families, without someone assuming they’re gay. “Straight-acting” men and women are less suspicious to most of us.
But though someone like Michael Sam might challenge our gay stereotypes, they do not challenge our straight masculine ones. They do not allow any man to take off his “straight-acting” mask, no matter what his sexual orientation might be without assumptions about his manhood and, therefore still, his queerness.
Even parents who advocate for their gay children can buy into the belief that if a little boy is somehow super-sensitive, creative, nurturing, caring, and gentle, he must be gay. It’s as if we are to write off heterosexuality as somehow hopelessly gendered, and heterosexual men as naturally the opposite sex of the (also stereotypical) feminine one.
Grown heterosexual males know they’re assumed to actually be gay and closeted if they don’t live the manly role because they’re too neat, nice, gentle, kind, and culture-oriented. One would hope that these men have gotten to the place where the assumption that they’re really gay doesn’t matter and won’t force them to “prove” that they’re actually real men.
We already have too many men who in fear of being thought of as gay respond by showing violently or otherwise in their treatment of women and gay men that they’re on the straight team. Insecurity in one’s sexual orientation, but even more so in one’s manhood, breeds hyper-masculinity in its stereotypical forms.
To assume that boys who don’t fit the “boys will be boys” stereotype must be gay is to somehow lose hope in heterosexual men. It’s to stop expecting heterosexual men to also be kind, nurturing, sensitive, and creative. It’s to give up on males.
And the result is the societal encouragement of boys to be, well, boys. It’s then to criticize them later for being out of touch with all that gets labeled their “feminine side” as if these suspect characteristics aren’t masculine.
And the ultimate giving up is to treat the male role as innate. All that’s left to do with men when they act too manly is to send them to anger management, drug them, or throw them in prison.
Football is a dangerous sport neatly fitting male stereotypes. Meanwhile, the news reports that chronic and traumatic brain injuries and resulting mental disease, concussion syndromes, and even suicide are the price paid by athletes so that money can be made and people can enjoy an “All American” sport.
And gay people have as much a right to all of the healthy and sick institutions a society gives to straight people, with all their consequences. That includes football, marriage, and the military.
But somewhere, somehow I’d like to fantasize that maybe even Michael Sam isn’t buying into the stereotype of masculinity that lingers behind so many discussions of his coming out. I’d like to think that unlike many gay men, he’s secure enough to let manhood be even more diverse than sexual orientations. And in an even wilder fantasy, I’d like to believe we’d celebrate masculine diversity without any limits.
I’m hoping that after breaking gay male stereotypes, Michael Sam and his generation can also reject masculine ones. I’m cheering for the day when no one assumes anything about what it is to be a real man, and that men can be comfortable embracing the whole range of human experience, especially the parts they’ve been told aren’t manly.
“I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am,” Michael Sam told ESPN. “I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African American, and I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin.”
Men are supposed to get real, not fantasize. But I’m still envisioning all humans someday soon as comfortable in the skin we’re in.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.