There’s a scene in Peter Lefcourt’s terrific novel “The Dreyfus Affair” where the star shortstop, Randy Dreyfus, is caught deep kissing the team’s second baseman. The novel, published in 1993, is a fascinating timepiece. The kiss begins a wild spiral for the two players; there are press conferences in which the players are made to say–by Major League Baseball–that the kiss was “horseplay”; the two players get kicked out of baseball for “conduct unbecoming” to the sport; sentiment turns in their favor when their team, without them, appear overmatched in the World Series; they are reinstated; and, finally, the start shortstop gets shot during a World Series game.
That novel strongly impacted my writing of “Out of the Pocket,” in which high school quarterback Bobby Framingham becomes a national story when he’s outed against his will. In the 2008 novel, sentiment about Bobby’s sexual orientation is at first mixed. As the novel goes on, he is accepted. He doesn’t need to get shot, and that was a telling difference in the 15 years between those novels.
Cut to Saturday, when Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into any of the four major male professional team sports in the U.S. ESPN showed Sam’s reaction, which included a passionate kiss with his boyfriend.
I am fascinated by the reactions to the kiss, which seem to run the gamut from “beautiful,” to “so what,” to “ew gross,” to “he should be shot.” Such is the society in which we live now, in 2014. There’s a lot of acceptance and even celebration of LGBT people, and the sentiment of many is that Sam is a brave man, a hero. And yet there’s still a long way to go, as anyone on Twitter after Sam’s kiss aired could tell you.
But what truly interests me about the kiss is what it tells us about Michael Sam. This is a man who is passionately committed to living an authentic life. Being drafted was an emotional moment. He met that moment by embracing and kissing his boyfriend. He did not edit himself. He refused.
It’s this kind of courage that makes me believe that Sam will succeed in the NFL. And also that he’ll hit a lot of football fans–and their preconceptions–right between the eyes.
There is a great moment in the Simpsons episode “Homerphobia” from about 20 years ago. In it, Homer meets a gay man and becomes incensed and uncomfortable when he realizes the man is gay. He tells Marge, “I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals FLAMING.”
The drafting of Michael Sam will force the same issue for millions of straight, beer-drinking, loud-TV-watching heterosexual men who are perhaps more comfortable with the idea that gay men are somehow different, lesser. Seeing Sam sack a quarterback or make a tackle for a loss will challenge that. It threatens the notion of heterosexual supremacy, and that’s going to be interesting to watch as it plays out.
It’s that fear that is behind the whole alleged outrage over public displays of affection. Those who are outraged may indeed feel as though what they are seeing is disgusting; I can’t speak for those people. But I do know that the reaction is a smokescreen for the truth. People who are unfamiliar with gay people are struggling to reconcile their concept of masculinity with the truth about masculinity.
That truth is that gay men are no less “manly,” no less brave, no less powerful than straight men. A man can meet the criteria of “manly,” and still kiss another man. Kissing a man does not make a person weaker than a man. And yes, I am saying that to make the point that all of this stuff is rooted in misogyny. You better believe that what I’m saying about heterosexual supremacy is intricately tied to male supremacy.
It’s high time that all these hierarchies get challenged, and Sam is a brave man to do it. I personally think that within a few games, most of these fears will be assuaged. People will see that a man can be gay, and play football at a high level, without the world exploding. And soon there will be more openly gay men in the NFL. And before long, we won’t need to talk about it anymore, because it will be known to exist.
And the world will be a better place for it.