I never played football in high school... or ever. But, this doesn't mean that when University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced last week that he was gay, 2 weeks before the NFL draft, I didn't pause and think. I did. And over the past few days I've been thinking more and more about all the things that are not being said, all the realities and circumstances that lie somewhere in the shadows away from microphones and ESPN photographers, so... let's talk, shall we?
The power of Sam's openness, pride and presence in the field as a gay man of color cannot be overstated. Men of color, let alone men of color who are athletes, face a world dominated by white culture, in addition to heteronormative standards of masculinity. As a younger gay man (and even now, to an extent, I'm sure), my race, sexuality and masculinity were all tied up in a set of ideal accomplishments that boiled down to being as normal, as white and as masculine as possible, all while being gay in a white gay's world. If by a stroke of luck I managed to start dating a guy (I would be normal) who was white (I would be better) and was a flawless reflection of idolized masculinity (I'd be balanced, I'd be stronger) then release the confetti and play the Beyoncé -- I'd be home free. I'm happy to report that my boyfriend is black and is no stranger to moisturizing, so maybe I'm recovering well?
This is what brings us to the discussion we're not having -- the one about masculinity, gender expectations and the way race amplifies all of this. While the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Michael Sam reads, "America is ready for Michael Sam. Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?" deconstructed, I read it as, "Is there any possible that way that you can be a (black) gay man and be masculine?" because that's the underlying question. Despite baseless concerns about in-locker room paranoia and about Sam causing a "distraction" on his team (read: making all those homoerotic fantasies of the "manliest" football veterans into a possibility, holler), Sam's sexuality does not threaten the game and the hundreds of millions in profit it makes on the backs of many black men, other than arguing that he has a right to play it, play it well and help redefine what masculinity can be to millions of young people in the process.
So, again, can you be a black gay man and be masculine? Of course. Is masculinity itself relative and in need of elevated societal examination? Absolutely. But is the fear of not being masculine enough and not being respected as a man a driving force in the lives of many young men of color? Is masculinity as a self-defined trait by the individual central in the lives of millions of men today? I speak for myself when I say, yes. It is... and we can't meme or protest it away, either.
Enter President Obama, who this week will announce the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which will bring together companies and foundations together to strategize about supporting young men of color, "taking steps to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system." While he's sure to get pressure from both sides (for either not doing enough or doing something, period) lest this moment bring change, we must be critical of all that goes unsaid, all the expectations and fears and pain of young black and brown boys who have been victimized, scapegoated and dehumanized for generations. We are more than dropouts and criminals, though rarely treated as such -- all many of us have ever wanted is to be men, and it truly has been a never-ending pursuit.
This article originally appeared in The Tufts Daily column Politically Erect.