Today I have gay shame.
That is incredibly difficult for me to admit, and I don't really have a definition of what it means, but I realized this weekend that, even though I am a dedicated advocate for LGBT equality and have been fairly open about my own coming out, I still get challenged by some of the historic steps we are making in the arch of justice for the gay community.
So I decided to admit something that may surprise many of my friend and colleagues and it may even raise a few eyebrows. There may be some who do not like what I'm about to say or do not think I should say it. But I feel like it is important to share, because while I'm not proud of myself, I know I'm not alone.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you are aware that Michael Sam was drafted this weekend by the St. Louis Rams, making him the first openly gay player in the NFL. When I heard the news, I immediately went to the Internet to see it for myself and saw the video of him receiving the call with his boyfriend right next to him. And after finding out that his life-long dream of playing in the NFL was being realized, he hugged and kissed his boyfriend. Right there, in front of everyone, with cameras rolling.
And, as much as it pains me, my first feeling was I was uncomfortable. Now perhaps not for the same reasons for which others have criticized the kiss, but I was initially uncomfortable none the less. I had to immediately stop and wonder why.
For one, I grew up with the same messages and images as everyone else about what is accepted and I just wasn't expecting to see this display of affection and it caught me off guard.
Two, as someone who wants so very badly for Michael Sam to be treated equally and for there not to be any controversy surrounding him, I was afraid (and I was correct) that many people would use the common line of: "It's OK to be who you are, just don't throw it in my face."
And finally, his boyfriend is obviously much smaller than him (who isn't smaller than Michael Sam?) and I cringed at the thought this might feed one of my least favorite stereotypes that among gay couples, one is more masculine and one is more feminine. Again, we are saddled with that image we grew up with and we try to force same-sex couples into that mold. I think there are even same-sex couples who do this to themselves, but that's a topic for a different day. Was it Ellen DeGeneres who said, "Asking a gay couple who is the man and who is the woman is like asking which chopstick is the fork"? I love that.
So while I have anxiously awaited to see if Michael Sam would get drafted and have been so impressed with him from the day I first heard his name, in this joyous moment, these were the thoughts I initially had. And then I stopped and thought, "Would this hug and kiss be any different if this were a girlfriend?" Absolutely not. There was NOTHING inappropriate or gratuitous about this celebration. And then I realized that this is the very point. I could easily flip over to the Family Channel or watch any jewelry commercial or even watch another player learning that he was drafted, and see a heterosexual couple engaging in far more explicit expressions of love or celebration. So this hug and this kiss are no more "in your face" than the images we have of couples every day. They were just being a typical, loving couple. And one day, I hope that's all anyone sees, including me.
For me, the only true "right" I want is to be treated equally with everyone else. I believe that is how many gay couples feel and I believe that is exactly what this kiss embodies. I don't think that Michael Sam was motivated by throwing "being gay" in anyone's face. I believe he was emotional and excited and wanted to share in that moment with the PERSON he loves. I am ashamed that for even one second I felt uncomfortable.
Michael Sam has taught me that I still have a ways to go in my own ever-evolving journey. When he first announced he was gay, he said "I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it. I just want to own my truth."
You don't get to both make a difference and be comfortable. You don't get to be both authentic and to have everyone understand or accept you. Michael Sam has chosen to live in his truth, to live the change he wishes to see in the world. You can choose to live in a world where gossip, rumors, and prejudice define who you are, or you can decide, as Michael Sam has, that you will define yourself, you will tell your own story. I have personally experienced on a MUCH smaller, yet somewhat public, scale the freedom that comes from casting away your fear, telling your story, and being your authentic self. All the personal growth, professional accomplishments, support, and camaraderie that have come when I made that choice far outweigh any of the small minds who have chosen to judge me based simply on what I believe in or who I love. In fact, I believe I have helped change hearts and minds. At least, I hope I have.
I would guess that Michael Sam, like me, has to consciously make that choice every day. It does get better, but it never gets easy. But I have learned that if you want to make a difference, you can't always do things that everyone with be comfortable with or will understand. You will not grow if you do not take risks and always play it safe due to fear or the judgment of others. We can't be part of the flat earth society forever and because of the brave acts of so many who have been fighting for equal rights for so long, I believe we've reached the tipping point where acceptance and love is overpowering prejudice and intolerance. A simple kiss reminded me of just how far we've come and how much further we have to go.
Do I admire Michael Sam? You bet. But today I admire him less for his extraordinary act of courage than I do for his ordinary act of love.
Michael Sam, yours is a world I hope to one day live in.