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Michael Sam, Michael Morones and the Problem of Gender in America

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In the last week there have been two significant news stories that have unearthed some difficult truths about the persistence of the gender problem in American society. Both of them center on a boy called Michael.

Over the weekend, Michael Sam came out: He is set to be an early round draft pick this season, thus potentially making him the first openly gay NFL player. Last week, a story emerged about Michael Morones, an 11-year-old boy from North Carolina who attempted suicide after enduring constant bullying for his love of My Little Pony. He is currently in a coma with doctors fearing permanent brain damage. Although naturally Michael Sam's story is playing out on a far bigger arena, still, a young boy's life is on the line. But what links these stories is a persistent perception of gender identity that is poisoning our society.

The reaction to Michael Sam's coming out has been by and large overwhelmingly positive. Michelle Obama's tweet seemed to sum up attitudes pretty well: "You're an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn't be prouder of your courage both on and off the field." Moreover the news that Sam was supported by his teammates was incredibly encouraging. "I never had a problem with my teammates. Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue," he told the New York Times. I think Jon Stewart put it best when he said, "things have sure changed since I was at college." If only Michael Morones had had such supportive classmates.

However, not all the reactions to Sam's announcement have been so positive. The Huffington Post has posted many of the hateful outbursts on Twitter, which range from the hateful to the delirious. Unsurprisingly the Westboro Baptist Church is organizing a protest. A lot of the furor has centered on the fact that Sam is a gay player in man's sport and therefore doesn't belong: "I'm sorry but there's no room for Jason Collins and Michael Sam playing a man sport ain't shit manly about being a fag," tweeted one user.

Like Michael Sam, Michael Morones faced attacks for not being manly enough. Morones is a fan of My Little Pony, a line of toys developed by Hasbro, which has since spawned a number of animated series, games and even a film. It focuses on brightly colored ponies and, as the Wikipedia entry points out, "is marketed primarily to girls." But Morones is not alone: Indeed there is an entire male cult following of MLP called "Bronies." Yet the fact remains that Morones was ceaselessly bullied at school for his love of this innocent game, so much so that, like many victims of bullying, he just couldn't take it and hung himself from his bunk bed.

Both Michael Sam and Michael Morones share more than just a name: They are both defiant of traditional ideas of masculinity and have both paid a high price. For Sam it is constant media attention and possible repercussions in his career. For Morones is might be his life.

But what both stories demonstrate is that our attitude towards gender needs to change and it needs to change quickly before more damage is done. As a young kid growing up in Mexico, I too faced bullying -- so much so that in fourth grade I had to change schools. I didn't like My Little Pony or try to wear a dress to school. But nor did I like soccer or sports in general: Instead I liked books and art and in uber-macho Mexican society that just doesn't fly. As the story of both Michaels demonstrates, such attitudes persist and are indeed endemic north of the border.

The issue at stake here isn't really sexuality. Who knows if Michael Morones is even gay -- at 11 I don't think it really matters. And I'm sure there are a number of straight adult bronies too. The issue with Morones is that he enjoys something not considered "manly." Michael Sam is gay, but what makes him remarkable is that he is gay in a manly man's world: He defies what it means traditionally to be a man by playing a tough, man's game but also being gay. He is troubling to us because he defies our preconceived idea of both what it means to be gay and what it means to be a man.

Gender is becoming increasingly problematized as the binary that was once so strong is slowly being broken down. A married couple no longer means male and female, and queerness is increasingly accepted. Yet as the LGBT movement looks to its future, it is the "T" that becomes most troubling: Transgender people face an increasing number of violent, public attacks, while discrimination and transphobia persist in the culture at large. If true, inclusive progress is to be made both for the LGBT movement and for society at large, the idea of what it means to be a man or a woman has to change and it has to start now.

A good friend of mine once said to me that she believes that in 100 years gender will no longer be an issue: It will just be another antiquated thing we look back on bemusedly as we do now with colonialism and medieval superstition. For both Michaels and so many other young people, I hope it happens a lot sooner than that.

Image courtesy of mmtzjr69out.