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The Worth of Michael Sam

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Many barriers facing gays and lesbians have fallen recently and many more seem poised to fall.  A country in which it was commonplace to find laws forbidding particular, consensual sexual acts between adults has watched as more and more states have seen marriage between same-sex partners recognized and protected.  It is against this background, that many took in the news that Michael Sam, an NFL prospect from the University of Missouri, is gay.  A common response to his declaration runs along the lines of "while he shows courage and character to put himself out there, isn't it a shame that we have to talk about it at all." 

I feel otherwise.  I think that the story Michael Sam is telling about himself is one that deserves to be heard in its own right, not as a disclaimer or a footnote, but as a powerful testament to the significance of being oneself.

The great miracle of being human, according to a beautiful Jewish tradition is that our Creator coins each of us with the same Divine Image and yet no two of us are the same.   

This miracle deepens the significance of the peculiar command that is found in this weeks Torah portion, Ki Tisa, requiring a half-shekel contribution from each Israelite.  While in other contexts a person could give according to their ability and heart's desire, in this portion rich and poor alike were to give no more and no less.  The half-shekel per Israelite made it possible to count each one equally.

According to a rabbinic source, this commandment was one of several that needed to be illustrated to Moses visually.  Why was what seems like a simple tax so impossible to understand?  Perhaps what Moses was shown was how each person could be equal and yet at the same time different and of infinite worth.

It is worth spending a moment with this tension sensed in the half-shekel collection and in the much less egalitarian scene of the NFL draft board.  On one hand the watchword for acceptance as an NFL player is measuring him by what he can do on the field.  On the other hand, the worth of a human being cannot be measured at all, let alone without taking into account the entirety of who he is.  

It is not surprising that powerful words to frame this tension can be found in the work of Audre Lorde, a poet and theorist who railed against the prejudice faced by people who were seen as other. Somewhat more surprising is that her words were quoted by a sportscaster in Texas, Dale Hansen, in a passionate broadside against those who would shun Michael Sam or justify not feeling comfortable with a gay NFL player.  After bringing examples to show the hypocrisy behind this position, Hansen cited Lourde's words: "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences." And, as Hansen continued, we almost always recognize difference, sometimes accept, but too rarely celebrate those like Michael Sam who challenge the perceived norm.

The conversation will continue in likely and unlikely places and challenges, both expected and unexpected, will arise.  Some will say in the same breath that it would be better not to have an openly gay athlete and yet too much is being made of what should be a non-story in 2014.   Some will bristle with comparisons with Jackie Robinson seeing homosexuality or at least the decision to come out as a choice, forgetting that what Sam has in common with those who broke the color barrier in sports is very much about a choice.  The choice not to let others prejudice prevent him from playing at the top tier of the game and the choice to take on the responsibility of playing for more than just your team.  

Ultimately, however, the story of Michael Sam should not be one of victimhood and adversity or even of live and let live acceptance, but rather the opportunity for a person to celebrate his gifts and be celebrated for them.  A celebration not despite being gay or because of being gay, but because of being everything that he is and everything that he is worth. And that currency can be shared with each of us whether we connect with some particular aspect of Michael Sam's identity or whether what we have in common is simply being coined by our Creator with the same Divine image.