This past weekend the world was treated to the first openly gay NFL player, Michael Sam, kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, on his cake-covered face after he found out that he had been drafted to play for the St. Louis Rams. "Clang, clang, clang," went the Internet. "Ding, ding, ding," went the couple's bells. "Zing, zing, zing," went our heartstrings. From the moment we saw him, we fell.
Aside from a few high-profile negative tweets, most notably from Super Bowl champion Derrick Ward and Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Ward and Jones both received backlash: Ward received a series of death threats, while the Dolphins forced Jones to pay an undisclosed amount in fines and take a tolerance class. However, even within the community of those who were elated to see Sam take his rightful place in the NFL, an insidious sentiment of anti-femininity was growing.
Many, including me, were happy to see an openly gay black man selected to play in the NFL. Those in LGBT communities of color, where pop-culture role models are fewer and farther between, were especially happy. Unfortunately, I noticed that some people, in praising Sam's accomplishment, went as far as expressing happiness that masculine gay men of color -- those who want to run, jump in the mud, get their knees dirty and roughhouse (on the field) -- had a role model while simultaneously denigrating feminine gay men, the sissies in our midst. I noticed a few tweets and Facebook posts in particular that decried the exhaustion of the feminine-gay-man "stereotype" and expressed an eagerness to embrace a new benchmark against which gay men could be judged. I'm here to bring you good tidings of great joy: The masculine gay man and the sissy can both be appreciated and embraced, and they can embrace each other. They need not be hollow, plastic men of opposite colors, with steel rods jammed through their heads, facing each other on a Foosball table.
The presence and celebration of both masculine gay men of color and feminine gay men of color is essential to our survival. And models of both in popular culture are essential to the nourishing of young queer kids' souls. Perhaps it's one of those cases of the grass being greener on the other side, or single people only seeing couples while couples always see single people. As someone who identifies as slightly more feminine than masculine, I have always felt that there are a greater number of fully realized portraits of masculine gay men than there are of feminine gay men. If a gay man is portrayed in a "serious," dramatic way, he is typically masculine, while femmes are played up for laughs. Perhaps both views, my own and the views of those who yearn for a visible masculinity for gay men of color, are skewed by perceptions of our own gender expression. There is room in the stadium of culture for both realities and then some.
What we could aspire to and hope for is authenticity in those whom we consider our role models. I also think we can move past the term "role models" and think about the term "opportunity models." It really doesn't matter whether Michael Sam is truly masculine, or whether, at the end of the day, he puts on a pair of pumps and performs a rendition of "Hot Stuff" for Vito in their boudoir. What's important is that he represents an opportunity for gay men to enter the world of professional sports not despite their sexuality but including their sexuality as a part of their whole person. I am all for people appreciating Michael Sam's achievements, but there is no need to denigrate femme gay men and further femmephobia to do it.
Femmephobia is a serious problem inside and outside the gay community. Most people will tell you that homophobia is rooted in sexism, which it is. Think of femmephobia as the fear and hatred of gay men whose gender expression is usually associated with the feminine. This kind of behavior was taken to task recently when Real Housewives of Atlanta star Nene Leakes was confronted about her use of the term "queen" with a negative connotation. How is a queen a negative thing? Of course, wrapped up in almost every example I've trotted out are far more complicated questions about race, class, gender, sexuality and the way that patriarchal masculinity interacts with each.
Though one could argue that there are more representations of feminine gay men overall in popular culture (and I'm not saying it's true, just that one could make that argument), the number of representations of fully realized feminine gay men is still dangerously low (as is the number of fully realized LGBT characters, period). Femininity need not hold people back from being three-dimensional, as it hasn't for many of my friends and brothers. A gay man of color can kick off his heels at the end of a long day and enjoy a life that he has made for himself. A good ol' queen can kiki with her pals over drinks one night and then wrestle with the world's toughest problems the next. We can pick up the gavel and the lipstick, the briefcase and the cosmo, the pen and the purse. All of us queers, regardless of gender expression, behavior or presentation, deserve a shot at what we envision as our fully flourished success.
Let's get one thing straight: Sissiness has saved lives. People have searched for themselves for years and learned that homophobia and femmephobia have unearthed the sissiness underneath. For some people, sissiness has been the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow, just like having a football in one hand and Vito's hand in the other seems to be Michael Sam's at the moment. For some people, sissiness has been liberation. And I don't even mean to claim this as anything new. Sissiness has been saving lives for as long as gay men have run away from former lives to find themselves, since record players would scratch out Ethel Merman, since the lights turned down in windowless bars in the downtowns of big cities.
And sissiness, or better yet, authenticity of self, will continue to save lives. Those who look at Michael Sam as a beacon of having it all -- the ability to kiss whom he wants, play the sport he loves and walk in his truth -- will be able to do that. This is a call for opportunity models of all walks for all people -- for people of all sizes and shapes, of all physical and mental abilities -- and for the openness to allow them to walk in their truth so that others may find them and walk alongside them, without the snide comments, the snark or the false equating that can come with trying to act like two seemingly opposite truths can't both be true.