With all the media coverage surrounding Michael Sam’s announcement, the more important story regarding the acceptance of anyone’s sexual orientation in our society happened in a college locker room in Missouri almost a year ago.
I was very lucky to be part of a strong circle of friends during my high school years. Being in a group of six to ten people, there was rarely any drama or controversy between us. You could call it a movie-like friendship. One day after school, I shared the way back home with one of my closest friends. It was the moment he told me he was gay.
I could feel his struggle to admit it, largely due to the uncertainty of how his friends would react. His discomfort in that situation was more concerning to me than what he actually told me. He was my friend and I tried my best to make him understand that our friendship wouldn’t change. And it didn’t. But I also understood that his fear of not being accepted was real.
Michael Sam opened up to his teammates and friends way earlier than he did last weekend on ESPN’s Outside the Lines. It was during a team bonding event last summer. Some of his teammates already knew Sam was gay, some learned it on that very same day. And it didn’t change anything for them either. Michael Sam was still the same guy, the same teammate, friend and athlete. In fact, the team showed no friction or distraction at all and went on a 12-win streak while winning the SEC East Title with Sam being crowned as an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Apart from the overwhelmingly positive media reaction, society made a big step forward in a place many doubted it would happen – in a Missouri locker room full of young college students that play American football and accept Michael Sam the way he is and who he will be, the first openly-gay athlete en route to the NFL.
Image: Joe Robbins / Getty Images
Owning the Right to Speak Out
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” Sam said. “I want to own my truth…No one else should tell my story but me.”
We can rave about the reaction in the media and on social networks as much as we want – and I don’t want to take anything away from that – but I also know that embedding ourselves into this comfortable feeling of how far we have come as a society doesn’t accurately reflect the difficult reality of coming out.
Let’s just imagine for a moment Michael Sam’s sexual orientation would have been leaked by a teammate during the NFL Draft Combine or even before Sam had his interview with ESPN. Michael would have been the victim of populist reports, uncomfortable questions and harassment to some extent. By being able to tell his story himself, he avoided media coverage that would have been a lot different than what we’ve experienced this past week. How easy would it have been for just one of his teammates to tell any outsider? That it didn’t happen reveals the true nature of his teammates’ friendship – not changing after they learned the truth. Even more, they admired him for his strength to tell them and therefore stayed quiet until Michael himself told the rest of the world.
I felt the same way back then. My friend chose to tell me because he felt people should know but also because he trusted me. We need others to accept us the way we are and not make the role of sexual orientation a bigger deal than it actually is.
Image: Jamie Squire / Getty Images
A Slow but Steady Process
Michael Sam will undoubtedly be a role model for many young people that experience the same struggles in telling their friends and family such personal matters. His courage and the way he’s carried himself has to be admired by everyone – not just his teammates at Missouri.
“I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African American and I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin.”
This comfortable feeling, in part, is also a result of how the people in his life reacted. Quiet but supportive. Let’s not get carried away by thinking that we came a long way from an ignorant society driven by fear and lack of information. We’ve advanced but are also inclined to create big stories out of announcements like this – now by patting ourselves on the back, of course. Progress is being made by giving unmitigated support and demonstrating that life won’t change for anyone. It is touching to see the media reacting positively to Michael Sam’s announcement, inherently helping mold the opinion of others. However, if we really want to measure progress on a daily basis in terms of acceptance, the entire Missouri Tiger football team is a shining example that tolerance always begins in the smallest of circles. It will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on kids in the same situation Michael Sam was in, along with their friends and families.
No media report and no opinion piece carries the same weight as the reaction of the people involved. Somehow, one’s sexual orientation still plays a role when assessing professional capabilities – at least in sports. Michael Sam, however, will be a professional athlete in the NFL. He will let General Managers regret not taking him in the draft, and soon, experts will talk about his stats and performance as a defensive player rather than his personal life. Exactly how it should be.
I haven’t talked to my friend about the story of Michael Sam yet. Aside from being able to empathize with Sam, he will probably also understand the importance of supportive and accepting family members and friends. It helped him to open up and it helped Michael Sam.
Written by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com