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Michael Sam and the Meaning of Masculinity

20 Feb Posted by in Jewelle Gomez | 1 comment
Michael Sam and the Meaning of Masculinity

If an out gay man can be in a football locker room the question isn’t: should the guys hide their junk—the real question is what is masculinity? How much of that destructive, artificial construction will we continue to abide by? Men who work in jobs that depend heavily on the myths of masculinity are always threatened by ‘the other’ appearing on the scene, whether it’s women on the police force or gays on sports teams.

I’m happy for Michael Sam that he lifted the burden of secrecy from his back even though it could mean several devastating things like not getting picked to be on a team, maybe ending his career. Or even scarier: getting picked and having to face huge men high on testosterone with nick names like Refrigerator (I know that dates me).

What is most fascinating for me is watching how those in sports are responding. As one might expect, sportscaster Keith Olbermann had a passionate and articulate response. He did interviews discussing the Civil Rights movement and Sam’s place in it. On the other hand the Kent State wrestler who felt comfortable scattering his homophobic Tweets around the Twittersphere seems to represent the old fashioned meathead (to use Archie Bunker’s term) stereotype too well.

But shining through are the coaches and players who will speak up. Not the least of whom was Dallas newscaster, Dale Hansen. He did an amazing thing: he made Michael Sam’s coming out a teachable moment. His challenge is very clear: will sports live up to the high standard for honesty and humanity that Sam has set? It’s worth a web search for the clip of Dale Hansen’s broadcast (they’re everywhere) to see a regular, old Southern white guy refuse to be a stereotype; quoting Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde no less!

I don’t know what a defensive end or an offensive tackle are; except that they seem like they might be opposites. Football games have never held my attention, although replays in slow motion are amazing. But If I were going to go for a totally bone breaking sport it would be rugby, which seems more candid to me and you can actually see the players and they can see each other not padding. It makes for a different kind of game to not be dehumanized by gear…kind of what happens in the military.

Of course as a lesbian I’ve paid attention to tennis great Billie Jean King—everyone has finally forgiven her for being too afraid to publicly embrace being a lesbian in the 1970s (and who wasn’t!?). When she did she lost millions of dollars in endorsements! I keep up with champion player Martina Navratilova too—is there something in the tennis water? And I loved when Billy Bean came out after retiring from baseball.

Growing up in Boston in the 1960s basketball was my mania of choice. The Celtics were like members of the family in my neighborhood. Football remained merely background noise for my reading the Sunday paper when I visited my stepfather.

I was proud, of course of the legendary Native American footballer and Olympian, Jim Thorpe (1888-1953) even though he’d long left the field before I was watching sports on TV. He was from the Oklahoma Sac and Fox nation, which is closely related to my family’s Ioway tribal roots. So I read about him…his sad losses as well as his proud heritage but it didn’t make me want to paint my face funny colors and sit in a cold stadium.

I did know that for a long time no one (meaning coaches, owners and fans) believed Black players were smart enough to be quarterbacks. That seemed typical coming from a sporting community that seemed to communicate through grunts rather than the delicate intricacy seen on baseball diamonds.

That said I’m not immune to the allure of sports. Once passage of Title IX legislation (1972) started to help level the playing field for young women interested in sports I took more notice. I knew the world of sports in general would change, maybe slowly and subtly. And even if women & men never play together, simply having women in sports consciousness makes a difference.

I do watch the Olympics…winter and summer. And I have given a couple of Super Bowl parties just for the camaraderie of it all, and did my manicure recently in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers during the playoffs…no that’s not the right word…

I remember when (late 1960s) I, as a member of a television news crew, I was refused entry to the center green where all the journalists cover the Penn Relays—until we threatened a law suit. Now women are sportscasters. Blacks play as quarterbacks. And Michael Sam came out as gay. So I’m really paying attention now.

Sports is like marriage–it’s a barometer for deeply held beliefs, institutions that folks feel are cornerstones of the culture. Any change is an assault on a way of being. If gays can get married too that kind of makes us human, not easily dismissible freaks.

Michael Sam did something great for his own health, for our community, for sports, and for all those guys–players and fans–who might learn to like living in the 21st century. To quote what Bruce Bochy, coach of the SF Giants has said about other extraordinary players: “Just seeing his name in the lineup changes the flow of the game.”

And once the river flows it never goes backward.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website:

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