Dear Civilities: Why does anyone like Michael Sam have to announce that they’re gay anymore? I’m a straight man and I have no opinion at all on whether or not a gay football player should be drafted — I only have opinions on whether good players get drafted. But if I say I don’t care about Michael Sam, people accuse me of being homophobic. I’m not. I honestly don’t care that he’s gay. But I don’t want to watch his news conferences, I don’t want to celebrate his being gay, I just want to watch football. So why do people still think it’s so important to parade their sexuality around? — Anonymous
A: Let me start by saying that I, too, look forward to the day when there’s no need to announce that a pro football player is gay. But that day is not here, because Sam’s coming out is a big deal. Imagine if all the professional football players were gay and out of nowhere an openly straight man was drafted, one with a girlfriend. Wouldn’t there be a news conference? That would be an historic moment for heterosexuals, right? And we’re a nation that celebrates firsts.
But the main reason it matters to acknowledge this seismic shift in football is what it says to LGBT youth. On the Facebook page of the University of Missouri, Sam’s alma mater, a dad posted about his teenage son: “When Michael Sam was finally drafted my 15-year-old son started crying and told me he was gay. He said he didn’t want to hide anymore or be embarrassed about who he was.” On my own Facebook page, I read similar stories. Daniel Kort, 19, commented: “When Michael Sam came out — and then was drafted — I felt even more proud to be gay because he has played an important role in encouraging acceptance and celebration of his identity. He has really shown me that even though he is gay, any career is possible.”
The truth is that, even as the marriage equality and gay rights movements steam ahead, coming out remains fraught in our society. Sam was slammed by some, first for saying he’s gay and then for his now famous kiss with his boyfriend. Former Super Bowl champion Derrick Ward tweeted about the kiss, “I’m sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national tv.” Amy Kushnir, co-host of a Dallas morning television show, said on-air, “I don’t call it a moment of celebration,” before walking off the set. What’s the message to young people considering opening their closet doors? The message is that they often do so at their peril.
As for your question: Is it inherently homophobic not to care about Sam being gay? I think it’s perfectly plausible as long as we are defining homophobic as per Merriam-Webster as “fear or hate” of homosexuals. But this is a slippery slope, as a Marine officer from Afghanistan pointed out in an e-mail to me: “There seems to be a growing group of individuals who aren’t homophobic, but don’t outright support gay rights either.”
In fact, I’d be with you on your entire statement — until the last line, where you accuse Sam of “parading” his sexuality. That’s a loaded term and I’d ask you to consider whether he is “parading” his sexual orientation any more than straight people do when they talk about their spouse, kids and family life. Here’s what another reader wrote in response to the idea of “not parading” one’s sexuality around:
“Not ‘parading’ means: No picture of your significant other on your desk. No wedding ring since that will trigger questions. . . . Silence or lying when the boss invites you and your presumably opposite-sex partner to dinner at his or her home — which is, of course, important professionally. Silence or feeling completely disempowered when someone tells an anti-LGBTQ joke in your presence.”
Finally, what does modern etiquette have to say about public displays of affection? In short, keep it PG — hand-holding, eye-gazing and a chaste kiss or two are perfectly fine in public. Anything more, take it inside, please. By the way, the rules make no distinction whether someone is LGBT or straight. That’s called equality.
Now, let’s play football.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments online.
Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
E-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on June 3.