Michael Sam’s Televised Kiss Reveals the Double Standard Between Public and Private

Michael Sam at the 2014 Combine
On the track, at least, there’s just one standard for athletes, gay or straight.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In February, Michael Sam made history by becoming the first NFL draft prospect to come out.

On Saturday, he again made history by being drafted by the St. Louis Rams, by kissing his boyfriend in celebration, and by having that kiss broadcast on ESPN. Despite ESPN choosing to edit out the kiss in later broadcasts, this image has become an Internet phenomenon and represents real change in TV coverage of out athletes. It’s an interesting contrast with NBC’s deafening silence about openly gay diver Matthew Mitcham’s sexual orientation at the Beijing Olympics. (Mitcham had come out to bring attention to the discriminatory treatment given to the partners of straight and gay athletes on the Australian Olympic team, making his partner’s presence poolside more newsworthy than most of NBC’s up-close-and-personal fluff.)

The reactions to Sam’s joining the NFL, and in particular to the kiss, are varied. We’ll ignore the many, many positive, even ecstatic, reactions (including mine and Barack Obama’s). What do the negative reactions teach us?

These reactions are of at least four types: run-of-the-mill hatred, Bible-based bashing, anal anxiety, and the kind I find the most interesting, the “no-need-to-know” complaints.

The Advocate has collected some of these tweets. We have the aptly named Pariah’s Child wishing for the death of Michael Sam. We have the many voices of God (who despite being omnipotent doesn’t seem to be able to speak for himself) echoing Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates fags & fag enablers, thus God hates @MikeSamFootball & you! #SHAME.” For the anally anxious, there’s NBAinsider, who shares: “what a wacko Michael Sam lol says hes atracted to guys WTF thats fucking gross haha.” More interesting are the reactions like those of Sam Palmer who tweeted, “No one care if Michael Sam is gay. Be a homo in private. I want to watch sports center not a gay guy who plays football.”

Outsports has published a great series of photos illustrating similar tweets, showing the double standard applied to gay athletes and straight athletes.

When straight athletes flaunt their heterosexiness, there’s no comment, no complaints. It’s normal. But when a gay athlete does the same, or simply says he’s gay, it’s a purely private matter, of no interest to sports fans, of no importance to anyone, so please shut up already.

In this way “don’t ask, don’t tell” is alive and well in sport. While the cheerleader is supposed to be dating the quarterback, the college swimmer isn’t supposed to be dating the NFL draft pick.

Or if he is, please don’t talk about it, please don’t report on it.

What world are these people living in? At work people celebrate birthdays together, co-workers are invited to weddings, and in many places, what you do in your bedroom and the gender of the person you love can get you fired. We go to the movies to see actors perform and then head online to see whom they’re sleeping with, whether they’ve recovered from their recent hospitalization, and if a certain movie star has finally come out. Religion belongs in the sphere of the intimate, unless it’s about telling women how, when, and who they can have sex with.

And yet, when it comes to sport (at least for gay athletes), we’re supposed to believe that it’s offensive to display romantic affection, it’s inappropriate to insinuate that an athlete has a sex life, it’s nobody’s business what you do behind closed doors. The Outsports photos show how hypocritical, and how fundamentally cowardly, these claims are. I’ve never seen them applied to straight athletes of either sex, nor even to lesbians. In my experience, they’re directed only at gay men and the media talking about them.

Those criticizing ESPN and Michael Sam on the grounds of “I don’t need to see this” should stop hiding behind the imaginary wall between athletes’ sexuality and their sporting exploits. The same applies to those hiding behind the Bible. They should all admit that they’re repulsed by male homosexuality, whether because they’ve got an anal fixation, because they’re repressing their own homosexual desires, or just because the world wouldn’t be worth living in unless they can spread some hate around. This applies to those freaking out about Conchita Wurst’s beard, about brothers being denied a cable TV show, or those who just can’t deal with a great athlete celebrating good news with the man he loves.

Fans adopt the privacy argument because it’s the most socially acceptable expression of their homophobia. But it’s still homophobia, as becomes clear when you switch the gender of the athlete’s partner. Whether you’re an athlete, an actor, or an accountant, the gender of the person you sleep with, of the person you love, should not matter, but nor should it have to be hidden.

One of the advantages of LGBTQ sport is that there’s no need to pretend that gay athletes are somehow different than straight athletes. When you come to Cleveland and Akron this August to watch the athletes at Gay Games 9, you’ll see a runner cross the finish line and embrace his boyfriend (or girlfriend … there are plenty of straight competitors at the Gay Games). The only people tweeting about it will be their teammates, friends, and fans, and none of them will be speaking for a silent deity or be grossed out by gay cooties. They’ll just be happy, because whether you win or lose, everyone finishing a race deserves a hug.