By Jason Keidel
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Too many talking heads are pretending to make the Michael Sam story a referendum on gay rights, breaking barriers, or heroism. But in truth they’re using Sam as a pretext for rampant self-aggrandizement, their glowing moment to show us how wonderfully tolerant they are.
I’m so sick of watching major media figures rushing to the front of the line, trying to sound more enlightened than the last person, belching the bromides of tolerance and understanding, pretending that they always would have welcomed Sam with warm and wide open arms.
It begs a basic question.
If an openly gay pro football player were such a simple matter, then why did it take a century to occur?
We all have our clashing, inner monologues on this and a host of socially delicate matters. We weren’t born with the answers, and there’s no shame in admitting we were once wrong on just about anything in life, as long as we emerge on the proper side. But to hear these specious calls for group hugs when everyone knows that most of us were, at one point in our lives, either uncomfortable or ignorant around gay men.
Former Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been vaporized for his recent comments on the idea of a gay athlete in the NFL in general, and in the locker room in particular. (For the record, his dialogue occurred before Sam went public with his sexual preference.)
Vilma mused over jocks and jokes and the crudely jocular bent of a locker room, which could turn venomous on a gay athlete. Vilma told Andrea Kremer that he could be uncomfortable sharing a shower with an openly gay teammate. After being blasted by those far less honest than he is, Vilma moonwalked from his remarks.
It’s far more likely that Vilma’s take is pro forma in pro football. And it’s more earnest and honest to “tackle” this issue with candor, not the PC platitudes we’re hearing en masse. Vilma, of course, danced around his initial remarks, providing “context” to his comments. So he suddenly isn’t concerned about sharing a shower with a gay athlete.
Perhaps Vilma had an epiphany. Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to be branded a homophobe. It’s a shame if we can’t have a clear, candid dialogue on the matter. If we keep our sincere feelings stifled they will eventually blow up into the air, in the form of a rant or insult or crude joke or a fight.
To be clear, some of us salute Vilma’s veracity, not necessarily his view. If we take these moments and make them teachable instead of spouting these soapbox sermons, we could build an honest consensus, which should be the goal. What’s important is that we ultimately be right on an issue, not the first one to be right on an issue.
I grew up in the most colorblind slice of America — in Manhattan, a few blocks south of Harlem. No one cared about color, income, or religion. I was often the only white boy on the block, and I didn’t even realize it until I became an adult, corrupted by the pompous, corporate notions of “diversity.”
It literally occurred to none of us that we were white or black or Hispanic. Black kids on my block went to Brown and Princeton, while white kids wound up with no education, career, or direction.
Yet despite emerging from that utopia, we were armed with a healthy dose of homophobia.
Anyone of my vintage and vantage, who made his bones on the blacktop of NYC, who worshiped Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, who listened to hip-hop back when it was rap, were armed with a toxic lexicon, dropping gay slurs like sunflower seeds. We did it often, obscenely, and recklessly.
More than anything we were afraid. We were taught that gay men were a threat, on myriad levels, none of them logical, when in truth they were only a threat to our colossal and universal ignorance.
Then, as adults, we learned the truth. I didn’t have an instant epiphany. But while spending the 1990s in the travel industry — which, for whatever reason, had a robust gay population — I learned that I knew nothing.
Just to italicize my ignorance, I recall a moment, a chat I had with a colleague whom had just traveled to Dallas. Upon his return I asked if he dated any Cowboys cheerleaders. He laughed a little uncomfortably and changed the topic.
A gal who sat next to me in the office, rolled her eyes and moaned, “Jason, don’t you know?”
“But,” I retorted brilliantly, “he’s a handsome dude.”
“Duh,” she said, stunned by my stupidity.
I equated physical beauty with masculinity, strength with sexuality, and ultimately I equated athletic splendor with sexual preference, with my misguided sense of machismo blinding me to rather evident truths.
But I still watched the world through the liberal lens through which I was raised. And, ultimately, I learned that where and with whom someone sleeps has no bearing on their ability to perform any job.
Truth is, tons of people are currently where I was, say, 25 years ago, branding people based on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics. It is the essence of prejudice. I was deeply infected. And no doubt millions of people still are.
And now I’m not. But that doesn’t make me a hero. It makes me reasonable. If anything, I’m ashamed that it took me until adulthood to understand something more simple than anything I learned in school.
Sam is taking a stand. He is bold. He is brave. He is bright. He is a football player, which is the only characteristic that should matter from now on. But in case you know someone who says something stupid about Sam, try instructing before insulting. It will, to paraphrase, Dr. King, lead more to dialogue than monologue.
Lead with maturity. It works. If nothing else, Sam has already taught us that.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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