Something occurred to me as I was watching the Twittersphere respond to the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. There appears to be, from the bits and pieces I’ve seen so far, quite a bit of snark being leveled in Russia’s general direction. I’m aware my internet experience is somewhat catered to my limited, white, gay, liberal, male perspective, and I’m reading the things I want to be reading, but I don’t believe mocking stories about crummy hotel conditions (with CNN journalists literally tweeting, “Please help”) have gained quite as much media traction in Olympics past. The internet has seized on #SochiProblems with a kind of light-hearted vengeance.
And this derision – this vengeance – feels intimately tied to Sochi’s controversies over homosexuality, which have dominated coverage leading up to the Games. Celebrities have posted their support of LGBTQ athletes in Russia by touting the same principle of the Olympic charter that the most powerful company in the US featured on its homepage. Obama has even used Russia’s discrimination as another opportunity for international passive aggression, sending a delegation of LGBTQ athletes in lieu of high-level administration officials.
Is it just me, or is America throwing shade at Russia for being homophobic?
The sassy tone of this digital-age international conversation is thrilling and hilarious to me, but more importantly, even a couple years ago the topic of LGBTQ discrimination wouldn’t merit such discussion – let alone a comedian comparing Russia’s laws to Hitler’s treatment of Jesse Owens. That Putin’s anti-gay stance might emerge as one of the biggest highlights of these Games is a significant milestone for human rights. And the fact that the current U.S. administration is using LGBTQ policy as a proxy for Cold War grievances kind of boggles the mind. Yet in the midst of all this unprecedented tension, ridicule, media coverage and social media outrage, a small yet monumentally pivotal thing occurred:
This. This is huge. This is bigger than President Obama declining an invite to the Sochi Games. Hell, this may even end up being bigger than President Obama coming out in favor of gay marriage. Assuming Michael Sam becomes the National Football League’s first-ever publicly gay player, he could become the LGBTQ icon to end all LGBTQ icons. We have a lot to learn from this man. With grace, and courage, and two impossibly simple words – “I’m gay” – Sam has done more for gay rights than a hundred It Gets Better videos. In fact, Dan Savage has been saying for years that the most powerful action a person can take to combat LGBTQ discrimination and ignorance is coming out. A young gay athlete at the peak of his career, on the cusp of making it big, announcing his sexual orientation? I think we’re going to be wrapping our heads around the ripple effects of this news for years to come.
And I don’t mean to detract from LGBTQ athletes who have come out before now. Tom Daley, Britney Griner, Jason Collins, and many others have all made similar announcements in the past year or so, and their doing so has legitimately propelled national conversation and blazed trails for the gay community. But in the history of this civil rights movement, Michael Sam’s announcement will stand out in particular partly because he is about to embark on a pro career, and partly because that pro career is with the NFL. The NFL: America’s domesticated form of army culture, a multi-billion dollar industry unlike any other in the world, the pinnacle of heteronormative, butt-slapping machoism. No other professional sport comes close in terms of reach and popularity. As Stewart Mandel wrote, “Sam’s story will resonate on football’s most visible stage.” Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe (if you click on one link in this post, seriously, make it that one) made huge waves by coming out in favor of gay marriage, inciting outrage from all directions. Just imagine all those ignorant ESPN commenters coming up with talking points about an actual out athlete.
Mr. Sam, I celebrate you. I echo the Vice President and First Lady in calling you “an inspiration to all.” You have endured more hardship than I could ever conceive of, and will likely endure more in the coming months, but you have changed things irreversibly for the better. As a gay man, it is profoundly comforting to me to know a successful college football player assessed today’s cultural landscape and decided, yes, there is enough of a conversation about this to “own my truth.” Between the public outcry against Sochi’s anti-gay nonsense and the recent extension of federal benefits to same-sex couples from the Justice Department, this is a very exciting moment for gay rights in general and its newest pioneer in particular. The progress the LGBTQ community has made in the last year is simply astounding. Along with all the gay athletes, all the open-minded teammates, all the closeted teens who happen to like football, and all LGBTQ-identifying people everywhere, I celebrate Michael Sam.
If you’re feeling similarly, cheesily inspired, check out Athlete Ally, follow the Olympics coverage on OutSports, read all the responses from NFL athletes to Michael Sam, and send him a high five.
UPDATE: Watch sportscaster Dale Hansen hit the nail on the head: