Why is being gay such a big deal?

May 18, 2014

Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player to be drafted, has made worldwide headlines and his triumph has been met with goodwill from many corners of the globe. Yet one must really wonder why we still make such a big deal over a person’s sexuality.

Sam was picked at number 249 by the St. Louis Rams last weekend. Naturally, he deserves congratulations for his achievement and, as with any new draftee, the sporting public wish him well on his pending career. A quick look at his college record indicates that he has big things ahead of him. Already highly decorated as an All American and SEC (South Eastern Conference) defensive player of the year, it would appear he is destined for a long and rewarding NFL career. And shouldn’t that be the focus?

As good willed and heart felt as the world wide news headlines and the avalanche of orders for Michael Sam jerseys are, it shines the spotlight on how we’re still too preoccupied by one’s sexual preference – even in the 21st century. The reasonable question to ask is: do we really need to be?

I’m no NFL fanatic. In fact, before yesterday I was completely unaware that the national draft was on. But after tuning into the Today show, listening to news on radio, reading the online news articles, it was very clear – an openly gay player, Michael Sam, has been drafted to the NFL. Good on him. But I can’t help but feel that he is now defined by it. I know of no other NFL draftees this year. In fact, I know of hardly any NFL players at all. But I know of Michael Sam, he’s the gay one. Remember?

The cameras were there when he was drafted. Jubilant, he kissed his partner and announced his desire to make the most of his golden opportunity. The supportive tweets came flooding in and then came the interviews. There seems little doubt that Sam is comfortable and proud of who he is – and so he should be. Yet all this attention focuses on a single marker – he is gay – and that’s the angle of every interview, photograph and news report. It is the underlying reason for all the jersey sales – there can be no other conclusion – he is yet to play a game.

Now sure, he is the first, and perhaps this is just the historical phase of progress unfolding before us. As each first occurrence unfolds, the public is briefly intrigued before we all move on. We are happy with the fruits of our growing tolerance, and it’s relieving to know that even the once no-go area of male football is now a place where people can feel comfortable being themselves.

For most of us, when we learn of someone’s sexuality, particularly a celebrity, we will shrug our shoulders and say, so what? It’s no big deal. But here’s the thing – it’s made a big deal. Ricky Martin reveals his sexuality in front of an audience of millions on Oprah. The ‘news’ becomes a global talking point, trending on news feeds and twitter accounts. The Daily Mail increases its sales by advertising Martin’s first interview since coming out as a gay man. There’s a seeming fascination.

Back home, Australian Idol runner-up Anthony Callea confirmed he was gay to a Melbourne newspaper in 2007. Callea has since commented on the ‘bizarre concept’ of coming out. “Someone’s sexuality is a part of who they are; it doesn’t define who they are,” he said. “I have a great relationship, I live in normal house, I have a dog, I live a normal lifestyle, it’s just part of who I am – it’s not who I am,” he said. “My friends and family don’t treat us like that either. I think if you make something an issue, then it becomes an issue [in] society.”

I can’t help but feel that all the attention might not always be helpful. We hear it even in sporting circles. Who will be the first AFL player to come out as gay? Should an AFL player come out as gay? We wait with bated breath – or at least our news media does.

In 2012, Yarra Glen FC footballer, Jason Ball, came out as gay and launched a campaign for the AFL to do more to tackle homophobia. A worthy cause, and Ball should be commended on his efforts to promote greater tolerance not only in football circles but throughout Australian society. He has served as an inspiration to groups like the AFL Players Association, who used his story as the basis for a campaign to launch an International Day against Homophobia. Ball is happy to be a vocal ambassador for his cause, and he has certainly helped to raise awareness in an area where sometimes old fashioned attitudes can prevail.

But what of those who wish to avoid the spotlight? There is little doubt that when an AFL player does come out as gay there will be stories splashed all over the national tabloids and broadsheets. Think about it – you’re a young bloke, happy and comfortable with who you are, and you have no problem with people knowing about your sexuality – it really isn’t a big deal. But then you think about it carefully. You could do without your face on the front page. You’re not really a natural in a room full of reporters and photographers gawking at you. How does it feel to come out as gay? How has your gay-ness impacted your footy career? What do you say to other gay people out there? How have your teammates reacted to you being gay? What was it like growing up gay and playing football?

Maybe you don’t want to be a poster boy for your sexuality. Maybe you don’t want to sit through interviews discussing something that’s really your own personal business. It’s just something you know about yourself and it is part of who you are, and you don’t understand why everyone else is so interested.

But hey, maybe everyone isn’t so interested, yet sometimes it certainly seems that way. Perhaps when the announcement inevitably does happen, the report should read like this: Player X announced that he is gay today; he has been named on the half-back flank and can’t wait for this weekend’s game.’

Just like that. We say that it is no big deal. We think that’s it is no big deal. So let’s not act like it is a big deal.

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