Tigers of a Different Stripe

Michael Sam wants to be the NFL's first openly gay player.

Michael Sam wants to be the NFL's first openly gay player.

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Donna Ladd

The tweet was short, sweet and as deliberate as it could be: "We support Tigers of all stripes at Mizzou. Proud of you. @MikeSamFootball. #OneMizzou."

There it was. Progress. Evidence that our nation is evolving and becoming more tolerant of the "other." Proof that we can actually mean it when we talk about liberty and justice for all in the United States and declare that all are "created equal." Indivisible. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

Even if he's gay.

That tweet was, of course, from the University of Missouri telling the world that it supports its football superstar, Michael Sam, in the days following his announcement that he is gay, using powerful and inspiring words. "I just want to own my truth," he told The New York Times. Sam left the closet weeks before the NFL draft and, as the SEC's best defensive player, he is surely high on at least one professional team's wish list.

Sam is different from other gay NFL players because, like so many others of his generation, he has no desire to hide his true self to make bigoted people (and fellow players) feel more comfortable. He is willing to step out before he enters the NFL to become a leader against homophobia in America. He, clearly, is ready to blaze a needed trail.

I was combing through #StandbySam tweets just hours after I edited a book chapter about James Meredith's violent entry into Ole Miss in 1962. In that chapter, I learned even more about the resistance to the integration that most white Mississippians feared and believed would end the world as they knew it (which, admittedly, it did ... thankfully for us all).

It is horrifying to think now that two people died at Ole Miss, and Mr. Meredith was later shot, because he was willing to lead us away from the temptation of bigotry and hatred that surrounded us in Mississippi. And a state-funded university, along with the state government and everyday citizens, did everything in its power to stop that change.

But Mr. Meredith realized that if not him, then who—a vision I'm guessing Mike Sam has now. Not to mention, it's clear that both of them were sick and tired of being sick and tired, as Mrs. Hamer put it, of not being able to publicly live as free and equal Americans. They are ordinary men who found extraordinary courage to do the right thing for themselves and others like them.

In so doing, Meredith and Sam both gave us the chance to save ourselves and our society from the worst instincts of too many human beings—to judge, to hate, to disparage, to mock and to discriminate against those they believe are not equal to them.

Back when Mr. Meredith answered the hero's calling, many white Mississippians quoted the Bible to justify the separation of the races and subjugation of black people. Now, as Mr. Sam tells the world he plans to be openly gay in the NFL, many homophobic Americans use the Bible to justify why he doesn't deserve the rights and respect of those who love someone of the other gender.

Thinking about these two men, however, makes me shudder at the hypocrisy of many in our nation and, certainly, those right here in Mississippi who voted a few years back to re-affirm a law against gay marriage already on the books—just to be mean (and throw meat to radical-right voters). Of course, it's despicable to claim to believe in the "love one another" messages of the Bible and still point hatred and judgment toward those of another race or who love differently.

But what about the people who have LGBTQ family members, friends and co-workers and love them dearly and even respect them as individuals—as long as they don't go public and live their truth, which can simply include not having to hide who they love? We all know conservative government officials nationally and right here in Mississippi with gay and lesbian loved ones—but who support the worst kinds of homophobic laws and rhetoric against them.

This brings to mind how so many white people claimed to have loved their black nannies and neighbors back a few decades, but didn't dare allow them to register to vote or enroll at Ole Miss.

We live in a state where so many people take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to LGBTQ family members and neighbors: We love and tolerate you, but don't dare speak out and try to get more rights. This, to me, is sick and anything but the love that the spiritual texts so many claim to worship tell us to embrace and model.

Not to mention, it's dangerous. Let's be blunt: We lose too many people in our state to AIDS and suicide who are either sneaking around on the down low to try to be who they really are, or who believe their lives are not worthy, or are bullied for being "sissies," or told by their own parents that they are going to hell because they want to love someone of their own gender.

Make no mistake: Our homophobic culture helps kill these people, many of them still children. We should be ashamed.

Put another way: Once again, just as in the time of Mr. Meredith's heroism, many are creating the history that their grandchildren indeed will be ashamed of and not want to talk about. How, they will think shamefully, could their own parents and grandparents have voted to not allow two people who love each other to marry and enter a committed relationship? And how could this generation have allowed the emblem flown by the rioters at Ole Miss to remain in our state flag to tell the world Mississippi hasn't changed?

Think about it: We know so much about what happened in the 1960s and before now because so many people were willing to spew and vote hatred right into the history books. And now we live with the shame of that righteous bigotry.

Right now in our state and our nation, we have a choice. I urge everyone reading this to think about how you want your grandchildren to think of you. Do you want them to change the subject when this decade is brought up so they don't have to talk about how backward you acted toward "the other"? Or, do you want them to say, "My people fought for freedom for all. I'm so proud."

The good news for our nation and state is that Michael Sam's fellow millennials have much more tolerant views than older generations, including here in Mississippi. Sam is coming out among fellow college students, straight and gay, who see him as a hero and are not lining up to throw rocks and M-80s at him, as they did to Mr. Meredith, as he reached for his truth.

But each of us, regardless of age, matters in the quest to end hatred. So ask yourself: Are you a person your offspring will want to forget? And are your children ashamed of you and what you stand for already?

The answer could be sobering.

Comments

Scott1962 8 months, 2 weeks ago

"Christian" is derived from "Christ" and a claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus took over the family business in what is known as the new testament and said plain and simply that he came to change the Mosaic laws of the old testament. I find it very amusing that nowhere in His teachings did He touch on the subject of homosexuality yet He made a noticeable effort to address adultery. Specifically His feelings on divorce and remarriage which represents a large portion of the current Christian marriages. There are groups that hide behind the title of "Christians" using old testament laws against homosexuality which I find strange. Yet I've never seen a group, political or otherwise, that is based on divorce and remarriage. This is the reason it's becoming harder and harder to defend oneself as being a Christian. Just too many folks running their mouths who haven't read the Bible.

My point would be that I believe in equal rights for all and I believe in separation of church and state so these so called "Christian" groups need to back away from this and concentrate on other things that do not go against the constitution. However, I cannot help but notice the constant comparisons made between this young man and Jackie Robinson and between the civil rights era and current day gay community. To say it is ridiculous is to sadly understate the situation. I'm pretty sure James Meredith had a little harder time than Michael Sam's having. Sam is being called a hero and a role model and I'm pretty sure those weren't the words that were being thrown at James Meredith back then.

But it's the LGBTQ's insistence on this type of thing that hurts their cause. If there is a less tolerant and more hypocritical group than the ones who claim to speak for the entire gay community I'd like to know who it is. You don't win support for your cause by telling people who do not agree with you 100% that they are a hater or a bigot. You don't get in people's face and attack all Christians because they don't agree with you. And making a public spectacle of every celebrity that "comes out" is seen by some as not something they want their children to find heroic. If you want tolerance then you have to be prepared to show some. If you want respect you'd better first be ready to show it and if you don't want people to hate you then stop calling them haters. Michael Sam is one hell of a defensive end and that's pretty much all I need to know about him. His sexual choices shouldn't be made into a circus and it's counterproductive at best.

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donnaladd 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Engaged in hyperbole lately, Scott? The column right above says that Mr. Meredith had a harder time than Mr. Sam. Of course he did. That is actually the point if you read the whole thing.

You can downplay all you want the bigotry against gay folks in our society. Right now in Kansas, they're trying to pass the equivalent of Jim Crow laws against them. They are ostracized, bashed and cannot legally marry the person they want in most states. Right in the NFL, gay players won't speak out about it because of the way people will react to them.

Michael Sam is damned important, and he clearly knows it. He is stepping up and out to make the point that he should be able to live openly as who he is: a gay man. Mr. Meredith stepped up and out to say that he should be able to attend a public institution that wouldn't let him again because he was gay.

The fact that you do not want to see that both of these are civil-rights issues is simply irrelevant to the conversation that must happen about it. And it's truly sad that you think that speaking out on behalf of people who are treated as second-class citizens is a "circus." I'm sure many white folks thought back in Jim Crow times, too. How dare we all talk about something they'd rather not hear about? All the more reason to talk about it. Loudly.

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js1976 8 months, 2 weeks ago

"Michael Sam is damned important, and he clearly knows it. He is stepping up and out to make the point that he should be able to live openly as who he is: a gay man."

I think Scott's point is, who cares? The media frenzy surrounding Michael Sam has been ridiculous, and I have yet to hear anyone complain about his choice. The only response I hear is , "as long as he can play ball who cares".

I do commend him for making this announcement, but so far I've seen nothing but support for him so it's time to move on to more pressing issues. If the NFL doesn't want him because of his sexual preferences, then you have a story.

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donnaladd 8 months, 2 weeks ago

As for tolerance: No, I do not have tolerance for the government telling some of our citizens that they do not have full rights. I am too American for that.

No one is telling the religious people you refer to (which isn't all Christians, by the way) that they must approve of homosexuality. They can believe it's a sin and pray for LGBTQ folks all they want. People can believe whatever they want as long as they don't try to use those personal beliefs to legislate their beliefs to squelch other people rights. That's not "tolerance."

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RonniM 8 months, 2 weeks ago

ABC sportscaster Dale Hansen had this to say in a rebuke (which has gone viral) to those who have spoken against Michael Sam's declaration:

“Michael Sam would be the first openly gay player in the NFL. [He] says he knows there will be problems … and they’ve already started. Several NFL officials are telling Sports Illustrated it will hurt him on draft day because a gay player wouldn’t be welcome in an NFL locker room. It would be uncomfortable, because that’s a man’s world.”

"You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs pulling her hair out by the roots, you're the fourth guy taken in the NFL Draft. You kill people while driving drunk, that guy's welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes, we know they're welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away, you lie to police trying to cover up a murder - we're comfortable with that. You love another man, well, now you've gone too far.

"It wasn't that long ago when we were being told that black players couldn't play in 'our' games because it would be 'uncomfortable.' And even when they finally could, it took several more years before a black man played quarterback. Because we weren't 'comfortable' with that, either. ... "I'm not always comfortable when a man tells me he's gay; I don't understand his world. But I do understand that he's part of mine."

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