Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Defense of Michael Sam Sr.

On February 9th, the world celebrated the coming out of the first prospective NFL football pick Michael Sam Jr. It was truly a historic moment because he would be the first active professional football player to come out as gay.  The declaration was greeted positively, even in the most unlikely corners. From social media to news outlets around the world, this was a momentous ‘coming out event’. Sadly, the one person who did not add his voice to the chorus was Michael Sam’s father. Immediately after Michael Jr’s announcement, Michael Sam Sr. was quoted by a New York Times reporter as saying, “he’s from the old school” and that “he didn’t want his grandchildren to be raised in ‘that kind’ of environment.
Michael Sam Sr. talking to reporters

Although Michael Sam Sr. claims he was misquoted, it did not stop people from saying that he was out of touch and insensitive to the needs of his own child. He has been since been labeled a homophobe on countless message boards.  He also represented the image of the African American who has struggled with accepting those who are gay.  In the days since the New York Times article was published, Michael Sr.  has himself taken to online media to explain his side of the story and counter what he says have been many misquotes.

I am here to defend Michael Sam Sr.  I understand the mix of emotions he has been experiencing since learning his son is gay. I saw my own mother go through the same range of emotions when learning that I was attracted to men. Although Michael Sam Sr. may not stand by his ‘”old school” statement any longer, my mother not only stood by it but drilled it in our heads.  She said  that being gay was not an option. She was the daughter of a Baptist preacher from Oklahoma City and her bible told her that a man lies with a woman. She would literally remind us of the many ways we would die if we were gay.

Years later, as I struggled with coming out, she was the last one I told. Although I was a grown man in my mid-twenties, the fear remained that she would carry through on one of the many threats I heard growing up. After hearing Michael Sr’s comments, I immediately heard my mother’s voice. I understood Michael Sam Sr. Many mothers and fathers don’t have the right words when their child comes out. The hard truth is that there is no rule book on what to say and not say.  How to feel or not feel.  Coming out was no doubt a huge deal for Michael Sam Jr.  But it’s a bigger deal for his loved ones. The person coming out receives all kinds of support.  But the family is simply left to assimilate and accept the news. Michael Sam Jr. had years to think about coming out, coming to terms with who he is.  Michael Sam Sr. did not have the luxury of time.
Although I don’t know Michael Sam Sr., I guarantee he loves his son.  He has said so unequivocally throughout his online media blitz. It was the same love my mother had but she showed it in a different way. 

Now that I’m older, I understand where her words came from. They came from a place of fear. She knew what lay ahead for me as a gay black man. Raised during segregation, she knew what racism looked like. She knew that, based on my skin color alone, I would have to work harder and longer than less qualified whites.  She knew that within the African American community there was hostility and hate for people who were gay.  She protected us from the regular things too.  She taught us look both ways before crossing the street and not to talk to strangers. But how could a mother protect her son from those who hate him because he’s gay?

For Michael Sam Jr. we have to be real and recognize the NFL has not been that welcoming to its gay players.  Look how the NFL treats women and plays suspected to be gay. We’re hearing comments about how some players will feel uncomfortable knowing a gay man is in the shower. I’m sure that Michael Sam Sr. is aware of the possible harm that could befall his son in this macho environment.

My mother’s protection was a way for her to try and scare the gay out of us.  She believed that her threats would deter us from being who we were.  Other parents may have other tools of protection they use when they suspect their child might be gay. It may be avoidance, it may be rejection, and it may be failed attempts at deprogramming. In the end, it’s all for naught. But these are protection mechanisms that all parents feel.  As a volunteer speaker for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), I’ve met many parents who have to come to terms with their child’s coming out and are fortunate to not have a national spotlight on them.  

Hearing the stories of parents in PFLAG the one word that is consistently shared is the word “fear” because, no matter what, all they want is the best for their child. But I benefit as I hear the stories of parents who received support from other parents in the program finally knowing what it means for their child to be gay and that it will be okay. The parents knowing that they have not failed as a parent to their child. My happy story was that eventually my mother came to accept me and my partner but it took time. In fact, it took years. But just as I was learning what it meant to be gay, my mother had to also learn what it meant. Coming out is a two way street.

So, rather than demonize Michael Sam Sr., think of him as representing parents who have to come to terms with the sexuality of their child. And just as the world is coming out to support Michael Jr. the same support should be offered to Sr. He represents the parents who ask the questions, “What do I do now?” Organizations like PFLAG are a great place to start having conversations with other parents who learn their child is gay. What’s not fair is turning a national spotlight on a father and expecting him to have the “right” response right away when there isn’t one. Michael Sam Sr., rest assured that it will get better.

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