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Will the Sexual Orientation of Michael Sam and Other LGBT Athletes Ever Be Irrelevant?

05/28/2015 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT
Joel Auerbach via Getty Images
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - AUGUST 28: Michael Sam #96 of the St. Louis Rams exits the field after the preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on August 28, 2014 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the Rams 14-13. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The historic Michael Sam press conference in Montreal ushered in an era in which the first openly gay athlete will play for a Canadian Football League team. Paying close attention to Sam and to the thoughts expressed by journalists and fans during and after the live broadcast, a few questions came to mind. How was the event described and analyzed? What's the relationship between Michael Sam in the CFL and other recent shifts in societal acceptance of LGBTQ-identified people? Does this news signal that professional sports are close to being fully open to sexual minorities?

Looking back in time gave me some insights into the achievement that's being recognized this week.

My first relevant memory is of 1994, when President Bill Clinton passed the famous Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) law pertaining to the service of gays and lesbians in the U.S. Military. Though not addressing sports and athletes, DADT was disappointing. Yes, many folks I knew attended Pride Day parades back then, we knew about Act Up, and we spent many a weekend night dancing at gay bars. But, to those who supported gay rights, DADT plainly symbolized that the political class, and arguably the wider culture, just wasn't ready to accept openly gay and lesbian public figures and see them as societal role models.

Just a few short years later, prime time TV took a sudden lead on recognizing sexual minorities. With Ellen'scoming out confession, and Will and Grace delivering fictionalized portrayals of the lives of two gay friends, the new feeling was that a restrictive boundary was being transgressed. Sure, the representations of gay life were sanitized and safe, and the normalizing of gay and lesbian lead characters was denounced by conservative commentators, but, by showing gays and lesbians to be just like the people we worked with, studied with, or counted as family and friends, these shows resonated and felt important.

It's not that anyone believed that TV characters were creating equality. But, even in its presentation of gays and lesbians as totally non-oppositional to the mainstream, pop culture was delivering a welcome opposition to the intransigence of the political establishment.

Fast forward to more recent times. While we've been proud of our relative policy openness to gay and lesbians in Canada for some time, major changes are also happening overseas. Even as culture observers continue to debate the slow evolution of LGBTQ representations in Hollywood, public attitudes and legal policies favourable to same-sex marriage in the U.S. are at an all-time high.

In light of an abridged historical trajectory that suggests we're moving in the direction of greater acceptance, what's the situation in professional sports? Where do Michael Sam and the Montreal Alouettes fit in the picture?

Though professional sports have traditionally been viewed as a place where either gay athletes stay closeted or where only gays and lesbians in individual sports have been brave enough to come out, recent high-profile examples like Jason Collins and Michael Sam, along with less-publicized recent and older cases, appear to show that there is movement towards greater inclusion for sexual minorities in sports environments. Yet, despite signs of change, and the logically related argument that Michael Sam only failed to make the NFL due to his insufficient football skills, there's also a lingering belief that, if it weren't for his sexual orientation, or at least for his openness about it, Sam and the Montreal Alouettes wouldn't be coming together.

Regardless of the actual reasons behind Sam's decision to come to the CFL, the press conference that made it official, and the discourse surrounding it, displayed both pride and a certain ambivalence regarding its predominant social and cultural message.

Did the event, as some forecasted it would, mark and declare the arrival of a contemporary Jackie Robinson to a city whose residents are duly proud of their track record of enabling social trailblazers, that also happen to be athletes, to do their thing? Or, did the presser merely initiate an unusually public tryout to determine whether a former US college standout player, who also happens to be an openly gay man in a traditionally gay-resistant environment, will be able to make it in Canadian football?

For his part, Sam did everything he could to keep most of the attention away from his sexuality and focused instead on how he planned to excel on the football field. Yet, in describing the extraordinary amount of interest the event drew, and in reporting on how both sports and non-sports LGTBQ advocates held hopes that Michael Sam in the CFL would encourage others in similar situations, most journalists ascribed a double significance to the day.

That Sam himself, media members, and the fans who tuned in on social media expressed uneven views on whether, or just how much, sexuality in sports and societal change had to be discussed shows both how far we've come and also that there's still some distance yet to go. We've come a long way from don't ask, don't tell, and we're right there laughing with a pro athlete(!) as he jokes about his same-sex fiancé's potential adaptability to the Canadian cold. Yet, it's also clear that, for many, the objective of making the particular experiences of gays and lesbians in sports more visible is eclipsed by impatience for the day on which the visibility of sexual difference in sports, and elsewhere, will never need to be acknowledged again.

In the context of a fluid reality, one in which expectations and potentials for sexual minorities in both society and sports are both changing and not quite resolved, Michael Sam held an historic press conference in Montreal. And, reflective of both the desire for more change as well as the fact that we're not quite sure what to do to take those final steps, there was neither consensus on what needed to be asked and said about sexuality and sports nor on whether anything had to be asked or said about that subject at all.

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