Bryan Adamson: Media Images of Michael Sam and Vito Cammisano Showed Us More Than We Thought

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From my in-box: published here with permission, Bryan Adamson’s essay on Michael Sam, the media, and why challenging norms is not comfortable (or, apparently, welcome).

The “Problem” With Michael Sam: It Wasn’t the Kiss

Bryan Adamson, Associate Professor, Seattle University School of Law

Through the ensuing furor over ESPN’s coverage and the NFL Network’s simulcast of Michael Sam’s draft selection to the St. Louis Rams, we have heard so many people—even well-meaning people—say that there is nothing wrong with Sam being gay, but that ESPN should not have aired the kiss and celebration between Sam and his partner Vito Cammisano. We can be quite certain that Sam’s draft (No. 249!) would be less than a non-story had he kissed a woman and smeared cake on her face. But because he didn’t, and Cammisano isn’t, we must now have a conversation about heteronormativity and heterosexual privilege.

Lately, there has been a good deal of talk about privilege in the news—of the white kind. Tal Fortgang’s adolescent tirade against the concept of white privilege—or rather, his rant against what he thinks it is…Donald Sterling’s bigoted babble about how he has done more for black folks than black folks have done for each other….Welfare Rancher Cliven Bundy’s far-reaching life experiences that apparently bestowed upon him the select ability to tell us “one more thing” he “knows about the Negro.” (On the last especially: I. Can’t. Even.). I submit that the vehement reactions of disgust to Sam’s televised lip-lock with Cammisano—occurring in the hyper masculine context of professional football, and captured by the most male-oriented networks on television—illuminate an odious variation on the privilege theme.

The outrage over Sam’s celebration wasn’t because he cried—we’ve long been good with seeing men shed tears. And, strictly speaking, the outrage wasn’t about the male-to-male affection demonstrated. Again, we’ve seen it before: fiction and non-fiction broadcast television history is rife with examples of men—as friends, brothers, fathers or sons—kissing each other. What caused not an insubstantial number of viewers fits had everything to do with the knowledge of Sam and Cammisano’s relationship, the setting, and that cake.

Sam has long been openly gay. However, it has been only several months since his sexuality took on a greater meaning. Cammisano stood right next to Sam as he took Rams Coach Jeff Fisher’s phone call, rested his head at Sam’s shoulder, caressed Sam’s arm, and then engaged in a loving kiss. Crucially, in those moments, Sam was no longer gay in the abstract, but a living, breathing, partnered gay man, and that was just too much for some.

That public display of affection, ironically, took place in Sam’s home. As described by scholar and activist Darnell L. Moore, a home is a place of “contented habitation.” Most critically, a home is (or should be) riskless space where one can become and, importantly, be. If that is so, then the place further served to move Sam’s sexuality out of the abstract and into the real. Sam was sharing an extraordinarily joyous moment with his partner. The fact that cameras were there mattered not one wit. Sam was being. In his home. That too, doubtlessly, was what the squirming was all about.

But the, er, icing on the cake…was the cake. Based upon much responsive commentary, if the first kiss did not cause folks to become incensed, they were sent into conniptions when Sam smeared cake on Cammisano’s face, licked some off, and then kissed him. We are used to witnessing such lighthearted foolery between a man and a woman, as part of a “traditional” wedding reception. In a matter of seconds, Sam’s and Cammisano’s clowning—thrillingly—shook heteronormative values—and those who hold fast to them—to the core.

Their play certainly troubled ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith who, while admitting he had not yet seen the cake segment of the video, nevertheless had an opinion about it. Smith said that while he was alright with the first kiss, the cake celebration was too much, and his response to Sam and Commisano would have been to “get a room.” And while Smith insisted that his directive should in no way be interpreted to suggest he is homophobic, I highly doubt he would have said such a thing if it had been a man and a woman (Tom? Gisele?) engaged in such hi-jinks. For Smith and others, the transgression was not just Sam’s and Cammisano’s appropriation of a heterosexual rite (the cake), and it was not just the kiss, but the fact that they were being playful and romantic.

Heterosexual privilege is at the basis of the outrage. The privilege is completely and utterly ingrained into our social system, is visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious, reflexive, assumed and subsumed into our very being. The privilege enforces the notion that two men can never be seen to engage in behaviors we all take for granted when performed by a man and a woman: Holding hands in public, having a picture of your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend on display at your work desk; being able to have an inane conversation in mixed company about how much fun you and your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend had over the weekend.

A person enforcing, bearing, or unwittingly complicit in heterosexual privilege perhaps never considers how he benefits from it. He can express affection in social situations and not be concerned about others’ violent reactions. He is not asked why he “chose” to be heterosexual. He will never face the prospect of adverse physical, emotional, psychological or economic consequences when family or friends find out he is straight. He will see people like him positively presented on nearly every television show, in every movie, and in every commercial, and on every live sporting event’s “Kiss Cam,” and never give the privilege of that spectacle a thought.

At worst, heterosexual privilege oppresses and even punishes difference. In Sam’s case, the negative reactions stem not just from heterosexual privilege, but from heteronormative values about masculinity and how we think men should act. Those values especially dominate the realm of same-sex male sports, and especially in the NFL. In the NFL, like in other male sports cultures, masculinities are constructed, legitimated, enforced, and reinforced. Participants engage in a constant outward management of their own masculinity in order to conform. Toughness, aggressiveness, physical and (let’s be clear, hetero) sexual prowess are all critical identity markers to adopt.

While masculinizing the culture, these dominating traits simultaneously inferior-ize the “other”—women, and “non-conforming” men such as Sam. With formal and informal codes of behavior that sanction femininity and feminine behavior on the field and in the locker room, male sport masculinity is fiercely policed. Those behaving outside those codes are vulnerable to abuse in every form. And study after study has found that male sport fans contribute to the external construction of sports masculinity, deriving satisfaction as spectators because their hetero-social identity is strongly connected to their preferred teams and players. Thus, when considered in this light, the fury over the kisses and the cake was as predictable as it was marked.

In the face of that furor, Sam’s willingness to openly live his life is all the more inspiring not only, but especially to young African-American boys who, like Sam did, aspire for greatness in the sport of their choice. And, to be sure, in what Sam has experienced, and in what he is about to experience, his race cannot be ignored. His sexuality is intertwined with his race. Like all gay African-Americans, Sam’s identity is shaped by both. And heterosexual privilege and white privilege do not operate in silos.

I can personally testify to instances of managing my sexual identity not only out of concern for adverse consequences as a gay man, but as African-American gay man. This was so especially in my early days as one of the few African-American lawyers in my law firms and as a law school professor. Experiencing what was more broadly perceived at the time as stigmas within the corporate American (being black) and in my African-American communities (being gay), I was only aided by finding, and holding on to, those like me who supported my mind, body, and spirit, and those not like me who nonetheless supported me. Gay African-Americans must constantly negotiate their identity in spaces where privilege based on race, class, gender and sexual identity thrive a repressive matrix. Sam’s challenge is to do so in the context of the NFL’s culture of masculine heterosexual privilege to which men of all races subscribe.

Those apoplectic by the sight of Sam’s celebration would demand that he not be gay. Some would even wish that he were not African-American. Being only slightly more charitable, they would then say if Sam must be gay, then he has no business in the NFL. But if he must be in the NFL, then Sam must not be openly gay. If Sam must be openly gay, then he must be remain an abstraction, gay in name only, untethered to signs, signifiers, symbols of being gay. Sam’s gayness must never—never, ever, ever, ever—be on “display,” or “in our face.” What unnerves is the fact that Sam’s detractors refuse to recognize how their own misguided, unexamined privilege informs these attitudes, and worse, they go on to insist without irony that they have the right to make such demands and have those demands enforced upon on another human being.

Sam will not be the first openly gay NFL player. By all credible accounts, there are, and have been, gay football players out to their teams. And, to be entirely fair, the outpouring of love and support for Sam by his past and future teammates, journalists, opinion-makers, fans and influential NFL leaders is a testament to how far we have come, and how the NFL is striving to expand what it means to be masculine in sports culture. (Consider the fact that it never occurred to the ESPN camera crew not to air the celebration, kiss and all, or the astounding backlash from all levels in response to the tweets by Dolphins player Don Jones and Mississippi basketball player Marshall Henderson). And, truth be told, the Rams could cut Sam tomorrow, and he may not get picked up by another team. Although I am sure such an outcome would be devastating for Sam, the history already made by Sam, Cammisano and that ESPN crew can never be negated.

Fair enough: some people are genuinely just not comfortable with public displays of affection, of any kind, by any one, and that’s fine. Even those who are gay or gay-supportive may have been discomforted by the affection demonstrated by Sam and Cammisano because of its utter newness in the NFL context. People legitimately in those camps get a pass. However, those who insist that those of us like Sam be who we are only in the abstract and only in private do not get a pass. They deserve no voice to demand something they would never demand for themselves.

Predictably, many objectors tethered their offense to their religion—stuff about man not lying with man, etc. etc. etc. Some of those objectors went as far as to decry the liberal media’s double standard, claiming a “universal” outpouring of support for Sam’s expression in contrast to the derision foisted upon Tim Tebow for his ritualistic praying.

There can be only two responses to the religious objectors. First, if ESPN’s looping of the Sam kiss, and its’ subsequent reverb on other networks and in cyberspace turned the personal political, the more the better. I’m with journalist LZ Granderson: I’ve not heard of anyone committing suicide because they were prevented from expressing their religious beliefs. If incessant airing of the kiss helped move being homosexual into our social fabric even a bit, we are better off as a society for it. Frankly, I’d prefer many things over watching Tim “Te-bowing” for, it certainly seemed, even the most marginal happenstance (“I didn’t get a hangnail picking up the football. Thank you Jesus.”).

Second, I can only hope that those invoking Leviticus in their rants demonstrated consistency in their convictions. In other words, you must have deluged the television networks, the NFL Commish (and even Mr. Tebow himself) with phone calls for announcing his celibacy to the entire world—which is abnormal, you know, the doctrine of “demons.” (1 Timothy 4:13). Surely you penned strongly worded letters to the NFL team owners, demanding that they institute a stoning policy for players who commit adultery. (Deut. 22:22). But perhaps you did neither, because you aren’t watching professional football anyhow since the NFL allows players to shave their beards, (Leviticus19:27), permits tattoos (Lev. 19:28), and lets them get divorced (Mark 10:1-13; Matt. 19:9). If you did not boycott, write, or tweet your objections to those abominations with the fervor expressed over Sam’s kiss, then you are a hypocrite, and your objection is a fraud.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people have longed to see more of ourselves and our relationships reflected in places and contexts not only historically closed off to us, but downright hostile. Television continues to play an important, if not a vanguard role moving us forward. It is one thing to see LGBT representation in the fiction that is Modern Family, or Will and Grace, but to see an authentic male-to-male kiss on the news? At a live event not called the Tonys, Emmys, or Oscars? But a live sports event like the NFL draft? Well, how about that?

Non-fiction same-sex kisses, when they happen on television, break boundaries. As one significant example, the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was a moment for the television age as well. The repeal allowed us to finally see images of enlisted men and women as their whole selves: heroes coming home for the holidays and into the arms of their same-sex partners—just as we witnessed heterosexuals do for well over 50 Christmastimes. The image of that kiss and that cake was a moment for the ages as well. Gil Scott-Heron was right: the revolution will not be televised. But finally, thanks to Mssrs. Sam and Cammisano, and ESPN, the revolution is finally being reflected.

Oh, that cake. It is great not to be gay in the abstract.

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