Jeneé Osterheldt

Michael Sam is more than his label, but America can’t see it

Michael Sam wants to be seen as a football player. Not the gay football player.

Sorry, Mikey. We just don’t live in that kind of world. Yet.

When the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam, he was a third-day, seventh-round pick. But he became the first openly gay player in the NFL. Now his jersey is a best-seller among NFL rookies, second only to Johnny Manziel.

This moment is bigger than football. Even President Barack Obama congratulated Sam, the Rams and the NFL for this important step toward equality.

“From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are,” read the White House email to ABC News.

Unfortunately, not even Obama, in 2014, nearing the end of his second term, has risen above who he is: a biracial man, a black man. His race has been the underlying story throughout his presidency.

In this world, where equality is a concept and not a reality, minorities are expected to focus not on their achievements but on what it all means to their disenfranchised group. Even if it’s not fair. Even if it’s not what we dream for ourselves. I’m hoping this changes. I’m hoping one day Lupita N’yongo can be a gorgeous and talented actress instead of a rare exception to whitewashed beauty.

On Saturday, interviewers rushed to Jason Collins, the NBA’s first openly gay player, to ask him about Michael Sam. Nevermind the playoffs Collins was prepping for, or asking him about his game. Collins is expected to speak on behalf of gay athletes in America.

“It takes more and more people just to come forward and show we’re normal people, and we’re just trying to make plays to help our respective teams win,” Collins said. “This is a great day for the NFL and for Michael Sam and his family.”

Some people are mad about coverage focusing so much on Sam’s sexual orientation instead of the sport. But this isn’t just football, it’s a fight for equality. It shouldn’t be a shock to see him kiss his boyfriend. Straight folks can get nearly naked on prime time, but people see two men kiss and the Internet explodes with hatred.

Former Super Bowl champ Derrick Ward ignorantly tweeted, “I’m sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national tv,” adding, “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.”

Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones turned into a tween with his “OMG” and “Horrible” tweets.

Sam wasn’t trying to make a political statement by simply being a gay man kissing his boyfriend. But that’s the thing about being a member of a minority group in America — simply living makes a statement.

“The definition of masculinity shifted today, whether consciously or not, because during the hyper-masculine NFL draft, a man kissed another man on national television. The NFL and the media are expanding everyone’s consciousness,” said Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is the executive director of You Can Play Project, an advocacy group aimed at getting homophobia out of sports.

“People are used to seeing two people being intimate during the NFL draft. Just not these two people,” Davis told The Associated Press. “It’s not necessarily people being homophobic. I think people push back naturally because it’s so much out of the norm.”

We must not hide from humanizing diversity and putting all kinds of faces on civil rights. Women, the LGBT community, people of color. We have to talk about the issues. We have to show our stories. The president was right. We should be judged by what we do and not who we are. But for now, we take who we are with us to the boardrooms, to the football fields and basketball courts, to the White House.

Congratulations, Michael Sam. I hope one day you can be just another football player. But it’s been over a decade and I’m still the mixed, black, female writer. That wasn’t my aspiration in life; that is not how I define myself. But it is how I am seen.

It’s not always easy, the way this world boxes us in, the expectations that come with succeeding as a minority. But by being who we are and doing what we do out loud and not in the silence of the shadows, we change tolerance into acceptance. We break barriers. We change perceptions. We rewrite the laws.

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