Michael Sam, Masculinity and Teaching Tolerance

The NFL prospect has the potential to redefine for millions of people what it means to be a gay man in the U.S.

One of the realities of the modern classroom is that talking about LGBT individuals, issues and history can make students uncomfortable. Nervous laughter is common. When I lecture or lead a discussion on the gay liberation movement, I’ve seen students—particularly male students—shake their heads and proclaim their disapproval at the mention of gay men. It’s as if these students feel the need to draw a public distinction between themselves and gay men, ensuring that everyone in the room knows that they’re not gay.

I am uncomfortable with these responses, but I think I understand where they come from. Many young male students are still struggling with adolescence and learning what it means to be an adult man. They don’t have a great variety of role models because our society unfortunately clings to a narrow definition of masculinity in which “real” men are understood to be breadwinners, tough guys and ladies’ men who don’t cry, while gay men are defined as emotional, fashion-obsessed, weak and un-athletic.    

For educators, then, college football player and NFL prospect Michael Sam’s decision to come out is a rich opportunity to dispel stereotypes about gay men.

A few important contextual facts about Sam’s announcement:

  1. Sam was a stand-out athlete at the University of Missouri. He is a first-team all-American and shared the title of Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference (SEC). His team even voted him most valuable player. He is—by all accounts—a fierce and skilled athlete who embodies the definition of traditional masculinity associated with football.
  2. Sam is anticipated to be picked up in the first five rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, scheduled for May. His decision to enter the draft and—presumably—play as the only gay athlete in the NFL is unprecedented.
  3. There are currently no “out” male athletes in the NFL, the NBA or the NHL. (Jason Collins, who made history when came he out while playing in the NBA, was not re-signed after his announcement.)

While the combination of Sam’s high profile as an athlete and unique status as an out gay man in mainstream sports clearly punctuates this moment for him personally, it is also a watershed moment for the institution of U.S. professional football and its fans. The New York Times recently stated that Michael Sam is “poised to become a trailblazer in a violent and macho world that will scrutinize his every action and turn his private life into a very public debate.” In his cover photo for the new issue of Sports Illustrated, Sam points directly at the viewer, flanked by the headlines “America is Ready for Michael Sam,” and “Is the NFL Ready for Michael Sam?”

Sam has the potential to redefine for millions of people what it means to be a gay man in United States. His visibility helps us come to new a understanding of gay identity—that gay men, just like every other kind of person, come in all shapes and sizes, with different abilities, skills, priorities, qualities and talents. The fact that he is black also illustrates diversity within the LGBT community and helps undermine stereotypes that often paint all gay men as white men.

His story is also an excellent teaching opportunity to help students dismantle stereotypes about gay men and to question rigid, institutionalized concepts of masculinity. For those who would argue that educators have no business talking about LGBT issues in schools, I offer this: The Stonewall 2012 School Report reveals that “half of young people are not taught anything about lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans issues or role models, and 50% of gay young people experience homophobic bullying.” The Report also revealed one noteworthy reality: “Gay pupils are less likely to be bullied in schools that teach and address gay issues positively (76% compared with 46%).”

This means that educators committed to providing safe learning environments for their students, at any grade level, have an obligation to address LGBT issues in a positive way. 

If you’re struggling to find a way to address these issues in the classroom, here are some suggestions:

  1. Ask students to write a letter to Michael Sam expressing their questions and feelings. This can help create empathy by personalizing Sam so that students do not perceive him merely as an abstract symbol. If they think about Sam as a real person, they will not only understand a bit more about his emotional journey, but will also get practice in thinking about how they will handle disclosures about sexuality from people already in their lives.
  2. Provide historical context for the topic by sharing this timeline of the history of LGBT players in professional sports. Talk about what was happening legally and culturally for LGBT citizens at each point on the timeline, and compare this history to the environment in which Sam is living and working. Be sure to address recent developments in the LGBT rights movement (the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, marriage equality decisions in many states, the dismantling of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, proposed legislation in Kansas that would allow business owners to deny services to LGBT patrons).
  3. Ask students to discuss, research and respond to the statement and the question that appear on the Sports Illustrated cover: “America is Ready for Michael Sam” and “Is the NFL Ready for Michael Sam?”
  4. If it is safe to do so in your classroom, ask students to reflect upon how LGBT athletes are treated in your school.

Finally, it’s important not to treat a discussion of Sam—or any LGBT person—as a discussion about “the other.” It’s highly likely that some students in your class are themselves (or will eventually be) members of the LGBT community or have family members who are. This is an opportunity to create a greater sense of community and respect, and your actions and words are important models for students.

Michael Sam will surely be a topic of discussion around the dinner tables of many families and fans of football as well as in the classroom. When Michael Sam told the media, "I am an openly, proud gay man," he gave educators something we can use in class to point out the emptiness and danger of stereotypes. When we do that, we will certainly increase dialogue and tolerance in school, but we may also make a difference out in the community.

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.