I am not a gay man.
I haven’t walked a day in Michael Sam’s shoes. I couldn’t tell you what it feels like to be him — to be the most hyperbolic version of different.
What I am, instead, is a straight white man who grew up outside of Boston and bounced from one pocket of privilege to another – from Brookline to Cambridge to the South End, each a trendier version of the same homogenous landscape. In turn, I’ve spent the majority of my life in locker rooms where dudes count their conquests in bathroom-stall Sharpie and say ‘faggot’ every time they feel awkward.
Michael Sam could have changed that.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t also seen progress. From the perspective of tangible change and increased tolerance, my generation is historic. That my high school graduation coincided almost to the day with the passing of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was neither symbolically insignificant nor ignored by kids my age. This is not the Boston of busing past.
At least, not on the surface. There is a gap, though, between the intensely liberal values that have become synonymous with Massachusetts and the culture that is most pervasive among this state’s young men.
Maybe it’s a prep school thing. Maybe it’s our fathers, our uncles, our coaches. Maybe it’s the vestiges of an Irish-Catholic community that fought tooth and nail to survive a century of poverty.
Regardless, it is. We don’t do tolerance well. We talk about it and maybe even believe in it, but often our own insecurities ultimately prevent us from truly enforcing it among one another.
Michael Sam could have changed that.
In a city whose lifeblood is sports, the first gay male professional athlete could have been as powerful as the mayor. There is no conversation here that doesn’t start and end with our teams and our players – say what you will about New York, but this is the most excitable, most embattled, most in-love-with-her-no-matter-how-crazy-she-drives-me sports town in the world. Period.
The Patriots could have changed all that.
The divide between us-in-locker-rooms and us-on-paper might have been bridged incomparably had the Patriots swooped in and signed Michael Sam after he was cut by the St. Louis Rams this past weekend, and before the Cowboys had a chance to scoop him up Wednesday.
Like it or not, the current role models for Boston’s young men are either as alpha-dog as they come (read: GQ posterboy, husband to world’s most celebrated supermodel), as salt-of-the-earth as they come (read: Red Sox captain who redefined the term ‘dirt dog’) or as aloof and emotionally disinterested as they come (read: Rajon Rondo). They seem like good enough men, and we could do far worse than to have our sons emulate them. But they do not inspire change.
We need immersion by force. We are past the point of conversations or even education. Stop by the mandatory preseason diversity seminar at a high school football team’s summer session in Brookline or Dedham or Walpole or Everett and I guarantee you’ll see a bunch of kids cracking jokes as a coach rolls his eyes.
How could Michael Sam have changed all that?
You can’t simply stick an openly gay player in a Pats uniform and expect open arms from the young men of Boston who’ve long cracked the same jokes.
The first wave of press and the initial ripples would have done little to nothing, except perhaps stir up a little drama.
For a little while, we would all have stood and watched.
And then we’d get over it, and that is what would’ve made a difference. The normalcy. Not the first Michael Sam tackle or the first Michael Sam penalty, but the fifteenth time Vince Wilfork bear-hugged Michael Sam and none of us noticed. The hundredth photo of the team doing walk-throughs when our first instinct stopped being to spot Sam and check, against our own better judgment, if somehow he ‘looks different’ when he plays. The quiet dropoff in buzz the second and third years when Sam reported back to training camp. The way, little by little, we all stopped caring about anything other than the game, the team. Our team.
What Boston needs is less Sam’s bravery than his mortality. Not a name, not a celebrity, just a person. A man who laughs and gets hurt and makes mistakes and gets fired up – a man who happens to be gay, but whose gayness is a waning element of how we, as men, identify him. And that regular man needs to exist among a group of regular men — what our teenagers need is less a single hero than a collective social picture that looks a whole lot like theirs.
That’s it right there – that’s our best shot at cracking the hyper self-protective exterior of every 13-year-old kid who’s watched his brother throw touchdowns at Roxbury Latin and date pretty girls from Dana Hall. Show him 53 of the toughest, manliest guys in Boston and let him gradually forget that one of them is different. Get him to the point where ‘noticing’ the gay guy doesn’t make sense anymore, because why should it matter to him if it doesn’t matter to them? Make him see, through them, that it’s not a big deal.
It wouldn’t have changed everything, that’s for sure. But to find the single thread that connects every conversation among the men in this town, to grab Boston’s indisputable social equalizer and infuse in it a visible example of see-this-wasn’t-such-a-big-deal acceptance – that could have begun to make a difference.
Michael Sam could have been that. I wish he had been.