This past weekend I was watching ESPN and came across the story that college football player [SEC Defensive Player of the Year] Michael Sam announced he was gay (see more here from a CNN article). I wasn't bothered by his declaration to the world, but I was shocked that he would choose to open up about his sexuality prior to the NFL draft.
It has been noted that Sam is "the latest high-profile athlete to come out as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered). Others include the NBA's Jason Collins, the WNBA's Brittney Griner, WWE's Darren Young, UFC's Liz Carmouche, MMA's Fallon Fox and Major League Soccer's Robbie Rogers."
In the African American community, the conversation about sexual orientation is often not discussed. At least in a positive way. For many African American youth who are gay, having a professional athlete who reminds them of themselves could have a significant impact on their self esteem and mental health. In my previous blog, my co-author (David Goode-Cross) and I discussed several ways parents can cope with their child coming out.
Given Sam's decision to come out, many ponder why now? In the African American community, many people decide to not be open about their sexuality for many reasons. For those how are privilege to "pass" (exhibit typical heterosexual characteristics and interests) being in the closet is often a conscious decision to prevent being disowned (or treated negatively) by family, friends, or society. In a recent blog post, psychologist Dr. Kevin Nadal discussed another factor that makes it more difficult to accept gay identity. Dr. Nadal states, "I had a very difficult time accepting my gay identity, because of the microaggressions that I experienced throughout my life." Like Nadal, I have personally not been open because of microaggressions and fear. Sam's courage and strength will be an inspiration for many, especially black gay youth.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are the everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized groups experience throughout their lives (Sue et al., 2007). Per Dr. Nadal, here are a few examples of microaggressions:
1) Use of heterosexist or transphobic terminology:
These types of microaggressions occur when someone uses disparaging heterosexist or transphobic language towards, or about, LGBTQ persons. For me, it is anytime someone says “That’s so gay” and “No homo” in my presence; for my transgender friends, it could be anytime someone says “tranny”, “she-male”, or other derogatory terms. In hip hop, it is common for rappers to unapologetically use the word “faggot”, which then gives permission for kids to use the term unapologetically in everyday life. Maybe this is why 9 out of 10 LGBTQ high school students report experiencing harassment at school and why 2/3 of them say they feel unsafe (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 2010).
2) Endorsement of heteronormative culture and behaviors:
These kinds of microaggressions take place when an LGBTQ person is assumed to be heterosexual, or when they are encouraged to act in gender-conforming ways. I know that I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be so flamboyant or that I should act “more masculine”. As a child, my family forced me to play sports, yet sighed when I played with Barbie. As a young adult, when someone asked me “if I had a girlfriend” or “a wife or kids”, they were essentially telling me that they expected me to be heterosexual. Heterosexuals don’t realize that it is common for them to assume someone is straight, unless proven otherwise.
3) Assumption of universal LGBTQ experience:
These sorts of microaggressions transpire when heterosexual people assume that all LGBTQ persons are the same. For instance, sometimes, people tell me I’m not “a typical gay guy” because of some stereotype I don’t fulfill; other times, people assume that I would automatically get along with another gay guy simply because we are attracted to the same gender. Lesbian women have reported that people presume that they should all be masculine, while bisexual people have reported that they are often stereotyped as being “confused” (Nadal, Issa, et al., 2011). Many transgender women have reported being arrested and falsely accused of being sex workers (Nadal et al., 2012), demonstrating that these biases and microaggressions could even have legal implications.
4) Discomfort or disapproval of LGBTQ experience:
These types of microaggressions include instances when LGBTQ people are treated with awkwardness, condemnation, or both. This takes place any time a couple looks at my fiancée and me in disgust as we hold hands in public. It also occurs when people proclaim that my sexual orientation is “an abomination” or that a transgender person’s gender identity is “unnatural.”
I would imagine that one of the many reasons NFL teams may be reluctant to recruit an openly gay player is not because of his lack of professionalism but because there may be a need for a major culture change in the locker room to prevent microaggression (which may affect player morale). Time will tell if society at large is ready for an openly gay NFL player. I personally have never played team sports but I can guess that there are some gay athletes in the NFL who are not out.
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Copyright Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D. 2014