Michael Sam, famously, is the first openly gay man ever drafted by the NFL, a fact that often can obscure the man behind the statistic. He has been held up as a role model, as an example of what gay can look like, as an icon, and as an example of how far queer folk have yet to go in gaining acceptance in certain areas of society. While many articles have detailed Michael Sam's story and have described and determined his importance to the gay community at large, I was most interested in gaining another perspective: Michael Sam's perspective on Michael Sam. Sam was in St. Louis to give the keynote speech at an event organized to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS in the Black community as part of National Black HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, and he was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions. We sat down in a little corner, and after he'd retrieved his phone, I told him that my interest was in finding out how he sees himself and his place within the gay community and what he thinks his place is within the Black queer community.
Maurice Tracy: I read a lot about you, and it is usually, honestly, [a lot] about football and [your place in the] gay community at large, but I wanted to know about how you see yourself, especially as a Black gay man. How do you see your position in Black gay culture and the Black gay community?
Michael Sam: [W]hen I first came out, I didn't see myself as a role model or an activist or an advocate or anything; I liked to think of myself as a football player, as a guy who just tried to chase a dream and achieve his goals, and that's how I saw myself at first. Now, by being in the spotlight, I think my role [has] become more [about] trying to help others, whether it is being in the Black community or the Black gay community or LGBT community. [I want] to help others and have people understand that it is OK to be who you are and to tell the truth. Does that answer your question?
MT: Yeah. Think of it more as a conversation. Imagine we are in a coffee house having a kiki. [Michael frowns in confusion.] Do you know what "kiki" means?
MT: [Laughs.] "Kiki," not "kinky"! A kiki is Black gay slang for basically "shooting the shit," just talking [with your friends].
MS: All right.
MT: Do you have a lot of Black gay friends, or are most of your Black friends straight because of sports, or white gay friends or, well--
MS: So I have a few gay friends. My best African-American/Black gay friend is transgender. I met her at Mizzou; she helped us in a dinner. So, uh, I don't have a lot of gay friends. I have a lot of straight friends, which we joke around sometimes, and people will try to call me "straight-acting," like I'm a "straight-acting gay," and I am like, "No, I am not 'straight-acting.' This is who I am. I'm gay. [Same for] people who [are] more feminine; that's just who they are." ... I'd say I have more straight friends than gay friends.
MT: It is probably because of sports. I remember when my brothers played sports, your team becomes your family, and you spend most of your time with them. I used to get jealous over that. But when you talk about femininity and masculinity -- and I too hate the phrase "straight-acting" -- but how much do you think your "masculinity" has shaped what your narrative?
MS: Can you rephrase the question?
MT: So do you think you would be received as well as you are received if you weren't so "masculine"?
MS: If I was more feminine?
MS: So I think it would be either way. People would still judge me. [Some] would hate me even more, but it is hard to discuss that, because this is who I am. I think that it doesn't matter if I was masculine or feminine, because the haters are still going to hate because I am gay.
MT: I guess. Also your narrative in general -- how [much of it has been in your control]?
MS: I think I have handled it right and the best way ... people always want to see you fall, but there hasn't been an incident all year. I haven't done anything; I have handled myself in the right way. People thought I would be a distraction. I didn't make myself a distraction; the media made me a distraction.
MT: Expanding on [your relationship with the public and the media], does it ever throw you that you have a Wikipedia page entry now? Like, you will never just be Michael -- Mike -- Sam; you'll never be Mikey. You will always be "Mike Sam, the first...." Is that a lot of pressure?
MS: It's not a lot of pressure. I can only control what I can control. And when you say that bio thing, a lot of people want to know if all that went to my head. No [because] I love what I'm doing: helping others. But still ... I could do a lot more than I am doing now if I continue on playing. So I am really banking on me playing so I can help people more, even though there may be a lot of [negativity] because they don't accept it, but when they get to know me, because that is how you change people. People are just like, "Oh, he's gay," but get to know me, because then they'll be like, "He's just another human being."
MT: So do you actually follow the comments or criticisms people have said about you or what you represent?
MS: I try not to. I may see that first one. It doesn't hurt my feelings. I am from Texas, and you just treat people with respect.
MT: I am thinking about the conversations that surround people like you, Derrick Gordon, and others, conversations that center around the perception that, when Black gay folk come out, they always seem to have or get white partners.
MS: Yes, I have gotten criticism from the Black gay community for dating Vito. The thing is, if you know anything about Mizzou, it is [pre]dominantly white. We are a small group of Black people that are there. Now the Black people can hang out together, but athletes, [we are kept] separate. The only Black friends I really had were my teammates and people in the athletic department. There are not a lot of openly gay athletes. and most of them are on the swimming or the softball team. So when I start dating someone [openly] gay within the athletic department, that person [happens] to be white Italian. If you fall in love with that person, I think it is unfair to judge me because I'm dating a white guy. I love this person; why would I stop that and go looking for something I already have? Also [at the time I was] still closeted. What if I try to find someone outside the athletic department and they take picture and tweet it and it gets out and I'm not ready? So I think it is unfair to judge me and you don't know the whole story.
MT: OK, I got a bit of that from the Oprah interview, and it kind of makes sense. But OK, my last question, because they are hovering, is inspired by Joseph Beam's brilliant essay "Brother to Brother." In it he talks about Black men loving Black men being a revolutionary act. Some have debated whether he means this in a romantic sense or just a communal sense. But do you feel a sense of responsibility or greater obligation to Black gay men? Do you consider yourself your brother's keeper?
MS: [For] me it's 2015. It's a whole new generation. I don't see Black or white. I see the person.
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I must confess that when I began the interview, I expected to encounter a polished celebrity, a man hyperaware of his image, but the man I encountered was someone altogether different. There was a moment after his keynote speech, during the Q-and-A portion event, when a woman told him that she was childless but would be honored to think of him as her son. Another woman simply wanted to wrap her arms around him and give him that "home embrace," the type of embrace I have only known from the arms of Black women. I understand why they would do such a thing. Michael Sam is a man who is incredibly kind and earnest, one who connects his potential profession with the ability to make a difference for others. It is no wonder that a room filled with people would collectively tell him that he should consider himself a part of an extended queer family that loves him.
A version of this interview originally appeared on The Vital Voice.