When I read in February about the harsh reaction college football star Michael Sam's father had to his son's coming out, I was reminded of the difficult experience of coming out to my own father almost twenty years ago.
"I don't want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment," Michael Sam Sr. told the New York Times. (He later claimed he was misquoted, but the Times stands by its reporting.) Those barbed words are not a far cry from the language my father - who coached football and forced me to play against my will -- used: "You're damaging my grandchildren," and "I can't have that disgusting crap in my house." These are things he's said to my face and behind my back. I wondered whether he'd read about Sam's father, too, and it made him feel less alone.
Like me, as Sam has said in many interviews, he grew up consumed with fear about revealing his sexual orientation to his dad. And so he shrouded his true identity with silence until he was 23 -- two years older than I was when I told my father, in a letter I sent while studying abroad in Europe. I figured it would be safer telling him I was gay with the Atlantic Ocean between us -- especially considering his tendency toward violent outbursts. My instinct about that was tragically spot on: He told my sister I was a coward for sending the news in a letter (which he said he didn't read in its entirety), and that he would have thrown me through a window if I'd done it in person.
In both Sam's case and mine, our fears about our fathers' reactions came true. Although Sam's father seems to still take some pride in his son. He says he hopes Sam makes it into the NFL, even though he doesn't like the idea of a gay player in the league.
What father wouldn't be proud of Sam? He has a staggeringly long list of high achievements, beginning with being the first member of his family to attend college. He was offered multiple full scholarships to do so. At University of Missouri, where he redshirted then graduated in 2013, his stellar performance led to his being named a Walter Camp Football Foundation First-Team All-American. He was the SEC's defensive player of the year.
While I'm not a celebrated athlete like Sam, I made it my business to over-achieve from an early age, on some unconscious level, to compensate for the "sin" of my sexual orientation and so that I could win my father's pride. I graduated college in three years, summa cum laude; I was the first in my family to go on to earn a master's and a doctorate. I'd completed my first book in my twenties. Nothing I've ever achieved has been enough for me to firmly secure my father's pride, affection or acceptance. In fact, the thought of my being gay is so abhorrent to my dad, he's felt the need to turn photos of me on the mantle backwards. Additional diplomas or distinctions aren't likely to change that.
As a teenager petrified of being tossed out of our home if dad found out, I tried to suppress an emerging attraction to men that was proving to be irrepressible, not matter how hard I tried to fight it. Outwardly, I did all I could to appear to be more of "a man" in his presence. I'd never cross my legs when sitting. I shook other men's hands firmly as my dad had taught me with endless practice shakes. In my last year of little league, I begrudgingly became a baseball catcher, the scrappy, manly position he played in high school.
When I realized I couldn't just decide to change who I was, I acted out against myself. I became anorexic, unconsciously trying to starve the gayness out of myself. I did this until I literally almost disappeared. It was all I could do to protect myself from my father's wrath, or maybe more so, to protect my father from the despicable truth that his youngest son was something he'd surely despise. I thought it would be easier for him if I were dead than gay. How badly a boy wants to please his father.
Boys look up to their dads, or at least we feel we are supposed to. We can't help but see ourselves in them, sharing, as we do, our gender. We believe we're meant to emulate our fathers' behaviors, customs, and beliefs. As a little boy, I thought my towering, imposing jock of a dad was invincible, like some super hero or pro athlete. But he scared me into submission, beginning when I was three, as he angrily sent me to my room without dinner when he learned I'd played dress-up in girls' clothes, at nursery school. My respect for him was rooted in a fear of the grave consequences for any number of actions or inactions. He made it crystal clear to me both verbally and nonverbally that in order to be accepted by him, and successful in his eyes, I had to avoid "sissy" things and do only the manly things he thought were acceptable. There remains a voice in my head that still haunts me from time to time: "Don't play with Barbie; play with trucks. Don't do ballet; do basketball. Don't play hopscotch with the girls at recess; play kickball with the boys." I did my best to follow his rules and live up to his standards of manliness, even though I was sure I'd never measure up.
Of course, my father and Michael Sam's father are hardly alone in their attitudes. They are, in a different way than their sons, unwitting victims of a machismo, heterosexist element of our culture that perpetuates a horribly limited notion of what manhood is and should be.
My father's machismo and homophobia have prevented him from having a relationship with his youngest son on and off, mostly off, since 1996. I'm an affront to what it means to him to be a man.
I never expected it to be simple for either of my parents to deal with my being gay. It wasn't uncomplicated for me. But while my late mother too found it challenging, unlike my father, she accepted me, and she never loved me any less. She fought to understand me.
When I told her I was gay on a walk down our street at dusk one evening, she burst into tears in the middle of the road. I knew she was mourning the pristine image of her son as a heterosexual, which had just been shattered.
But from that moment on, she was committed to letting go of the vision of what she thought I was supposed to be, and accepted the reality of the son who was really in her view. She secretly attended PFLAG meetings, unbeknownst even to me. She called her best friend a thousand miles away in Minnesota and talked openly about what she was learning, and how hard some of it was to take in. She told me the truth about her feelings, all the while, never abandoning me, and promising to never give up.
She was always there for me, especially when my dad wasn't, even at my 2007 wedding to my husband, Justin. While my mom soldiered on and stood by me even when it was hard, my father cowered and sulked and disowned me.
I have compassion for my father, and for Michael Sam's dad. They are part of a different generation, raised in a different world. I can understand the internalized homophobic battle raging inside them. The world is changing around them, calling into question everything they've been told about gender and sexuality. In truth, though, the world hasn't changed enough. There are men younger than our fathers -- NFL coaches and players -- who don't support recruiting Sam to the league, simply because he is gay. This is still a world in which it's acceptable for NFL players to say they wouldn't want a homosexual in the locker room.
Probably none of this surprises Sam, which makes his coming out and risking his prospects with the NFL all the more brave. Thanks to him, we have learned about another father's agony in the face of his son's homosexuality. The public awareness of Sam's father's struggle opens this not uncommon issue up for discussion in a bigger way than ever before. I can only hope it will lead to greater understanding, and an easier time for the next generation of fathers. I believe that my older brother, and some of my best guy friends who are fathers, will be accepting and supportive of their sons -- and daughters -- if they are gay, and love them no differently than if they were straight.
Maybe my father won't come around. Maybe Michael Sam Sr. won't either. Perhaps not these men, but maybe there's hope for the fathers who come after them.