Earlier this month, college football star Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, becoming the first openly gay person to ever be drafted by an NFL team and setting Sam up — if he makes the team in the fall – to become the first openly gay professional football player in history.
We all know what happened next: after Sam received the call from the Rams, he burst into tears and kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano — the same way many straight football players also celebrate being picked in the draft (and many other career milestones, for that matter). That kiss was captured live on national television by ESPN and has since become known as the “kiss seen ‘round the world.’”
It was a watershed moment, to be sure — television’s first unscripted gay kiss – but not all of the reactions were positive.
Several football players took to Twitter to post messages of disgust; Bryan Fischer, a spokesman for the American Family Association — an anti-gay hate group — urged Sam to change his sexual orientation through discredited and dangerous “ex-gay” therapy; and Dallas morning-show host Amy Kushnir stormed off the set in disgust after angrily opining that parents should “have a choice as to whether or not they want their children to see” an innocuous, routine moment of intimacy between two people of the same sex. “Get a room. I don’t want to see that,” Kushnir whined.
According to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll, an astonishing number of people agree with Kushnir. While 60 percent of Americans and 65 percent of NFL fans profess support for openly gay sports players in theory, that alleged support doesn’t translate into comfort with displays of same-sex affection. Forty-seven percent told pollsters it was “inappropriate” for networks to air footage of Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend. Just 36 percent said airing the kiss was appropriate, and 17 percent said they weren’t sure. The message this sends to the LGBT community is clear: we’ll tolerate you – we can deal with your existence and even grant you equal legal rights – but public expressions of your love are gross and disgusting. Get a room. We don’t want to see that.
This phenomenon is closely related to the way many people react every time a celebrity like Anderson Cooper or Tom Daley comes out of the closet as LGBT. It seems as though for every person who welcomes and congratulates them, there’s another saying “Why does this matter?” or “I couldn’t care less what they do in their private life.” See that? Your sexuality is your “private life.” Translation: Get a room. We don’t want to see that.
The double standard is both counterproductive and infuriating. In our heterosexist culture, straight people feel no obligation to keep any details of their love lives private. We’re bombarded on a daily basis with art, music, literature, drama, and media dissecting, lamenting, and extolling every facet of love between opposite-sex couples. We constantly hear about the boyfriends/girlfriends, fiancées, spouses, or even the one-night stands of everyone from our straight friends and co-workers to heterosexual celebrities, major and minor. And opposite-sex couples can be observed holding hands, kissing, and walking arm-in-arm on nearly every sidewalk in America. Yet as soon as LGBT people enter into the discussion – as soon as we choose to unashamedly express affection in public – love and sexuality become a matter of a person’s “private life,” and we’re told we need to “get a room?” Give me a break.
As far as I’m concerned, this flagrantly hypocritical double standard only serves to silence us and keep our lives and loves in the shadows, and as we know, breaking our silence and going public is how the movement for LGBT civil rights has achieved so much so quickly. Keeping our lives, loves, and relationships “private” – listening to the “Get a room; we don’t want to see that” crowd – only perpetuates the shame of the cultural closet and postpones our equality.
There’s really only one way to push back: instead of getting that room – instead of accommodating straight people’s discomfort with gay love and intimacy by being less public about our love lives – we need to kiss, hold hands with, and talk about our spouses and partners more. Many Americans may not want to see LGBT people kissing...but they need to.
John Becker is an LGBT rights activist and writer. As a writer he's best known as a contributor to and the Editor in Chief of The Bilerico Project; his proudest moment as an activist is his undercover, hidden-camera exposé that revealed fraudulent "ex-gay" therapy at Marcus and Michele Bachmann's Christian counseling clinic. A frequent guest on news networks including ABC, CNN, and MSNBC, Becker lives in Washington, D.C. with his beloved husband Michael and their dog Rosie.