Michael Sams, defensive lineman at Mizzou, recently came out as gay before the NFL draft. The news story generated the expected mixed responses on the Internet — both supportive and reprehensible.
Here in Mississippi, the balance of comments dismiss this story as “not newsworthy” because no one cares if Sams is gay. The readers protest too much. The outraged cry, “Let us have no more gay stories” is just as disingenuous as declarations of a post-racial world where racism and discrimination do not exist. People care so much that they want to change the subject.
In Mississippi, LGBTQ people lack workplace protection to prevent them from being fired for their sexual orientation. Same-sex families living in Mississippi do not have access to marriage, full adoption rights or hospital visitation. More seriously, gay people are treated like they don’t belong here. The message in Mississippi is clear: We don’t want gay stories because we don’t want to do right by gay people.
The Sams story intersects with the Mississippi sacred: college football. Mississippi State University tight end Rufus Warren tweeted that he “looks down on gay football players” because football is a “MAN sport.” Warren and Mississippi fans have trouble imagining gays playing football or living among them. Warren has already played with and against many talented and closeted gay players. Mississippi residents have gay neighbors, sons, daughters, teachers and co-workers, whether they choose to acknowledge them or not. We need LGBTQ news stories. LGBTQ people, like me, need to be open about who we are if we are ever going to renovate the culture that erases and excludes LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ people need to become visible. The negative reaction to the Sams story only makes this more clear. From my corner of the state, as an MSU employee and student, I know the environment here is probably better than anywhere else in Mississippi. The people and departments I work with could not be more open and welcoming. The university should be a beacon for LGBTQ people in this state. I do not think this is always the case. If Warren can’t see other gay players, I know other students have a hard time seeing gay classmates. Hateful language and slurs are circulated, fraternities fail to address homophobia, classes sometimes cover LGBTQ issues in a way that ignores LGBTQ people that might be in the room or people stare at you during lunch with your boyfriend/girlfriend. LGBTQ people receive one persistent message in our culture: be invisible. Keep to yourself. We do not care about you. We do not want to hear LGBTQ news stories.
As a busy graduate student, I don’t often feel I have the time to confront issues like this. I read a few news stories, shake my head and get back to work. The comments this week were discouraging, but nothing I haven’t seen before. Then, a friend pointed out a comment to me on a Facebook football fan page that filled me with disgust and anger. In response to Sams’s story, somebody posted a picture of a noose with the caption: “I bought a necktie for you, please put it on.” The combination of racial hatred and anti-gay bigotry stayed with me all week. What astounded me most was that the comment was never removed or denounced in the comment thread. Sexual orientation will always be relevant while gay people are marginalized and LGBTQ teens commit suicide at high rates. LGBTQ people must remain visible because we must not be erased or silenced.