As a gay American man, there are certain moments in recent history that will stand out to me. I remember exactly where I was when the Sports Illustrated cover story on Jason Collins came out last year, along with his own sexuality as the first major active American athlete to do so. And I will never forget the moment when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court a couple of months later. Saturday marked another triumphant moment in LGBT cultural history, as Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Where was I? Representing my entire community’s point of view on national television. I guess I should explain.
I had been aware that the draft was going on, but honestly, football has never been my favorite sport; I think there are too many players on the field to keep track of and invest in. But culturally, I was very aware of “Johnny Football” and the other drama going around Radio City, and especially whether Michael Sam would be drafted after coming out as gay in February as a football player for the University of Missouri. Had I ever heard of Sam before February? No, but that didn’t stop me from immediately becoming a fan.
On Saturday afternoon, I ventured into West Hollywood, California — the neighborhood that I live in known for its gay population and attractions — to participate in my own sporting event of sorts: a Beer Olympics tournament through the Varsity Gay League, California’s largest LGBT recreational sports league. (I also play in a singles tennis league…emphasis on single unfortunately.) Each team of four had to dress in costume, and my three friends and I were dressed as hippies — or “Post-chella,” as we began to call it, making fun of the annual music festival that had happened a couple of weeks earlier. This will be important to remember later.
When we arrived at Gym Sportsbar, the location of the event, we saw a single camera set up in the corner but didn’t think much of it until a woman, clearly not dressed to be drinking beer all day, started walking around and informing everyone of what was going on. She was a producer for ESPN and told us that Michael Sam was probably going to get drafted soon and that they were filming a live reaction shot from the bar. My first reaction was a guttural laugh. I rolled my eyes at the forced irony of ESPN choosing to come to a gay sports bar for a moment like this, assuming that everyone there would be automatically interested. But then I realized it didn’t really matter if we were or not, because this was a moment that every gay man should care about.
The logistics were predictably tricky for something like this. Any live feed can have its own issues, but because you couldn’t really predict exactly when Sam was going to get drafted, there were a couple of false alarms. ESPN reporter Shelley Smith was there, and for the first two segments, my friends and I chose to stand far away from the camera and out of view. Sam still hadn’t actually been drafted yet so the entire thing was one big premature celebration, ending in a bunch of drag queens and hippies anxiously waiting. Smith even tweeted a pic. I’m the one in the tie-dye shirt, not one of the Sex and the City ladies, unfortunately.
After some time went by and the beer games actually began, the same ESPN producer began to hurriedly scramble around the bar to get people’s attention again. This time, there was more urgency in her movement, and before she got to my group, I could tell what was about to happen. At this point, I had migrated over to the other side of the bar much closer to the camera. I was standing right next to the camera when we were all told that they were pretty sure Sam was about to be drafted and to watch the TV screens. I didn’t realize the cameras were already recording at this point, and almost as soon as the producer stopped speaking, the St. Louis Rams made their pick. I immediately cheered, threw my arms up, and clapped. Suddenly, I was on ESPN enthusiastically cheering. I was front and center and ended up representing every gay man in America in that one moment.
My reaction was shown live and then repeated throughout the weekend on ESPN and even on Sunday’s Good Morning America. The moment after it aired, my best friend and college roommate who works for the sports network in Connecticut texted me: “Welcome to ESPN.” Even though I had played sports all my life and had looked up to gay athletes like Billie Jean King in the past, that welcome felt like it had a little more weight to it now. Sam still has to prove himself to get a spot on the Rams’ roster, but no matter what happens, it feels like gay athletes will soon be welcomed in any arena, any stadium, any league, and any sport in America. Being gay, you usually get stereotyped as a reluctant sports fan, if any. Now, I have the video to prove my cheers will always be justified.
Watch the video below. (I appear around the :52 mark.)