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    The Final Frontier?

    zoeIn the campaign to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we often portrayed the military as the toughest culture in which to come out – close bonds with your colleagues, intimate living conditions, a super-masculine ethos. We marketed the repeal as the litmus test, kind of like New York, New York: “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

    For the most part, that was, and still is, true. Even with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell behind us, the military remains one of the most virile, macho environments. There is a lot personally at risk should you come out and not be accepted by your fellow unit members and society, such as your reputation, your education, your current and future employment, and even your physical safety.

    With the recent public coming out of Michael Sam, the All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, we are reminded that the final frontier is not the foxhole, but the locker room. If and when Sam is signed by a National Football League (NFL) team in this year’s draft, he will become the first active NFL player to have declared he is gay publicly.


    Not surprisingly, one of the first storylines we heard from the naysayers was that his draft status would drop because NFL teams would find him to be “a distraction.” Even two weeks before his public coming out, as Sam was preparing for the Senior Bowl, rumors circulated that there were red flags. “Sam may have some off-the-field problems,” was the way it was put.

    The day before his announcement, Michael Sam was rated as the 90th-best prospect in the upcoming draft. The morning after, he had slipped to No. 160. Some of the reactions were nearly identical to those we heard on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. Their quotes were pulled right out of the military playbook.

    One NFL veteran, for example, tweeted that Sam should “stay in the closet.” Another player said during an NFL Network interview that he had concerns about showering and dressing with a gay teammate nearby.

    Sports Illustrated interviewed 8 anonymous coaches and player personnel to get their honest perspective on Michael Sam’s NFL draft prospects. “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” one responded. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

    An NFL assistant coach called Sam’s decision “not a smart move,” as he said it “legitimately affects [his] potential earnings.” And another response was, “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction.”

    Sound familiar? In 2010, Senator John McCain stated in his opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: “When your life’s on the line, you don’t want any distraction.”

    Clearly, we in the LGBT community are very, very distracting. Therefore, we should just continue hiding who we are and pretend we don’t exist to make everyone else just a little more comfortable while they spit and scratch.

    The news headlines seem to grab the more salacious stories, such as the homophobic slurs and insults from professional athletes. But in addition to the Michael Sam story, there is another positive development that you should know about. Locally, two women’s college basketball players are trying to make a difference. Toni Kokenis of Stanford helped found Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT), a student group dedicated to supporting LGBT and allied athletes in the spring of 2012.

    Overcoming rivalry for a common cause, she was joined by Mikayla Lyles of Cal in her efforts to start a dialogue around these issues. Together, they created a pair of panel discussions entitled We A.R.E. (Athletes Reaching Equality) on support for LGBT inclusion in sports that took place at the Cal and Stanford campuses in late January. In Kokenis’ own words: “Silence isn’t equal to acceptance. The only way to make sports more accepting is to talk about it. I feel like we have perfect opportunities as student-athletes at some of top schools in the country. Athletics still has to catch up with the rest of campus and the rest of the world.”

    I applaud Michael, Toni and Mikayla for the courage to step forward and bring a voice to an issue that is still present for the LGBT community. Even if you are not an athlete, you should care about what is occurring on our campuses and our playing fields because, like the military, if you break down such barriers, you open up conversations all across America and the world about what it means to be LGBT.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She currently serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and is Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club.