Michael Sam Proves It: Gay People Need to Kiss in Public Much, Much More

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 12 2014 4:22 PM

Michael Sam Proves It: Gay People Need to Kiss in Public Much, Much More

On Saturday night, after learning that he had been drafted by the St. Louis Rams, openly gay football player Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend in celebration. Newly drafted players kiss their partners all the time, of course—but since Sam’s partner is a man, their embrace quickly became the kiss seen around the world. Some responses were predictably disgusting or disgusted. But a number of commentators expressed a more nuanced kind of animus: Support for Sam in principle, but discomfort with his sexuality in practice.

This dichotomy presents an interesting question: Is it possible to support gay rights, but still be grossed out by gay people? On a rational level, discomfort with Sam’s same-sex kiss would seem to betray a kind of soft-core homophobia, an anti-PDA double standard that applies exclusively to gay couples. Countless reactions to Sam’s kiss include the caveat that all public kissing is gross, and Sam’s sexuality has nothing to do with it. This is clearly false. We are constantly inundated by heterosexual kisses; we see them when we turn on the TV, when we go to a sporting event, when we step outside the house. Straight people are permitted to kiss pretty much anywhere, anytime, without thinking twice about it—and only the most puritanical reactionary would ever complain. That’s a key entitlement of heterosexuality.

It would be easy to assert that gay people deserve the same right of judgment-free PDA, and that anybody who insists otherwise is a sententious, narrow-minded homophobe. But the reality isn’t quite that simple. Gay marriage is—as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out last year—newer than cellphones; the widespread acceptance of gay rights is even more recent, dating back, at best, to 2010. Even those Americans who have come around to the notion of gay equality might not have acclimated themselves to the logical consequences of gay equality—namely, gay people getting the same rights and privileges as straight people. One of those privileges is the ability to kiss your partner in public without fearing castigation or physical attacks. Supporting gay rights means supporting gay people. And you can’t support gay people if you’re disgusted by their most basic and innocuous displays of affection.

Advertisement

Still, on an emotional level, I can understand why an otherwise goodhearted straight person’s knee-jerk response to a gay kiss lands on the spectrum of discomfort. Gay PDA remains startlingly rare in 2014, thanks to an overwhelming history of anti-gay animus that makes every public kiss more than a little bit fraught. Even an ostensibly gay-friendly TV show like Modern Family gives mainstream America barely a glimpse at same-sex affection. And there’s an obvious feedback loop problem here: So long as gay people are uncomfortable kissing in public, straight people won’t be comfortable seeing it; so long as straight people are uncomfortable seeing it, gay people will hesitate to do it.

There’s really only one way to break this impasse: more gay kissing. Straight Americans need to see more same-sex affection, and LGBTQ Americans are the only people who can provide it. Gay couples shouldn’t shrink from sharing a kiss in public, even if they risk drawing annoyed glances or angry tweets. Ten years ago, gay people were instructed to hide their sexuality lest they rub it in everyone’s faces. Today, we’re being told not to kiss in public—under the exact same rationale. There’s no reason to accept this pathetically irrational, plainly prejudiced party line. We should all be grateful to Michael Sam for sparking this conversation with his much-ballyhooed (and very innocent) kiss. But if we truly want to do justice to Sam’s already admirable legacy, we owe it to ourselves to follow his lead.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 3:33 PM Drinking Fancy Cocktails at Denny’s
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.