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.
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.