On Tuesday, NFL teams had to cut their rosters down to 75 players—one in a series of trims before the start of the regular season in September. St. Louis Rams rookie Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, made that cut, putting him one step closer to making the team. In advance of the announcement, ESPN’s SportsCenter presented a segment checking in on how the rookie was “fitting in with his Rams teammates so far.” This is a perfectly fair question—assuming you’re talking about issues of athleticism or team camaraderie. But ESPN defined “fitting in” in far steamier—and classically homophobic—terms: How is Sam getting on in the locker room shower?
Here’s what reporter Josina Anderson’s investigation uncovered:
Another Rams defensive player told me that “Sam is respecting our space,” and that, from his perspective, he seems to think that Michael Sam is waiting to kind of take a shower as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable, while [defensive tackle Kendall] Langford and linebacker Alec Ogletree told me that they didn’t know that specifically and also weren’t tracking that. Now while Langford told me, “Listen, I have not been in the shower at the same time as Michael Sam,” he said that there definitely could be a million reasons as to why that is. He said he could be doing extra work on the practice field, he could be riding his bike, he could be doing extra cardio. But overall Langford said he seems to be adjusting to the life in the NFL and the speed of the game.
ESPN has apologized for the segment, rightly acknowledging that it “failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports.” But before we write this off as a gaffe, it’s worth thinking about why the “shower panic” trope continues to plague tiled rooms from the NFL to your local gym in an age when other ancient gay stereotypes—they’re all pedophiles, sissies, etc.—have faded in all but the most prejudiced of circles.
Even absent openly gay co-bathers, communal showers have always been fraught places for straight men. They’ve historically been a troubled spot for integration—Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player, was reportedly hesitant to shower with the Dodgers until another outsider teammate convinced him to join in. Also, as David Fleming explains in his excellent ESPN The Magazine feature “Nothing to See Here,” sports showers represent an intensely “vulnerable state” for men who are defined by masculinity: “[I]t conjures, for some, a range of emotions: their most awkward memories (middle school gym class), deepest insecurities (size), purest symbolism (baptism) and most ignorant defense mechanisms (homophobia).” Anyone who has spent time under the nozzle can attest that these anxieties are often exorcized through horseplay and joking, certain forms of which depend on a mild form of gay panic for their humor: If everyone is on some level afraid of homoerotic contact, a performative slap on the ass is a quick means of defusing the tension.
Fleming reports that locker room joking has become less overtly homophobic in recent years, but statements like that from former New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma—“Imagine if [there’s a gay guy] next to me … and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?"—prove that when soaping up, some straight men still fear the gay gaze. Never mind that, as former NFL cornerback Wade Davis admits in the Fleming piece, straight men have already made a pastime of sizing up each other’s equipment. Given that openly gay men are a truly new phenomenon in the shower, let’s take Vilma’s question seriously: Are straight men right to be afraid?
The majority of responses to this question have taken an overcompensating “come on, guy!” approach that insists a gay man could never be attracted to his straight shower pals enough to sneak a look. (Meanwhile, locker room showers remain an ur-scenario of gay porn, and gay teenagers continue to choose body odor over the risk of post-P.E. erections.)
Reasons offered for this desexualizing, apologetic claim range from the grossness of the venue, to feelings of fraternity among teammates, to the notion that gay guys just don’t find straight guys alluring. Each of these may or may not be true depending on the gay man in question (though the last is particularly suspect); but it’s the “don’t be silly, man” response’s larger aim—to coddle the apparently fragile sensibilities of straight men—that I find troubling.
The truth is, it is within the realm of possibility that a gay man might be physically attracted to a straight man, and he might even steal a glance at that man’s body—perhaps unconsciously, perhaps on purpose. Either way, this does not make him a bad person or render him in violation of some kind of gay-straight peace accord; in fact, it merely means that he is a human being expressing sexual attraction in a way that our culture authorizes straight men (and increasingly women) to do as a matter of course. It is a particularly noxious expression of male privilege for a straight man to insist that he not be an object of desire while he sees no problem with passively enjoying a cheerleader’s acrobatics or a female colleague’s flattering blouse. And it is exceedingly homophobic to demand that a gay man downplay, police, or actively “cover” the most harmless sort of sexual expression simply to preserve a straight guy’s precarious sense of his masculinity.
Of course, this is not to say that gay men should go out of their way to make their straight gym buddies uncomfortable: In the context of sports, the locker room is a kind of office, and players like Sam should conduct themselves with professionalism. (By all accounts, he has been doing so.) Similarly, a mixed gym is public space, and behavior there should hew to the platonic side of things. (Gay gyms are a different ball game.)
But we do not expect straight people to become non-sexual beings at work or in public; we merely require that they have the good sense and self-control to avoid overtly expressing sexual desire in spaces where it is inappropriate. Real equality requires the same treatment for gay people. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment regardless of gender, but the almost involuntary act of noticing an attractive member of the sex(es) to which you are drawn is not a crime.
To act otherwise when gay people are in the room is the definition of a double-standard. But then, gay trailblazers like Sam are all too familiar with that kind of thing. As Christopher Glazek puts it in an Out Magazine profile of the athlete, “[H]e has had to walk prouder, play harder, earn less, and allow himself to be fumbled around as the media's football in a way unknown to the vast majority of his comparatively anonymous peers.” You can add putting up with the simultaneous policing of his sexuality and questioning of his professionalism to that list, all because some straight guys aren’t so comfortable with gayness when it comes wrapped in a living, breathing, and yeah, sometimes desiring body. But they’ll have to get over it—those bodies need showers, too.