Twenty-two years ago, when George W. Bush’s father was president of the United States, “family values” meant “anti-gay.” The 1992 Republican National Convention, held in Houston, was a theater of jeremiads against the perils of homosexuality and feminism.
Michael Sam was then 2 years old. He was living in Hitchcock, Texas, 35 miles from the convention site and 25 miles from where I grew up. Political speeches, sermons, and football culture failed to turn him straight. This week, he publicly affirmed his homosexuality. He’s expected to become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
Last Tuesday, Michael Sam Sr. was at a Denny’s near his home outside Dallas to celebrate his birthday when his son sent him a text message.
Dad, I’m gay, he wrote.
The party stopped cold. “I couldn’t eat no more, so I went to Applebee’s to have drinks,” Sam Sr. said. “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.
“I’m old school,” he added. “I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.” As evidence, he pointed out that he had taken an older son to Mexico to lose his virginity.
That’s a sobering portrait of what family values meant to Michael Sam Sr. The right kind of environment for raising children was one in which a man took his virgin son to another country to have sex with a woman. In the household Michael Sam Sr. created, two sons died, and two more ended up in jail. The one who escaped and appears to be living the most moral life is the gay kid.
The gay kid escaped to the University of Missouri. There, he found a different kind of family. A Times video shows the university’s football coach, Gary Pinkel, talking to reporters after Sam came out. “I’m very proud of Michael Sam,” says Pinkel. “I’m very proud of our football team. It just says so much for our family and our team, the kind of kids that we have, and how much they care about each other.”
In the video, Michael Sam Jr. agrees. “I knew there was a reason why I chose Mizzou,” he says. “It was such a family-based atmosphere. No one had a problem about my sexuality.”
If you’re socially liberal, the difference between these two worlds is obvious. In Sam’s birth family, he faced a father who rejected homosexuality as immoral. In his collegiate family, he found teammates and a coach who welcomed him as he was. Family values, to many liberals, means acceptance without judgment.
But if you’re conservative, the contrast is even more disturbing. Conservatives don’t have a problem with moral judgment. By that standard, I’m conservative. The problem here is that there’s no sane rule of moral judgment under which the birth family looks better than the collegiate family. The “man and woman” household produced by Michael Sam Sr. led to sexual corruption, delinquency, crime, and death.
No one can predict Michael Sam Jr.’s football career with certainty. He might be taken in the third or fourth round of the draft. He might be taken later. He might become a starter in his rookie year. He might wash out.
But here’s one prediction you can bet on: The family he builds as a gay man will be better than the “old school” family he grew up in. It won’t just be more tolerant. It will be more principled, better organized, and more useful to society. The next time you hear somebody talk about “family values,” remember that.