When Michael Sam became the first openly gay football player to be drafted into the NFL, President Barack Obama congratulated him, the St. Louis Rams, and the NFL "for taking an important step forward today in our nation's journey." And many enlightened citizens felt good about our continued progress toward equal treatment for all.
But when Sam, in his joy at finally being drafted in the seventh round, kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, on the lips on ESPN, some reactions were predictable.
A few current and former football players commented disapprovingly. Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones said "OMG" and called it "horrible." And beyond the NFL, documentary film director Patrick Dollard said, "Any straight person who says (the kiss) doesn't look disgusting can't pass a lie detector test saying it. Prove me wrong."
One of Dollard's Twitter followers said, "That was extremely disgusting. I possibly just threw up in my mouth a little."
Our nation's movement toward full, nondiscriminatory equality in all matters for all citizens, including gays, has been impressive. Mostly our progress is glacial, but sometimes it leaps forward with considerable energy, as indicated by recent changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage in a number of states. And Sam's freedom to be open about his sexuality in the macho world of pro football is a significant milestone.
But we shouldn't be satisfied with getting almost to the goal. Why shouldn't Sam be able to express his emotions just as the other drafted players did when they kissed their wives and girlfriends on national TV?
We're often a lot better at embracing lofty principles and ordinary practices than we are at accepting, or even acknowledging, their implications. For example, blacks were playing professional baseball long before they were treated as ordinary citizens at lunch counters and hotels across the nation.
We agree that blacks and whites are equal in every respect before the law, but some of us still have trouble with the down-to-earth circumstance of black students -- too many of them, at least -- in the same classroom with our own children.
We're hearty meat-eaters, but we're oblivious to the fact that meat-eating depends on considerable suffering and bloodletting. Our ongoing infatuation with hydrocarbons depends on denying the consequences for the climate.
There's more, but the point is that every principle or practice that we accept and support has implications that we might prefer to ignore. Whatever you think of homosexuals, they're people, not abstractions, and we can't accept them as equals entitled to all of the rights of American citizenship and, at the same time, deny them the privilege of comfortably expressing their emotions just as straights do.
Some argue that disgust at the sight of two men kissing is a natural, innate response programmed by millennia of "normal" heterosexual reproduction. As it happens, I'm not gay, nor an evolutionary biologist, but I'm skeptical about this notion:
Many years ago I was loosely acquainted with an old man who, otherwise uncharacteristically, would sit up at night and watch soft-core, cable-grade pornography. I'm told that he watched whatever came on, more or less indiscriminately, from regular canoodling to mild lesbianism to, probably, benign domination.
But when a black man finally fondled and kissed a white woman on TV, he said, "Now, that's disgusting."
Maybe there are some things that we're programmed to find disgusting. But I suspect that a lot of what we find offensive or objectionable or disgusting doesn't have much of a rational basis.
Certainly our prejudices are learned. And they can be unlearned.
Whether you believe homosexuality is "normal" or not, the destruction of the stigma that is attached to it is a healthy goal for our nation. We've made progress. The worthy end of our progress might be the day when we don't find anything particularly remarkable about two men holding hands or kissing in public.
I understand that some of them even have sex, as well.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Contact him at email@example.com.