You’re with your loved one. You’ve just had great news. Emotion wells up inside you. You hug your partner, they kiss you, you kiss them, tears of joy flow. And so it was when Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend Vito Cammisano on hearing he had been picked in the seventh and last round of the draft for the St. Louis Rams.
What changed everything was that ESPN was on hand to capture the moment: Gay kisses in primetime are rare enough; this was the first between the first openly gay football prospect and his partner. And it was a kiss of feeling. Not a peck. Not a brushing of lips. Nor a manly hug. But a smackeroo, full of all kinds of emotion and passion: a historic moment within a historic moment. There was a lot in that kiss, both personal and indelibly political.
And, sadly, America doesn’t seem to have wanted to see it. In a Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Thursday, while 60 percent of Americans approved of the idea of their favorite sports team signing an openly gay star (for NFL fans, 65 percent approved), 47 percent said it was “inappropriate” for networks to show the kiss; only 36 percent said it was “appropriate.” 17 percent said they weren’t sure.
As was perhaps to be expected, Democrats thought the kiss was appropriate to show (53 percent to 32 percent), but independents (45 percent to 36 percent) and a heavy majority of Republicans (69 percent to 16 percent) said it was inappropriate. Those under 30 approved 55 percent to 29 percent margin. Those between ages 30 and 44 were evenly divided. Some 52 percent of those between ages 45 and 64, and 69 percent of those 65 and older, found it inappropriate.
The survey represents a fascinating, and depressing, disconnect, which can be boiled down to: It’s OK for you to be gay, but we don’t want to see you express it. We’re cool with homosexuality, y’all, just as long as you take the “sex” part out of it. If being gay is no longer a big deal, being a gay man or woman and physically expressing that, or showing sexual pleasure, or kissing your lover to within the last inch of their life, is absent. Gays are nice, gays are funny, snarky, quick, empathetic, they can redesign houses, and bring life to dowdy wardrobes—but as sexual beings we’re neutered in the public eye.
It’s odd how even the mainstream gay-rights movement has taken account of this distaste: The gay spokespeople on television, the figureheads, the famous actors, are all immensely respectable and sexless. They can be campy, saucy, they can backchat and make us laugh, or give stirring speeches about injustice and the rightness of all kinds of love… but kiss and be affectionate with their loved ones? No, thanks.
There’s an inevitability to this: Gay male sexual behavior in particular has been prohibited in law (Queen Victoria famously didn’t believe lesbianism existed). When the lawmakers legislate against homosexuality, they are very much legislating against what they see as sexual perversion, the act they define homosexuality by—anal penetration of one man by another—they find the most abhorrent.
No matter that straight people have anal sex too, no matter that many gay men don’t, or do other sexual acts. When bigots bray about the unnaturalness of homosexuality, it’s the sexual acts of gays they’re invoking. Their imagination of the abnormality of that act is at the root of their determination to block the marriage-equality movement, employment protection, and other gay civil-rights issues. And that disgust, that recoil, underpins the Michael Sam statistics: Let him be gay, let him be a figurehead, but, hang on, yikes, you mean he’s gay and he actually, you know, does gay stuff. Eugh. Disgusting.
What the poll shows is at once an advance, but also the gritty underpinnings of prejudice. It’s almost as if the public wants to somehow detach homosexuality the concept, which it errs toward accepting, from homosexuality the practice, which continues to gross it out. Gay men and women can have jobs, live together, play on football teams, but on no account must they actually have sex or show affection to others of their kind, or even their most cherished partners, on television. It’s a fascinating, contradictory split attitude. The general public seems to want gays to be noble and fun, but also sexless.
This queasiness has long been in evidence in our pop culture. I remember being 16, in London, in 1989, and British television showing its first kiss between two men on a primetime soap opera, EastEnders. The Sun tabloid’s headline proclaiming this act of intimacy was “East-Benders.” There was outrage the next morning. Then the world didn’t fall in, and more gay kisses in British primetime followed. But still gay sex scenes, always one-offs, provoked titillation and comment.
Outrage!, a direct-action group, would hold kiss-in protests against the then-homophobic laws of Section 28, which forbid the “promotion” of homosexuality and the unequal age of consent: The very public display of en-masse same-sex kissing was, back then, shocking and deliciously politically confrontational.
In America, in 2000, on Will and Grace, a sitcom partly about a gay man, rooted in a gay milieu, streaked with gay banter, an actual gay kiss—between Will and Jack—was seen as a major cultural moment. And this kiss wasn’t sexual, but gestural. While gay characters populate our TV shows, the physical nature of their relationships is rarely conveyed with the same explicitness, or frequency, as their heterosexual counterparts.
It was only in the second season of Modern Family in 2010, after a viewer-led campaign, that Mitchell and Cameron actually kissed—and they haven’t done much more of the same since.
So much is spoken about “visibility,” as if gays on television was a numbers game, when it is also about what those gays are visible doing on screen, and for true equality they would, ideally, be allowed to be as physically intimate as everyone else. This has been the great success and surprise of a couple like Sonny and Will in Days of Our Lives, whose relationship has been given a brave physical consistency.
Elsewhere there is the odd peck, the odd hug, and of course shows like The L Word and Queer as Folk, which for years stood alone as showing our skins sweaty with lust.
It’s still surprising when gay desire is shown as equivalent to straight desire, or even just blatant. Gay viewers like myself, who have long watched gay-themed TV, film, and theater, can be caught fanning themselves when same-sex desire is evoked in sweaty, fleshy tooth and claw, as in the brilliant British movie Weekend, the two astonishing French films of this last year, Blue Is The Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake, and on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, and HBO’s Looking.
And yet these shows and movies have to be sought out. On ESPN at 6:40 at night, it was an electrifying jolt, not just to see two men kiss, but kiss as Sam and Cammisano did with such feeling. There was both a sense of release (what an emotional roller coaster they had gone through), yet also assertion by Sam himself: This is who I am, this is the man I love passionately, and this is one special day.
The author and broadcaster Michelangelo Signorile was so moved by the power of the kiss, and disturbed by the negative reaction to it, that he heralded the great Facebook Kiss-In, encouraging users to change their profile pictures to a picture of a kissing same-sex couple.
Signorile rightly recognizes that beyond the big issues of same-sex marriage and employment rights, the controversy over the Michael Sam kiss reveals a last, and possibly far trickier bastion of prejudice. It’s not one you can legislate for, but it’s as vital to confront as any legislation—the acceptance of gay people as sexual, and passionate. At the root of so much bigotry is a disgust of what we can call the gay-physical, the gay-sexual, the “sex” in homosexuality.
When we look back at Sam’s draft-pick moment, it isn’t only the first time an openly gay player was drafted for the league—and, if all goes well, he will be first active NFL player to have publicly come out—but also, right there, in early evening primetime, it was the first time a man kissed another man, emotion thrumming from every pore: unapologetic, loving, fierce, proud—and, yes, extremely fucking hot.