SOCHI’S Gay: Ellen Page, Michael Sam, and a Tale of Good Timing
There’s something to be said about good timing.
I don’t mean being ON time. As someone who’s spent an absolute lifetime perfecting the art of chronic lateness, I would never speak to THAT. I mean choosing the RIGHT time….that quintessential second to raise your voice and be heard, or that now or never moment to jump to your feet and take action. During the journey of most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, there inevitably comes THAT day. When it comes you either peek your head out of that figurative closet you’ve lived in and take some cautious steps out into the world, or you cozy back up in the corner with a blanket and think “I’m just fine just hanging out in here for now, thank you very much” or you go all ninja like and attack the door, kicking and screaming until there’s nothing left but splinters and sawdust. Now truth be told, for most of us the journey to outness isn’t that literal, and for many it often involves variations of all three of those options, sometimes during some very different stages in our lives. Some roads on this incredible journey are dark, with fear, intimidation, and self loathing at almost every corner, and other paths are brighter, full of hope, promise, and some hard-won feelings of acceptance and belonging.
Ellen Page’s moment came on Valentine’s Day, as she stood, nervous but brave, on a small stage in Las Vegas, ready to finally share her story. Here, at the inaugural Time to Thrive conference (sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, an organization dedicated to the betterment of the lives of LGBTQ youth everywhere), Page delivered a very eloquent, very moving, very personal speech. She spoke of being fearful of coming out and how, as a result – now listen up, because this is important – not only her relationships but also her spirit and her mental health suffered greatly. Page spoke of her belief that gay people should be able to love freely, openly, and without compromise, and that together we have suffered “too many dropouts, too much abuse, too many homeless, too many suicides” as a direct result of people being bullied, mistreated, abused, and rejected simply because of who they are, and for living the life they were born to live.
Now the cynic might look at Ellen Page and roll their eyes and say clearly they knew about the “lesbian thing” years ago, or complain about these celebrities who feel the need to share all the intimate details of their sex lives with the world. Just sorting through my Facebook feed alone the last few days I’m quick to discover comments like “why do these gays feel the need to come out anyway? I didn’t come out STRAIGHT” or “it doesn’t matter to me if someone is gay or not, I just wish they’d keep quiet about it so I wouldn’t have to know” (Alas, it will be hard to deprive myself of these little nuggets of wisdom, but somehow I sense some Facebook UNfriending soon).
As important as Ellen Page’s coming out has been, she’s not the only one making “gay waves” in the news today. Michael Sam, a defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, announced last week that he was gay, and is now poised, post draft season, to become the first openly gay player in NFL history. Sam noted his coming out was driven by concerns someone else might leak details of his private life, and he felt the need to “own” his own truth, saying “no one should tell my story but me”. Sam’s candour has been divisive among the professional sporting world, but for the most part he’s been shown mad support and acceptance, particularly from his fellow players and coaches.
It’s ironic that these two people, heroes to many, have come forward at a time when we’re celebrating the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The controversy that surrounds Sochi has certainly affected my enjoyment of the Olympic games on a personal level. This is disappointing because, as a guy who’s not so great at sports, the Olympics are my chance to feel like a total jock. Or, at the very least, play armchair athlete and sit around in my underwear, drink beer, and scream at the TV “are you blind?? That was clearly just a twizzle and not a triple toe double loop, you big idiot!”
Like many other parts of this world, the rights of LGBTQ people in Russia have long faced legal and social challenges, with gay people often subject to various forms of abuse, harassment and discrimination. What makes Russia “unique” in this respect is that just eight months before the start of the Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a law making the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors illegal. The media claimed the legislation was blatantly “anti-gay”, while LGBTQ rights activists took it one step further by condemning the law as a return to the Middle Ages, and the government’s way of effectively banning most forms of LGBTQ culture. Since the passage of the anti-gay propaganda law, the media has reported the arrest of many gay rights activists, as well as an alarming increase in incidence and severity of homophobic violence, including attacks by ne0-Nazi groups against young minors.
This struggle for gay rights that has now played out on the world stage serves some very good and important purposes. It has made the International Olympic Commission reconsider just how hosting the games in a place like Sochi contradicts the principles of their Olympic charter regarding anti-discrimination in sport, and will likely force them to review these principles and more carefully consider proposals from future host cities. Above all, it has uncovered blatant human rights violations suffered by LGBTQ citizens of one of the most powerful nations in the world, and brought to light the discrimination, abuse and hardships visited upon them each and everyday. It is a cry for justice that will not go unheard long after these Olympic Games are done.
S0 how important is the idea of movie actresses and professional athletes announcing to the world they are gay and ready to live their life out loud? I say it’s more important than you know. The whole process of coming out for many is a terrifying one. A gay kid is first already burdened with this terrible knowledge that they are different from everyone else. Their differences single them out – to be made fun of, left beaten down, made to feel their worth as a person is somehow less. And no matter how true it is, even when surrounded by others a gay kid often feels alone in the world… isolated, mistreated, and misunderstood. It’s challenging enough to navigate all the wonders and mysteries and awkwardness of adolescence for anyone, but for a gay kid it becomes, for these reasons and more, so much more difficult. So imagine, if you will, that artsy loner kid who now finds herself a kindred spirit in Ellen Page, or the basketball fan who sees in his sports hero Michael Sam a glimmer of himself. Imagine watching these proud gay Olympians hold their head high and represent their sport and their country with dignity and grace in a place that would marginalize, reject, and condemn them. Accepting you are gay means accepting, in many ways, that as you travel down those roads in life, your path is going to be just that much harder, with enormous obstacles and burdens along the way. But it can also mean that life, despite it’s hardships and its compromises, will ultimately be that much more grander, richer, vital, and fulfilling. We can say “it gets better” but we need to live by those “better” principles, or otherwise the message is meaningless. That means standing up for what’s unfair and what’s unjust. It means being brave and opening ourselves up to the world, being that role model that others need so that they might grow and learn from our strengths and from our weaknesses. It means recognizing we’ve already lost far too many beautiful lights, and taking five minutes, as Ellen so perfectly noted, to recognize each other’s beauty instead of attacking each other for our differences. It means loving and accepting ourselves, so that we’re at a good time and in a good space to do all of these things.
That’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s the kind of world I plan to live in. Won’t you join me?