Chris Kluwe, the punter for the Minnesota Vikings, is awesome.
Now, some of you know that it’s difficult for me to say anything nice about a Viking. The daughter of an Illinois man, I am a lifelong Chicago Bears, Cubs, and Bulls fan. As a native Michigander, I also have a soft spot for the Tigers and Lions—though not the Pistons, with their history of dirty play and front-office sexual harassment. This means that I am genetically predisposed to disparage regional rivals like the Packers, Vikings, and Twins. Even more, given that I married into a family of rabid—as in, season tickets on the 50-yard-line—Vikings fans, it takes a lot for me to publicly commend one of “their” players.
But last week, the NFL made news for something other than the commencement of the 2012-13 season when Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the hard-hitting Baltimore Ravens, incurred the wrath of a local Maryland politician. Ayanbadejo’s transgression? Voicing his support for gay marriage, which the Maryland legislature recently legalized. The law has yet to take effect, though—opponents of the civil rights law have sponsored a ballot measure that will allow Maryland voters to have the final say this November.
Ayanbadejo, a two-time Pro Bowler for the Bears, has been a longtime supporter of the gay marriage cause, speaking out, writing online pieces, and even offering free NFL tickets for fund-raisers. These off-field activities recently led Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat (and, by the way, a Baptist minister), to fire off a letter to Ravens management:
I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically as a Raven Football player… I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base. I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.
As tempted as I am to pick apart this ludicrous attempt by an elected official to suppress the First Amendment rights of one of his constituents, by now Mr. Burns has been adeptly debrided by numerous other writers. One particularly good piece, a Yahoo! Sports article by Dan Wetzel, points out some of the more “inconceivable” aspects of Burns’s attack, including his apparent lack of understanding of the rules of capitalization. Like Wetzel, most analysts have focused on Burns’s attempted abuse of power, and have been supportive of Ayanbadejo’s right to speak out on any issue that moves him. As Ayanbadejo himself tweeted, “Football is just my job it’s not who I am. I am an American before anything. And just like every American I have the right to speak!!!”
So where does Chris Kluwe come in? The Vikings punter, whose brother-in-law is gay, has, like Ayanbadejo, been active in campaigning in support of gay marriage. After the missive from Burns became public, Kluwe penned an open letter to Burns that begins with, “I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.”
The letter goes on to critique Burns’s blatant disregard of both the First Amendment and the history of racism in the NFL (Burns is African-American), and closes with a passionate defense of gay marriage in language that even I find somewhat, ahem, colorful:
This is more a personal quibble of mine, but why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different from what you believe, or act differently from you? How does gay marriage affect your life in any way, shape, or form? Are you worried that if gay marriage became legal, all of a sudden you’d start thinking about penis? (“Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!”) Will all your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely. Gay people enjoy watching football, too.)
I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c#$%monster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population, rights like Social Security benefits, childcare tax credits, family and medical leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA health care for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gay Americans? Full-fledged citizens, just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?
Well-said, particularly for a straight guy not into “hot dong action,” as he so illustriously puts it. One reason Kluwe’s foray into the battle over gay marriage is particularly noteworthy is that Minnesota, where my wife Kris grew up, has a constitutional amendment coming up on the ballot in November that would define civil marriage as between one man and one woman. I.e., not for we gays.
As Washington residents, Kris and I also have a special interest in the current legal battle over gay rights in Maryland. Our own state legislature recently passed a law granting civil marriage to same-sex couples. This law would require our current home state to finally, officially recognize our 2005 Massachusetts marriage. The only problem is that, just like in Maryland, anti-gay foes here in the Evergreen State have collected enough signatures to force a referendum vote in November.
Given all the recent gains for American gays—the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a Federal Court ruling that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, the legalization of same-sex marriage in more than a handful of states—it may surprise you to learn that in ballot measures where voters are given the power to legislate our civil rights, we’re 0-for-31.
That’s right, 0 for 31. Our successes in the judicial system and legislative arena (state legislatures, state supreme courts, federal appeals courts, and even the Supreme Court to-date) have made all the difference, while popular votes have, up until now, been the bane of our civil rights.
But that o-fer number is a bit disingenuous, for reasons that the civil rights group Equality Matters does a great job of breaking down:
- 27 states passed amendments banning gay marriage prior to 2006. Since then, polls show that public support for gay marriage has grown from less than 40% to just over 50%. More importantly, opposition to gay marriage has dropped almost 20% in that same time period.
- Anti-gay marriage amendments have had success in states where public sentiment has long aligned against gay marriage. This is the low-hanging-fruit argument—23 of the 29 states where support for gay marriage is weakest have banned same-sex unions. No big surprise, there.
- Ballot initiatives, by their very nature, promote misinformation. Equality Matters cites an Oregon Law Review piece from 2008: “Deliberate dissemination of false information can be a particularly potent and harmful strategy to agitate the majority against minority groups. Immune from legislative or executive review, initiative campaigns may rely on appeals to voter prejudice.” The Mormon campaign against gay marriage in California in 2008, for example.
In both Washington and Maryland, public support for gay marriage has run higher, historically, than in the mostly Southern and Midwestern “low-hanging-fruit” states. In recent polls, voters in both states favor approving their state government’s move to legalize gay marriage. The more public figures and role models who express support for our cause, especially straight guys in uber-masculine professional sports like football, the better the chance we have at winning future popular votes on our civil marriage rights.
So thank you, Brendon and Chris. It takes courage to stand up for a cause that doesn’t affect you personally, yet can put you in peril of losing your job or being targeted by those who disagree—both on and off the field.
This episode appears to demonstrate that just as the country in general has been moving toward acceptance of GLBT citizens, so have many professional athletes (Kobe Bryant aside). I particularly like what Charles Barkley had to say last year on the issue of homosexuality in sports: “First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
And what does Barkley have to say about gay marriage? “I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”
It’s okay for me to like Barkley, you know. He played in Phoenix, and though his team challenged my Bulls for an NBA title once long ago (1993, my senior year of college), they didn’t stand a chance against Michael Jordan and the rest of the Bulls.
At least tonight I know my wife and assorted in-laws will join me in cheering for my team as they face off against the hated Green Bay Packers. That’s yet another sports allegiance, I’m happy to report, we share.
Roll Call: Gay or Gay-Friendly American Athletes
- Megan Rapinoe*, Soccer, National Team—had to lead with her!
- Natasha Kai*, Soccer, National Team
- Sheryl Swoopes*, WNBA
- Seimone Augustus*, WNBA
- Charles Barkley, NBA
- John Amaechi*, NBA
- Grant Hill, NBA
- David Kopay*, NFL
- Michael Strahan, NFL
- Brendon Ayanbadejo, NFL
- Chris Kluwe, NFL
- Sean Avery, NHL
- Billie Jean King*, Tennis
- Martina Navratilova*, Tennis
- Lisa Raymond*, Tennis
- Rudy Galindo*, Figure Skating
- Greg Louganis*, Diving
- Hudson Taylor, Wrestling
- Graham Ackerman*, Gymnastics
* Indicates out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual