We need more role models in bodybuilding and strength sports. More men and women who don't just win, but who also stand for greater ideals. it is one thing to admire the winners of competitions, but quite another to laud an athlete as a legitimate hero among his or her peers.
This is not only an issue in these sports, of course. All the sports are brought with the same dual identity crisis; athletes so admired for their abilities yet who do not have the personal moral fiber and ethics to really be revered beyond their sport.
Where are the real heroes in sport? Where are those athletes who son't just merely excel in their chosen arena, but who also live lives which are admirable even scrutiny?
When the public eye is upon you, you have an opportunity. You can seize that moment as the one to deliver a message, or you can ignore the social responsibilities privileged to you. it is arguable that the heroes of sport, then, are those who look upon the admiring crowds and don't just thank them for the praise, but speak to them with purpose. Just basking in the post-victory spotlight is vain and pathetic. Using that spotlight to illuminate those who look up to you is noble. it is they that do this who may be considered true sports heroes.
Which is why I am admiring University of Missouri's star defense player Michael Sam this week. Sure, we have the drama and pathos of the Winter Olympics in Sochi delivering melodramatic tails of victory against odds, but it is Sam's revelation that he is gay that captures my awe and admiration. Being a top round potential draft, he has a small spotlight shine upon him. Rather than "play the role," he showed his true fabric of bravery against prejudice.
Now, football is only tenuously connected to the strength and physique sports in the mind of the public. The non-competitive training methods often overlap in content, yet this is where many presume the similarities end. But for me, the culture of the two sports has always overlapped, and I understand Sam's choice very well.
Football is a "man's man" world. Bravado, macho and iconic of a version of the American male idiom, it's hyper-masculine excess stands in stark contrast to a quality that many still ignorantly presume to be anti-masculine. We live in a culture that holds to an idiotic and reptilian presumption that men who love other men are innately less than their women-loving peers. The world of football is one spaces where this idea is not only prevalent, but perhaps extolled as a virtue – as clearly evidenced by the backwards-minded reactions to Sam's simple self-identification.
The world of competitive bodybuilding and competitive strength share a similar hyper-masculine attitude. Heterosexuality is not only presumed of the athletes, it is celebrated with chauvinism and bravado. So I know too well what Michael Sam risked when he did not hide his minority. I risk it too. My stakes are not nearly as high as Michael Sam; not even close. But i relate to his situation deeply.
Being queer in bodybuilding and strength sports is awkward at best and downright threatening at it's worst. These are sports where participants are intimately observant of each other's bodies. In strength, the diligent attention to method and form requires an attentiveness to the body's movement. In bodybuilding the need to look with unflinching gaze is constant. being a man on the receiving end of my eyes can be awkward for many; a few have even refused being around me because they do not trust that I can remain as neutral as any participant in the sport. Which hurts. And sucks. But it is their prerogative, and placating the concerns of others is not what I stand for. So I muddle forward, keeping close to the allies who have found my gaze is no more sexualized than any other man in the sport.
But the real trouble is not among peers. I am not just a gay strength and bodybuilding athlete – I am a gay coach. Which means heterosexual men are entrusting me for guidance. This idea is fine for some, but many just can't handle it. To be led through the masculine arenas of these sports by a man whose sexuality is inappropriately symbolic of non-masculinity is just not cool for some. Which is a bummer.
But I do not hide who I am. Those who are uncomfortable I need not deal with. (That is the polite way to put it; the actual thought has a bit more kick behind it – but as the topic concerns tolerance, I'll stick to the more diplomatic phrasing.) I have even had people suggest I hide it or mask it; that I actually dodge the idea. "Guys may not want to work with you, XN," I have been told by people who disingenuously claim to be concerned for my well-being. "It makes dudes comfortable to have a gay guy looking at their body. Just keep it quiet. They don't need to know."
Yeah, it's been suggested. And not just a few times.
And the sad thing is I have been told directly that the only reason some people chose not to work with me is because I date guys.
I have even been told that there is no way a gay man could ever possibly coach without the ulterior motive of being predatory. I have had more than a few men tell me that they are certain I am only involved in coaching to try and get laid; that it is impossible for me to have any other motive. I like guys; and I like good looking guys. So in their minds my coaching must therefore all be a ruse; a trap to ensure sexual favors.
When I hear this, my stomach always turns. It is always shocking the fear people are willing to spit out as cruelty.
I have been belittled at contests and even occasionally introduces as "the gay bodybuilder." And I mean to crowds. As if it must be mentioned. No one else is identified as "the heterosexual bodybuilder," yet somehow my classification is deemed important to announce. It is frustrating.
I have lost opportunities because I am a gay coach. I have been insulted because I am a gay coach. And I have been painted as a predator because I am a gay coach. Yet my faith in humanity is not swayed; I know there are intelligent people out there. I am fortunate to have found many, many of them. Yet the overwhelming acceptance I have experienced on an individual level does not change the big picture fact that this sport still has quite a bit of ignorant immaturity regarding masculinity and sexual identity.
So I get Michael Sam. I get what he is risking by just being himself. He has far more to lose than me, and I am far longer into my career than he is. Yet I admire his simple strength; and admire that he sees it as important to be known for who he is. I do too.
Only by remaining public about who I am can I hope for the climate to change. To my queer sisters and brothers in these sports, I want to be a present ally, not a secret lurking in shadow. Michael Sam does too. I am grateful that he is in far better a position than myself to inspire discussion and thought on the issues.
It is always remarkable when someone has fortitude and morality behind their athletic ability. It is men and women like Michael Sam that feel heroic to me. I often remind athletes that "it is not enough to just strive to win a sport; one should always strive to change how the game is played forever."
Don't just be victorious, be impacting. It is what Michael Sam is doing with his moment in the spotlight. And it makes me so grateful that he is doing so with such dignity. He is not looking for special treatment – nor am I. But he is likewise eager to have everyone's differences not just recognized but celebrated.
And so I celebrate him. From one out gay athlete whose public identity has resulted in consequence, to another who is currently experiencing the same, I applaud Michael Sam. And I thank him. We need more role models; I am grateful one more just got added to my list.