Let’s Have A Kiki
“I’m sorry; did I answer your question right?” Michael Sam’s voice is not necessarily soft, nor is it smooth, but what it is, is respectful and earnest. This is at least the third time he has worried if his answers to my questions are correct. I, hoping to put him at ease, reply, “It is fine; just think of this as us having a kiki in a cafe.” Instantly Sam’s brow furrows; he briefly squints his eyes and asks, “A what?” The language is foreign to him. Again I reply, “A kiki. It is black gay slang for when friends get together to laugh and talk. Basically it’s shooting the shit.” His brow releases its wrinkles and he slightly smiles, “Oh; I thought you said ‘kinky.’ I was like, ‘what?’A ‘kiki?’ I have never heard of that?” The fact that he didn’t speak the language was not shocking to me; I had suspicions as to why but I wanted confirmation: “Don’t you have Black gay friends? Or are most of your friends straight? Or if they are gay are they…?” I thought better of finishing the question, but Sam answered, “Most of my friends are straight. I don’t have a lot of gay friends but I do have one really good transgender friend.”
Michael Sam had, unknowingly, confirmed all of my inner doubts about him, and he confirmed many of the criticisms of him and many out Black gay celebrities. Criticisms that maintain that Michael Sam and others like him are symbols of pride and progress precisely because they have such fragile ties to the Black queer community (or to Blackness in general except for confirming supposed Black pathology). They are the pieces of charcoal in Frosty’s white face that make him complete, the black top hat that brings his white body to life. Each one of them come to the media table with a story that confirms Black homophobia and the power of self-love, and each reach for their white lover, who becomes an avatar for whiteness. And, for many a Black queer boy, in that moment, the moment of the reach for the white hand, the fantasy reveals itself to be just that, a fantasy, a fraud, or, worse, a confirmation that healthy Black gay love is not loving another Black queer person.
And, there is reason for this suspicion. If we turn to the world of imagination, sadly, it too fails us. We have a paucity of Black queer characters on television and film; so, often, when we see a Black queer character there is an initial moment of joy. A deep hope once again sprouts and we think, “Maybe this time will be different; maybe this time [we’ll] win,” but then we inevitably discover that our hope is misplaced. Often the Black queer is usually male and subordinate to other characters. If he is the center of an episode of television, he is often, though not always, on the DL. If he is femme, he is often depicted as romantically and sexually undesirable and given little complexity. If he is “masc,” or simply “not femme,” he may have complexity, but his love life is always one constructed for the white gaze because he, visually coded as desirable, is almost always dating a non-Black character. It seems that even in the collective American imagination, Black queer folk loving other Black queer folk is too strange to comprehend.
And, if we dare to look at reality, in truth, it is hard to think of a single high-profile out Black gay celebrity who is dating a Black person. Derrick Gordon, Wanda Sykes, and John Amaechi, all Black figures who have recently came out in impactful ways, each subsequently are attached to a white lover.
As Michael shifted momentarily in his seat, I thought about his lack of Black gay friends, and in turn I thought about the criticisms of Black gay celebs, and then about the depiction of Black gays in the media and Black queer love, and this brought to mind what, for me, has been the loudest criticism of Michael Sam, his relationship with his boyfriend. Often, the questions others had asked Sam about his relationship, centered on his draft kiss with his then-boyfriend, now fiancé, Vito Cammisano, and whether it was planned or for some, in the words of Oprah, “too much.” I agreed with Sam, “Turn the channel; you don’t have to watch.” Such questions are easily dealt with because they address homophobia; consequently, responses similar to Sam’s to such questions are easy to celebrate. They uphold basic ideas of progressive equality and acceptance. But, what they do not do is take into consideration that, who we kiss, who we publicly love and acknowledge is, simultaneously, a personal choice and a political act. For better or worse, love is political. Loving is an action. So, I wasn’t interested in the act of kissing as much as who he was kissing.
I was more interested in the conversations I had heard in Black queer circles, be it Twitter, Facebook, or kikis; conversations about Michael and Vito that on the surface seem to be about interracial dating in the gay community, but are actually discussions about Michael Sam’s blackness, and, beyond Michael Sam, what does it mean to be Black and queer in public? Just how connected to Black queer culture does one need to be? How connected was Michael? He admitted he didn’t have many gay friends, and other than one trans woman friend, he did not seem to have any Black queer friends. If he didn’t have Black queer friends to kiki with, did Michael Sam know what was being said in many kikis; did he follow the criticisms of his relationship? “Yes, I have gotten criticism from the Black gay community for dating Vito. The thing is, if you know anything about Mizzou it is predominantly white. We are a small group of Black people who are there. Now the Black people can hang out together but athletes are separate. The only Black friends I really had were my teammates and people in the athletic department. There are not a lot of openly gay athletes and most of them are on the swimming or the softball team. So when I start dating someone [openly] gay within the athletic department that person [happens] to be white Italian. If you fall in love with that person I think it is unfair to judge me because I’m dating a white guy.” Apparently Michael knew what was being said, and he had thought about it before, his words came fast and with the sense that the speaker was secure in his convictions.
To a certain extent I agree with Michael; proximity and availability created his dating pool, and after all, as fellow blogger Son of Baldwin has said, as part of larger and more nuanced critique of whiteness/white supremacy and desire, love is where you find it. But, I always wonder, “Where are you looking?” Apparently Michael was looking in the athletic department because of convenience, yes, but also because of fear: “Also [at the time] I’m still closeted. What if I try to find someone outside the athletic department and they take picture and tweet it and it gets out and I’m not ready? So I think it is unfair to judge me and you don’t know the whole story.” He has a point; there was a lot on the line for Michael Sam, and for any closeted person, one of your greatest fears is for your “secret” to become public. But, couldn’t a swimmer just as easily tweet a photo? Couldn’t a person whose allegedly had other semipublic relationships also make public a relationship with a closeted star football player? it is certainly to Vito Cammisano’s credit that he didn’t, but it would not be disingenuous to say that he has a type, and this feeds just as much into what is not fully explicitly articulated in kiki’s but is certainly part of the frustration. That is, Black gay celebs dating white folk seems to be a copy of what Black women have talked about for years: that, it seems, when Black men achieve a modicum of success they often seek out a white partner. To voice this critique is to risk being labeled as bitter, but, is it bitter when you are trying to articulate the existence of a pattern that establishes whiteness and acceptance by white folk as a prize? Is it really wrong to be a Black person committed to loving other Black people and seeing ourselves as “the prize?”
The entire time Michael is speaking to me, I keep thinking about the actual event that Michael Sam was the keynote for; so many young Black boys came out just for Sam. I remember their faces, bright with anticipation to meet this man they admired, but also one many of them found attractive. I can also remember the moment some were told that he was engaged; one bold dark-skinned beautiful guy quipped, “I can be a mistress.” He flashed a seductive smile and held it till someone else told him, “He don’t want you; he into the pink meat.” The smile vanished and its place, bewilderment and disappointment spread across his across his face. I got it; I felt him because while Sam’s fiancé possibly placed the idea of hooking up with him in the moral area of grey, it was still a possibility, the best type of fantasy, but the words, as blunt as they are, “pink meat,” killed any possibility and made Michael Sam yet another fantasy not simply out-of-reach but simply not meant for you to even dream about.
Of course all this pivots on a problematic sexualization of Michael, one he did not sign-up for, and people are judging without all the facts because as he said, “When Vito and I broke up I dated all types; Black, White, Latino it didn’t matter. If you were my type I was there.” But this, again, brings me back to, “where are you looking,” for, if, as he stated on Oprah, he and Vito broke up because he was not open, and, as he told me, there weren’t open queer athletes of color, but, as he maintained, he was worried about hooking up with non-athletes because there was risk of them circulating evidence of his queerness, the fact that he did apparently hook-up with various people from different backgrounds, seems to be contradictory. While it could be as simple as geography and opportunity, it does carry the faint memory of Blacks being good enough for a fuck but not for love, even from their own. But, I must confess, I highly doubt Michael Sam thinks in these terms.
Michael Sam seems quick to embrace a color-blind mentality but it is not naiveté. Growing up as he did, “in the ghetto,” Sam is certainly aware of systemic racism and classism, but he deliberately chooses to believe in the common decency of most people and a sense of shared humanity. When discussing the NFL during his keynote and Q&A he stated that he “chooses to believe that [his] not playing in the NFL is a business decision.” I would not be so generous; I would question, Why am I not good for your business; what is it about me that is a liability? I certainly wouldn’t be so generous when it would seem that my dream was slipping away and few were helping me preserve it; that instead of a player, I was simply a symbol, another pawn in the chess game that is (white) gay visibility politics, but again, Michael Sam doesn’t seem to think in these terms. But, this embracement of, arguably, simplistic, certainly troublesome, beliefs is something that Sam has done since he was younger. He is someone who, as a younger person, chose to surround himself with certain types of people and attached value to characteristics that seemed to be seen in a racialized way. “I have a lot of white friends, cause…I grew up in the ghetto. Now you are who are who you hangout with. I really believe that; you are who you are who you hangout with.” So essentially, Michael Sam has a birds of a feather flock together mentality, but I still didn’t understand why all these birds had pretty white feathers. According to Sam, “I had Black friends who was around me in the ghetto who were gangsters. These guys were up to no good. So I chose to hangout with the more white side. I’m not saying I don’t like or love my race or who I am; I just chose to try to do the right things. I needed to be smart.” Already, at such a young age Michael Sam was engaging in a form of survival politics that were very much tied to respectability politics.
Michael told me this in response to me bringing up Joseph Beam’s essay, “Brother to Brother,” (I briefly explained the thesis of the essay being Black men loving Black men was the revolutionary act of the 80s) and asking him if he saw himself as his brother’s keeper. That Michael’s answer to such a simple question included a confession of deliberately surrounding himself with white folk and immersing himself in whiteness, speaks volumes. So it was unsurprising to hear Sam, by this time slightly more comfortable and open, saying “it’s 2015, it’s a whole new generation. I don’t see black or white, I see the person.” In truth, I am not sure if Sam was responding to my final question or still responding to the questions about his interracial relationship but either way I was a little disappointed.
I wanted him to say yes.
I knew he saw himself as a person who could help gay people in general by being on the field, because as he told me, this is part of his motivation to get back on the field, helping others, Advocacy is a role Michael Sam has begun to embrace. And in certain ways he is good at it.
Perhaps that is why I wanted Michael Sam to say that he felt an extra feeling of responsibility to his Black brothers and sisters. I wanted this because, well because I do feel this sense of dedication specifically for and to Black queer people. I wanted him to say yes because I wanted to think that regardless of who he kissed on draft day he was ours.
But he said no. Maybe, I thought, he isn’t ours. Maybe he is just a snow bunny, a snow flake; I could feel myself dismissing him but there was something about him that I could not shake. In some ways, some very real ways, I could look at him and see a very recognizable Black gay face and story; perhaps I was the one who needed to demonstrate a more generous version of love and caring that Beam spoke of.
There was a moment after his keynote speech, during the Q & A portion when a woman asked him about his relationship with his mom and if he could lean on her? Michael talked about how he loved her but that he couldn’t lean on her; he said it so plainly, in a way I could never imagine (my parents are my rock). The woman was so moved that she told him that she was childless but would be honored to think of him as her son; another woman simply asked to wrap her arms around him and give him a hug. Michael consented and the woman hugged him tight and long in what I would call a “home-embrace”; it was the type of affection that briefly physically creates home in a way that I have only known from the arms of black women.
Whether or not I thought he was ours, they claimed him. Michael Sam isn’t who I wanted him to be, and I am struggling with that. I sincerely believe that he sees himself as a man who refuses to allow people to erase his blackness or his queerness. But, repeatedly Sam expressed a desire to be seen as just “Michael Sam”; more importantly, I cannot shake that he is so disconnected from Black queer culture, and he never expressed any sense of ultimate control over his narrative beyond being seen as respectable. I looked at Michael and, at times, I was reminded of the black little boy in an all white class who always raises his hand to answer the question, basking in the glow of the teacher’s praise, but not realizing that what the teacher is expressing is surprise that a black boy is smart, and that, for the teacher, makes him exceptional. I kept wanting him to realize that.
But, can an icon acknowledge the messy limiting work that goes into creating himself as such?