HITCHCOCK, Tex. — Robert’s Lafitte, a small bar near the shore in Galveston, Texas, is supposed to be the oldest gay bar in the state. Doll-sized, plastic high heels decorate fixtures above the bar and there’s a small, tinseled stage for the legendary weekend drag performances. On this Wednesday night, it’s quiet. Half a dozen patrons drink at the end of the bar, a few more play pool, and classic country music comes from the speakers. The bartender says that, sure, people have been talking about Michael Sam, the football star from nearby Hitchcock who just became the first player to enter the NFL draft as an openly gay man. Maybe it’s just not that big of a deal anymore, he says.
Clearly, it is a big deal, because Sam is the first person to do it. It won’t be a big deal when the 10th or 20th or 50th gay player enters the league, his sexual orientation needing no announcement. Sam is, of course, not the first gay man to play football, but he is the first to identify himself as such prior to the draft, becoming a symbol of what has and hasn’t changed. One has to wonder what it’s like for a gay kid to grow up here on the Gulf Coast — not the most enlightened part of the state, but one that’s close to the historically most gay-friendly parts of Texas, Houston and Galveston — and what he’ll mean for the next gay kid to grow up here.
Mike, a tall, athletic man in a Red Sox cap at Robert’s Laffite, told me he’s always been a Boston fan, even though he grew up in the suburbs of Houston. He doesn’t root for the Astros, and he took exception to pitcher Jarred Cosart’s use of a gay slur in a tweet. (“You have the worst team! You can’t say anything!”) Though he is a Patriots fan, Mike said, “I’d support [Sam] completely, only because he’s from Galveston County, not because he’s a gay player.” Mike, now 50-ish, was an athlete in high school himself, playing tennis and swimming, though he didn’t realize he was gay until after college. Asked about Sam’s coming out, he said, “I think that’s so cool. It’s much different now, and thank God it is. It’s nice.” What would it have been like if there’d been an openly gay guy on one of his high school teams? There was, actually. “The one guy was so out, nobody f—-ed with him,” Mike said. “The people that didn’t know, that’s who they f—-ed with, called ‘faggot.’”