By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
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.'"
Galveston has a significant, full-time gay population and is a popular weekend getaway for gay travelers. It feels like a port city, an oceanfront crossroads, home to people of all kinds. Things aren't quite so cosmopolitan across the bridge in Hitchcock, where modest, coastal homes on stilts give way to slightly more modest homes on the ground. Pine and palm trees stand side by side, a reminder that the place is both of the Gulf and also of East Texas -- the most conservative part of the state, the part with the most cultural ties to the South of the Confederacy. It is typical of smaller cities of the region, a bedroom community for employees of petroleum companies, a wide spot along highway 6. Turn onto SH 2004, toward Hitchcock High School, and there's an off-brand convenience store across the street from the Valero station, then not much else, save a few industrial-zoned businesses and a nice-looking football field for a 2A school.
Just past the sign pointing to a bayside community ("Homes from the 500s") is the Sunset RV Park, one of eight in Texas listed on a directory of gay-friendly parks. Park manager Shannon Coldwell, a Katy native, wasn't aware of either the listing or the reason for Hitchcock's current fame. "Cool," she said, upon being told that a football player from Hitchcock had just made history. Coldwell said most of the people in the park are long-term tenants who work construction in the area or for BP. "We're accepting. We haven't shown any prejudice here," she said. "On and off, a few gay people stay here." She suggested the Chamber of Commerce to find out about any self-identified LGBT-friendly businesses in town.
Nobody at the Chamber office could name any, but one of the staffers there is Kristen Ivey, a 2013 graduate of Hitchcock High School and former cheerleader for the Bulldogs. Ivey said that she knew Sam, "gave him hugs" and, like the rest of the town, followed his college career closely. She also said she knew Sam was gay long before the announcement. "Hitchcock is a small town, word gets out about people and people just kind of assumed. It wasn't a big shock, [it's] more of a shock that it's on the news, it's nationwide," she said. "It's not really a big deal to us, because a lot of people in town already knew, but outside of us, it's like everybody's making a deal out of it, because it's like [the] first NFL player."
Ivey said that she thinks bullying wouldn't have been the same kind of problem at Hitchcock that it might have been in a bigger school, since she and her most of her classmates had been going to school together for so long, and in such small classes. "I think it's 'cause you judge them less, because you know them," she said. "You've known them your whole life. I think that's why the small town people are supporting him and not saying bad things about it. Everybody knew him; he is a nice guy."
She also credits having grown up in a different time with the attitude of her fellow students. "I think with teenagers, it's not as big of a thing like to older people. We're young. A lot of people just don't -- even if they don't agree with it, they're still not gonna be mean or anything." This is sweet to hear, that a kid can grow up in one of these towns and overcome any homophobia that might be around, through the simple force of popularity and excellence at sports. It echoes what the guys at Robert's Lafitte said, that maybe it just wasn't a big deal to be gay anymore, in a small town as much as in a large one. Maybe things have changed a lot in the 10 years since Lawrence v. Texas, or in the 20 since the rash of Texas hate killings of gays, perpetrated largely by teenagers.
"Religiously, I don't feel like it's right," Ivey said, regarding homosexuality, "but I also feel like it's not my place to tell them you can't. Only God can judge you; it's not my place to say. That's the way I was raised," she said. Ivey couldn't possibly be more charming or guileless, but the belief that something isn't right is ingrained by her Baptist upbringing. "There's no hate in it at all. I'm not gonna go against somebody for doing that, I'm not. That's how my opinion is. I grew up in this generation, it's not a big deal to me."
Back over in Galveston is the home of Gulf Pride For Youth, a nonprofit outreach organization for LGBT youth, formed in 2011 when a community needs assessment found county resources lacking. GPY chair Patricia van den Berg said that they serve a population that's often at risk, lacking the same social access as their Houston counterparts. "It's isolated, really isolated," said van den Berg. "There is kind of this pilgrimage kids will do. They go into Houston just to be around the gay section, but that's more of an urban thing, and these are not urban kids. It can be intimidating. It's little bit easier to go to [us], and they meet kids who have not been out clubbing all the time. You know, they didn't grow up in Houston or in Montrose."
Van den Berg then took a call from a friend who coaches in an area school. The coach (who preferred not to be named) said that a couple of days ago, she was speaking with two former D1 college players, one who played five years ago and one who played 25 years ago, and they talked about how they wished he'd waited until after he was drafted, since it might hurt where he's taken. But staying closeted might have hurt worse, van den Berg pointed out. "There's the emotional benefits, the decreased risk of substance use and decreased suicidality if you come out," she said. So in part, Sam's timing could have been its own act of self-preservation, ending any remaining anxiety about coming out. Whatever the impact of announcing before the draft, he will enter his first NFL locker room with nothing left to hide.
"It was an act of activism no matter what," said van den Berg. "How much of a hero is he for doing it before [the draft]? I think it was completely courageous." Though she's not much of a football fan, she says she'll be paying close attention to the next events in Sam's career. Sally Huffer, from Houston's Montrose Center, also admitted to not being terribly invested in the NFL, but said she wants to see a local boy have a lot of success. "What better opportunity for a team to step forwards and say that it's what happens on the field that counts?" said Huffer.
The Purl family, Sam's surrogate family in Hitchcock, has been mentioned in almost all the coverage of Sam's high school days. Their involvement illustrates the importance of alternate support for teens who don't receive such help from their biological families. "That keeps kids from being homeless a lot, having another family," said van den Berg. She characterizes Sam as an example of a teen with multiple risk factors -- the family tragedy of multiple deaths of siblings, two brothers in jail, unsupportive parents (his biological mother JoAnn reportedly did not approve of him playing sports). This made the encouragement he did get all the more important.
That's the flip side of growing up in a small town, as Ivey suggested. While it might lack the cultural access of a larger city, the familiarity of a small population might make the separate components of a young boy's identity less significant than the fact that he's a member of the community, a kid who grew up alongside some other parent's kid, leading that other parent to take an interest. If that kid is charismatic and a great football player, well, that sure doesn't hurt his odds of finding support. That field in Hitchcock can hold at least half the town's population, and it's the pride of the district.
Hitchcock Chief of Police Clay Kennelly said he hasn't seen any reports of bullying from the high school in his five years in the position. He declined to comment any further on Sam's time in the town, other than to volunteer that Sam never had any interactions with the police. "Michael Sam won't be the last NFL player to come out of Hitchcock," he said, lauding the school's program and facilities. Asked if that's the result of a good tax base, he said: "As far as any tax base can be 'good,' I suppose. They've spent wisely."
Hitchcock High School made a formal statement last week, praising Sam at length for achievements as a student-athlete and his leadership qualities, while avoiding any mention of his historic announcement. Superintendent Dr. Barbara Derrick said via email that Sam was never a victim of bullying, but she offered no indication of what other gay students may have experienced there. She said that the school has never had any LGBT-oriented groups, but they'd be permitted "if there was student interest." That's not a given in Texas, by the way. In 2011, four hours down the coast in Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff High's administration was so opposed to having a Gay Straight Alliance that they threatened to end student groups entirely, rather than allowing that particular one to form.
Of course, it's one thing for a star football player to come out and be embraced by the community. If that makes a difference for less popular, less athletic kids, the impact will be real. For now, those kids at least have a man from Hitchcock to look to who's like them, who came out, and who clearly was successful in one of society's most mainstream, beloved endeavors. "We had one kid who said she was the one who would protect the gay boys when they were about to get beat up," van den Berg said, because the child was confident in being out. "She had done the work to come out and helped the other kids that were coming along behind her."
Sam may never live in Hitchcock again, but he did the work to come out, and be it in a 2A high school or the NFL, his example is going to help the kids coming along behind him.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin.