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No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying

It’s important to cry. When like me, you’re into men, that’s one of the first things you learn. Even at twelve, when not being straight first clicked, it never bothered me, but certainly it bothered other people, and the gay films teenage me streamed late at night always had similar endings, weeping heroes gaining acceptance. Versions of the scene are everywhere, from news reports of damp-eyed brideless grooms to awards speeches, soap storylines and prime drama. Liberal media, while still not keen on our other fluids, loves queer tears.

May saw more of these than its fair share. Within days of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win, the gay American footballer Michael Sam was signed by the St. Louis Rams. Footage of the moment he found out, which quickly spread online, could have been scripted to slow motion piano chords by Glee’s producers. Between Sam’s sobs and centre-stage lip lock with his partner, the clip supplied a perfect progressive moment. Straight athletes do of course cry regularly at good news – then again, their tears aren’t bundled in with social change the way his were or cast as overtures to ‘kiss[es] that made history’. If Sam’s weren’t definitively gay, that’s how they were framed.

If queer people have an image, we’ve been painted in a narrow colour palette, portraits of moist helplessness lining wall after wall; those of us who chose rage instead are nowhere to be seen. This isn’t about whether Sam was wrong to cry, or any individual choice – it’s about politics, power and which stories we tell. Fixating on the personal over the landscape of brutality beyond is part of the problem. The most tedious comments on the video, in fact, asked how the player had helped or set back equality by kissing his boyfriend, ‘flaunting’ their relationship or (God forbid) dating someone shorter than him.

Columnist Mark Joseph Stern argues that what the rights agenda needs is more queer PDA. It’s a clichéd but sound argument for homophobia’s survival that when we kiss in public, if we do, we glance round first. At the same time, same-sex lovers often are less lovey-dovey, and failing to kiss ostentatiously’s not always about fear. Putting partnerships on show – through dramatic proposals, wedding rituals, partner dances, rings – is one part of enforced monogamy whose victims have usually been straight couples, and since friendship tends to be within one’s gender, its boundary in gay relationships with eros can be blurred. I prefer them, as plenty do, partly because they don’t come loaded with coupledom’s affectations, and being told to kiss more visibly feels unwelcome.

But even arguing this is frustrating. Whether or not I ought to kiss my partners publicly is not the discussion we should hold – no more than what Michael Sam was doing by kissing his, or how his tears made history. Thinking on the same lines as Stern, Facebook users made gay kisses their profile photos, a move he called ‘a confrontational, in-your-face exhibition’. There’s nothing confrontational about giving mass media what it wants, in this case by feeding its fetish for what queer faces do. Liberals flinch when homophobes reduce gay men to anal sex or lesbians to vulvae, ignoring the vastness of what being queer means. Is reducing our politics to puckered lips and watery eyes any different?

Bulletins could have talked about the young men funnelled toward sport who aren’t white enough for U.S. classrooms or wealthy enough without sports scholarships for college; the adults whose lifelong security hinges on being hired to play. They could have talked about the culture of machismo policing entry to those sports (football especially) whose homophobia shuts doors for queer youth – how it’s small wonder it took a gay professional like Sam so long to break through it. They could have talked about that homophobia’s reach into school locker rooms around the world, or the violence gym classes direct at male bodies seen to lack butch prowess. Once again they chose portrait over landscape, zooming in on a single gay man’s tears to broadcast them without context.

Those of us who won’t weep on cue know context to be threatening. Reels of queer kissing and crying on TV, Facebook and HuffPost tell progressive straight people their acceptance is the solution – that if they well up like the faces on their screens, they’re doing their bit to rescue us. The bigger picture reveals a less comfortable tale, where media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and the same well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.

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