Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"This is not the hill to die on."

Years ago, the principal of my kids' elementary school used a phrase that I had never heard before: "This is not the hill to die on." Meaning: no big deal, this isn't the issue you want to dig in and fight over. For some reason I liked that saying, and thought of it earlier this evening, when I got an email telling me that a few paragraphs had been sliced off the end of Wednesday's column for reasons of ... ah ... let's just say, in order not to inject insinuation into the Illinois political process. There was a time when that would have upset me, when I would have fled the dinner I was attending, called my bosses, argued my case, that we were supposed to shake things up, not smooth them over. Then at least I'd grumblingly write a few additional paragraphs so the column would be the usual length. 
     Instead—standing in the Notre Dame-like splendor of the University Club's main dining room, where the University of Illinois was honoring my late colleague, Roger Ebert—I looked at the email, shrugged and thought, "Okay then, the column will be short. This is not the hill to die on." Which is either a good thing, or a bad thing, I'm not sure. A similar phrase is, "you have to save your silver bullets." You can't fight every battle. Maybe that's maturity. Maybe it's growing old. But it felt like the right thing to do at the moment. This is the truncated column:

     The gay marriage debate seems to have largely ended in the United States. Even our timid, lick-a-finger-and-check-the-wind president decided that yes, by gum, gays are human after all and form relationships society should recognize. 
      Not all quarters have gotten the memo, of course. The same national nether regions still working their Can’t-We-Just-Go-Back-to-the-Past-Where-We-Felt-Comfortable game plan that includes holding out hope for teaching creationism in public school are dragging their feet on gay marriage, insisting they can stay as bigoted as they please so long as they claim God tells them it’s OK. 
      Good luck with that one. God is commanding me not to pay taxes, yet I’m not expecting my sincere beliefs to be respected.
      Fact is, it takes these debates a long time to end. The idea that gay people should hold jobs — teach school, be cops, deliver mail — might have receded from memory, but it still manifests itself, as seen by the hoopla over Michael Sam, a defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, announcing he is “an openly proud gay man” who wants to play in the National Football League.
      Now being a football player might be an exalted, highly paid job, but it is still a job, and it will be interesting to see, after the smoke clears, whether the NFL decides that an openly gay man should be allowed to slam into other men on a football field. 
      “Why didn’t he wait until after the draft?” one of my sons asked during our dinner table conversation. I said it seems the cat was already out of the bag; he had told his Missouri teammates, and scouts were asking his agent if he had a girlfriend. Rather than let rumor and the strange American fascination with parsing other people’s sex lives run the show, Sam cannily — and, I believe, courageously — decided to continue being honest about who he is. 
     Are there teams that won’t draft him because he’s gay? Without question. But there also will be a team — he only needs one — that wants a player of his skills and might even want the burst of publicity that will come with signing Sam. Or maybe not. Jason Collins, a free agent in the NBA, said last April that he was gay, and he is still looking for a team. 
     So if Sam gets drafted, what will he face? It’s 2014, so I don’t think he’s going to be the new Jackie Robinson, playing through a howl of catcalls. I think, and this is just a guess, that after years of gazing in fixed horror at the Westboro Baptist Church preparing its neon “GOD HATES FAGS” signs and picketing the funerals of soldiers, even a zealous football fan would pause, dripping brush above poster board and wonder if this is really the hill to make his stand on. Then again, sports fans are known for their savage abuse, so why should Sam get a pass? 
     What do we as a society think? Should gay people be allowed to hold jobs? Any job? Even football lineman? There are people, gay and straight, who think you just can’t hold certain jobs and be an out gay man. I would argue that is incorrect, that being out is the more honest, more open, more laudable approach than feeling compelled to lie about who you are. Of course it’s hard. But the hardest work has already been done, by people coming out in rougher times. Coming out now is landing on Normandy Beach a week after D-Day.
     Remember, we aren’t talking about doing the job. Gay men have already played professional football. It is the rest of us who are the issue here. What will we accept? Is the fear and ignorance that still rattle so many over this issue, combined with the close identification people have with their football teams, so great that Michael Sam will never get the chance to play in an NFL game? Possibly. Yet denying him the chance doesn’t seem the fairness that gets so much chin music in sport. On the other hand, Sam is not J.J. Watt — a player of such extraordinary ability he just can’t be overlooked. Better players than Sam have been overlooked. 
     The history of modern life is, in part, the story of the mainstream accepting that heretofore marginal groups can actually do things they once supposedly couldn’t — that women could vote and run companies and perform surgery, and blacks could be soldiers and quarterbacks and presidents. Thus allowing gays to openly play in pro sports is an inevitable step. I hope it comes now; it’s an embarrassingly retro conversation to be having, like wondering now whether football players should wear helmets.


  1. For an admitted non-sports guy, impressed that you know who JJ Watt is. Piqued my curiosity who you were not allowed to potentially offend.
    Good column, as usual.

  2. In all candor, I didn't. I plugged "Best NFL defensive player" into Google. I extended the question of whether we will allow an openly gay man to be in the NFL to whether we would allow one to be governor of Illinois, and this was seen as speaking aloud the word "elephant" in a room already crowded by one. If that makes sense.

  3. Why is it that a crafty columnist such as Neil can't see that society can "recognize" a relationship without the help of the government. I realize every issue nowadays must have a giant wedge plunged into the middle, with the enlightened, self-described progressives on one side, and the mouth-breathing bible thumpers on the other, but its disappointing to me that every issue is portrayed this way. I'm a (mostly) non-religious conservative. To me, same-sex marriage has always seemed a good idea because it expands rights. I wish someone would articulate what it means to society when we protest, boycott, vote, scream, beg... to get the government to grant us a right. Marriage can be about religion, or the church, or community recognition, whatever. But how the fuck is it better once it has been "recognized" by a government run by such inconsequential humans as Rahm Emanual, or Dick Durbin, or whoever creep makes his life as a politician in Illinois? Sorry, had to rant. Love the blog.

    1. Thanks Jon. I think this requires you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't enjoy this right. If I get hit by a bus, Edie goes to the hospital and can talk to the doctors. A gay wife can't. That isn't right. Twenty years ago, when I wrote a gay man's obit, I couldn't include his longtime companion as a survivor because it wasn't our style. Then we changed out style. People who are hostile to gays focus on the clamor for rights — "They're always pushing their sexuality in our faces; that's why nobody likes them!" somebody wrote to me today — without seeing the injustice that forced them into the streets. As I mention in the column, the debate is over -- the fact that the Right is trying to re-cast themselves as a persecuted minority is evidence of that. The best way to not be called a bigot is to not go around espousing bigoted beliefs. Some people haven't quite figured that one out, but they will.

    2. I read your book, and remember you writing about that obit (or maybe it was a different one). In your hypothetical, Edie presents a marriage certificate so she can talk to the doctor? I don't think so. People should have the right to select whomever they want to talk to their doctor. It makes no sense to me why my predilection for lady parts factors into my hospital visitors. What about someone who never marries? Can't he have a visitor? Does he have to be straight-- even if he's not in a sexual relationship? Are religious folks standing in the way of hospital visitation? We should push back against forces that eliminate our rights.

      The problem with this hackneyed Right vs Left mentality (you busted it out again in your reply) is it can cause us to miss opportunities. I think that an opportunity is being missed. Conservatives like me-- who believe strongly in individual rights-- should support expanded rights. Why not make that case to them? Sadly, I suspect many people on the left (shit, not me, too) understand exactly the point I'm making, but don't want to couch it in that manner because it might not fit into much of the broader narrative.

      The Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage was really about taxes-- a widowed lesbian wanted her money back. Of course, one way to fix that problem is to sue over the definition of a word. The other would be to stop taxing the shit out of everyone, but then it's harder to rip on the right with that approach.

      I love you.

    3. I'm not quite following you, but that's okay, I don't have to. The relative thing regarding medical procedures is so strangers don't walk off the street and dictate your medical care while you're in a coma. I didn't invent it. I'm not in favor of high taxes either, but I don't approve of endless cost-cutting as a way of dismantling social programs for people you consider untermenschen. (Not "you" in particular, necessarily, but you catch my drift. Or not).

  4. Great column. As usual. But let's have the missing graphs!

  5. I'm sorry Gary, it's a sensitive issue, and I don't want to subvert my bosses on the blog, at least not at the moment.

  6. So true: "This is indeed not the hill to die on."


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