Spot the Agenda

I’m bored of hearing about the ‘homosexual agenda’. It seems we can’t turn on the TV anymore without hearing someone from the right wing spluttering about agendas and liberalism and the sheer unfairness of it all.

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Well let’s talk about agendas, shall we.

Agenda, n. “A campaign, programme, or plan of action arising from a set of underlying principles or motives. Hence: the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group.” OED

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I’m going to talk about this debate discussing specifically the media coverage of Michael Sam’s signing by the St Louis Rams during the NFL draft, but that’s only because it’s recent. Really, I could be talking about any high profile media coverage of any gay person in any field.

So some people got their panties in a twist because ESPN showed Sam, in the moments immediately following him receiving the news he’d been drafted, kissing his boyfriend. Now the fact Sam was gay wasn’t a surprise to anyone — indeed, it’s why the media coverage surrounding his drafting was so intense. But still there are people complaining that ESPN is a sports channel, that it shouldn’t be grandstanding or offering social commentary, that they only showed the kiss for the ‘shock factor’ and to earn more ratings, and there were impressionable children watching who have in some unnamed manner been irreparably scarred by the viewing experience.

Again and again I see this strange argument that showing Sam kissing his boyfriend was somehow part of an ‘agenda’. Well let’s dissect that, shall we?

Aside from any ‘agenda’ that may or may not have been present, what was the purpose of that segment?

As a sports channel, ESPN was covering the draft, and rather than have some newscaster sit at a desk and reel off names and numbers all weekend (as fun as that might have been for the viewers), they decided to mix things up by showing the human reactions of the players, for whom this draft was just about the biggest event in their lives thus far, and the culmination of many years’ hard work. Whether we’re talking sports or lifetime movies, people like to watch other people during moments of great emotion. It’s cathartic.

Yes, it was already known that Sam was gay, and there was increased media scrutiny of him as a result. Not only was this a huge moment for him personally, if he got drafted he was going to make history as the first openly gay man to do so. Of course ESPN was going to broadcast a moment so pivotal to such a popular sport. Not covering such a moment would have been utter madness. Is that an agenda? Well, only inasmuch as any news corporation has an agenda to get the best and most exclusive coverage of the biggest stories as and when they happen. The fact that a gay man being signed for the NFL is newsworthy is another matter entirely.

So the purpose of ESPN covering Sam’s drafting was to document what looked like being a momentous occasion in the NFL because, uh, it’s a sports channel.

What did they actually show?

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They ended up showing Sam getting drafted in the seventh round, and responding emotionally to the phone call telling him he’d been picked. As stated above, as an audience we want the emotion, and given Sam was a predicted third round pick, I’m sure there was a great deal of extra tension there by the time he actually was chosen. He cried, he hugged his boyfriend, and he kissed him. An absolutely understandable and completely human response. Had he hugged and kissed a wife or girlfriend, or a parent, nobody would have blinked (well, depending on how exactly he kissed that parent…). Sam wasn’t showboating, he wasn’t doing it to make any kind of statement, he was simply reacting to life-changing news, and his first reaction was to kiss the person he loved.

What’s so wrong with that?

Beats me. But some people are arguing that ESPN should have edited Sam’s response to cut the kissing. That, it seems, was a step too far. According to some, showing a young man’s unedited reaction to momentous news (which was the purpose of the segment) is pandering to an agenda, but editing that reaction isn’t.

See the disconnect?

The media already edits quite enough of what they cover to suit their socio-political leanings. Showing an event as it occurs without editing makes ESPN something of an anomaly, and for all the right reasons. This is how news should be presented, but rarely is.

So where’s the real agenda?

The real agenda belongs to those who wanted the images of Sam and his partner kissing to be suppressed without any just cause. They have argued that ESPN is a sports channel and any show of human sexuality is inappropriate on that platform. Unless we’re talking about straight athletes kissing their partners after victories, or we’re looking at cheerleaders doing the splits in next to nothing. They also argued that ‘impressionable’ children would have been watching, but they seem to forget that gay kids are bombarded with images of heterosexual couples every day of their lives, and they still turn out gay. The images we see in the media have a negligible effect on the development of individuals, with, if anything, harm being done only to those who don’t conform (i.e. gay kids) who then try to emulate what they perceive to be the ‘right’ way to be.

Further, the people arguing against ESPN’s coverage are making a huge assumption: that their position is neutral. It isn’t. Neutral would be the position ESPN took — to show the coverage without editing, as it happened, as they promised they would. To edit that coverage, to erase Sam’s (known) sexuality, is of course to work to an agenda. We learnt nothing about Michael Sam that day we didn’t already know, except (and perhaps most importantly) that he’s not only an out pro athlete, but one who isn’t afraid to be who he is. He’s not going to become some sanitised version of himself in the media in order to pander to those still suffering from the ‘ick’ factor. And really, that’s all it comes down to — two men kissing: ick! There’s no other good or just reason why this moment was such a big issue.

So what is the ‘gay agenda’?

Quite simply, our agenda has always been, and will always be, to be allowed to live our lives the same as everybody else. That involves not lip-service saying we’re allowed to exist as long as we shut up and keep our heads down, but to act just the same as everybody else and not be judged for being who we are. If dramatic things happen to us, we want the freedom to celebrate or commiserate with our partners — to hug and kiss just like straight people do.

The fact is, expressions of heterosexuality are so pervasive in our culture that they are practically invisible, whereas expressions of homosexuality still stand out like a sore thumb. The only thing startling about Michael Sam’s reaction was his fearlessness in living it without feeling he needed to stifle who he was for the sake of who was watching. The only ‘agenda’ attached to the coverage of his drafting was the desperate desire of others to censor him.

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