COLUMBIA — The SoCo Club, a gay bar on Seventh Street, was nearly empty, with only a handful of patrons sitting at the bar. Sunday karaoke nights are usually quiet.
But the bar-goers had something to celebrate.
Excitement — and a little anxiety — resonated inside the club's stone walls after recently graduated Missouri football player Michael Sam announced to the world Sunday that he is gay. It was a "secret" that everyone at the club had been aware of for quite a while. Sam frequently attended SoCo events as a student at MU.
"And he's a hunk," Nathaniel Paul, a SoCo drag queen known as Sheerah Pleazure, said with a laugh. A bartender passed around shots as the patrons celebrated Sam's announcement. Paul struggled to find the words. What Sam did took immense courage, he believes, and he wasn't sure that anything he had to say could begin to describe what a strong figure in the LGBT community Sam is becoming.
"It's awe-inspiring. It's fabulous."
For many of the patrons and bartenders at SoCo, Sam's announcement was a reminder that the battle for equality is making substantial progress but that the end may not be near. The NFL has often been viewed as "the last closet," patrons said, because of the inherent machismo and stereotypes linked to professional football.
"I don't think [his announcement] was a good move in his career, but in life it is inspirational," said Tony Muriithi, a SoCo patron. "He's an amazing player. I hope it all works out for him."
Although his exuberant personality and undeniable confidence show no sign of struggle or scars, Paul remembers how difficult it was to confront other people — especially his parents — about his own sexuality. Born and raised in a military family, Paul was confronted by his mother during the winter break of his senior year in high school after becoming visibly depressed.
"When I told my mom I was gay, she looked at me and said, 'How can you do this to me?'" Paul said. "Then when my dad got home, I was given an ultimatum: Stay at home and be straight, or go elsewhere and be queer. So I moved out."
Sam faces additional challenges. He must share a locker room with a team full of players, and he will likely hear taunts from opposing fans.
When Alice Jeffrey, an LGBT ally, spoke about Sam on Sunday night, her eyes filled with tears when thinking about the backlash Sam could face.
"It's sad it has to be this way and it hurts me," Jeffrey said. "I know this is going to cause friction."
So far, though, national response on social media has been overwhelmingly positive.
Sam's story struck close to home for Jeffrey. In high school, one of Jeffrey's close friends was kicked off the football team after people found out he was gay. He loved football, but his sexual identity was undeniable. Unfortunately, to stay on the team, her friend was forced to lie, telling everyone that he was merely a confused teenager.
For other patrons, like David Lammers, Sam's message provided hope for more progress and change in the future.
"There is always going to be some opposition, but we are getting to the day and age where equality is coming a long way and barriers are coming down," Lammers said. "It matters less and less but it shouldn't matter at all."
Lammers came out in the late 1980s and describes his experience as difficult, especially because there was a lack of support and very few resources to access.
"It's nice that it's easier for younger people to come out now," Lammers said. "I wished I would have had that. Sam is really breaking ground, leading and setting an example, which will make it easier for athletes in the future."
Sam, a regular SoCo patron, was described by bartender Brett Piper as a great athlete, person and patron. But Piper was hesitant to make a comment. The situation struck home for him, because his brother was on the MU football team in 1996, and he worries that coming out of the closet might damage Sam's career — although he full-heartedly believes it shouldn't.
Sam "personifies what an athlete pushing for excellence should be," Piper said. "The focus should be on the athletics, and he is an extraordinarily talented player."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.