ST. LOUIS — St. Louis' city leaders were already gathered last night for an LGBT equality fundraiser, which turned suddenly into a celebration of the hometown Rams' decision to draft the out gay defensive star Michael Sam in Saturday night's NFL draft.
Sam will be "received with open arms by the city of St. Louis, no question about it," Mayor Francis Slay, among those gathered for the fundraiser, told BuzzFeed.
"He's a football player, and a very talented football player," Slay said. "With the Rams – everyone is part of the team, regardless of your sexual orientation, regardless of your political views, regardless of your ethnic background or race."
The mayor was at City Hall Saturday night for Urbanaire, the annual fundraising gala of PROMO, Missouri's statewide LGBT equality organization. Most every queer politico, activist, and ally from around the city and state were gathered under one roof, from P-FLAG families of the suburbs to the urban health workers of St. Louis Effort for AIDS.
And when A.J. Bockelman, PROMO's Executive Director, took the mic, he had some surprisingly well-timed and historic breaking news to share: Michael Sam had not only just been drafted, but he had been picked up by the Rams.
Meaning their home team has the first "openly gay player in the NFL."
And the crowd went wild.
Cheering with particular glee were Slay and his lesbian sister, Monietta Slay, co-hosts of the party. (The Slay siblings, intimately involved in LGBT politics here, also have two gay brothers.) When Mayor Slay took the mic, he had his own gay sports news to be proud about, as he shared that "In 2016, St. Louis will be the first US city to host the Out Games."
Missouri is a conservative state, Mayor Slay granted. But "St. Louis is a very gay-friendly city. It received a 100 score, a perfect score, from HRC, the Human Rights Campaign, for cities relative to LGBT services and issues," he told BuzzFeed. St. Louis was also the only part of the state to vote against a ban on same-sex marriages.
Out state Representative Mike Colona said that Sam will be welcomed in St. Louis, and that he hoped his reputation as a college star would help him in the rest of the state.
"There are a lot of folks in the state of Missouri, whether they live in a metro or rural area, that are up to speed with the University of Missouri football program," Colona said. Those people, he thinks, will know what an excellent player Sam is regardless of his sexuality, and won't think much of it.
"But a lot of folks," he concedes, haven't followed Sam's college career, and they may "scratch their head and say, 'Hey, we've got this guy who is a gay player, playing for us." He thinks Sam may have "a learning curve where he will have to prove to some people who are not familiar with his collegiate statistics" what he's about, "but he'll do it [because] he's a great football player and he's going to help the Rams increase their record!"
"When my friends who are still in rural Missouri see Michael Sam scoring a touchdown, see Michael Sam tearing through an offensive line, see Michael Sam excelling at whatever they have him do? All of a sudden, that will change hearts and minds. That will help take Missouri into the 21st century," he said.
Across town from City Hall on the edge of The Grove, St. Louis' gayborhood, the TVs at The Rehab were tuned to the draft since Kyle Hanten, the bar manager arrived in the afternoon.
"They aired it on ESPN, and he got the news that he was drafted, and he kissed his boyfriend, and that's a huge deal!" Hanten recalled, thinking it was a "historic" moment a lot of people will remember as clearly as news of "the first same-sex marriages."
"Never did I ever expect to see two men kissing on ESPN," he said.
When the Rehab crowd saw the now-famous video, "Everyone cheered and clapped for their initial kiss," Hanten said, touched. But "then they showed them feeding cake to each other, which obviously was, like, egged on by the camera crew," which he thought was a bit much.
The gay St. Louis crowd, their bartender said, "Was like, 'All right, we get it, don't ruin the moment!" he laughs. "It was almost overbearing, like rubbing it in [viewers] faces." (Not that Hanten is opposed to romance. He and his fiancé will get legally married in Iowa later this year and have a wedding in Missouri.)
When it comes to Rams fans, Hanten predicted that, "Honestly, at the end of the day, the fans will care more whether [Sam] performs well, not whether he's sleeping with a woman or with a man. They want to see the Rams go to the Superbowl! They won't care if the MVP was a homosexual man."
"I haven't heard any negative reaction," he said before pausing and adding, "However, I am at a gay bar and everyone is gay."
State Representative Mike Colona is the second out member of Missouri's House of Representatives in the state's history. In 2004, Jeannette Mott Oxford became the first out lawmaker elected to Missouri's House of Representatives.