HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- From the outside looking in, Marcel Hughes had an All-American upbringing.
He attended a prestigious, all-male Catholic high school in Cincinnati. He was an athlete who loved the competition on the cross country team. He was headed to college and a bright future.
But there was a secret, something Hughes couldn’t keep inside. When he was 16 he told his friends and family he was gay. There was judgment. There were questions. Even Hughes himself felt shame.
“It all comes down to representation,” said Hughes, who is now a senior at Northern Kentucky University.
Hughes is also black, or as he puts it, a minority within a minority. At 18, he was kicked out of his house. He says his father didn’t understand that any person -- man, woman, black, white or athlete -- can be homosexual.
“If I knew of a gay black guy who was living openly and confidently I would have internalized my gayness better, I would have had less shame,” Hughes said. “I feel like if my dad saw more gay black faces in the media he would have better accepted that his own son was gay. Which is why Michael Sam is a hero in my eyes. He's killing two stereotypes with one stone.”
Hughes and friends already have tickets for when Michael Sam comes to deliver the keynote address for the NKU’s fourth annual celebration of LGBTQ History Month.
Sam made history in 2014 when he became the first openly gay football player to be drafted into the NFL. After a stellar senior season at the University of Missouri where he was named the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. He also played with the Dallas Cowboys and the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Now he’s on the college circuit, bringing with him a message of tolerance and acceptance. It’s something students and administrators have been waiting for.
“Every year, I’ve wanted him to come here and speak,” said Bonnie Meyer, NKU’s director for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) Programs & Services. “When I saw he was available I knew we had to jump at it.”
Meyer, who was also an athlete growing up (she ran track and played softball -- and her son plays high school football), says she understands the culture of athletics, and how the culture of masculinity can sometimes be unhealthy. By listening to Sam, those who are gay and straight can benefit by learning that masculinity can be represented in many forms, she said.
“This is really about education,” Meyer said. “Every year we see more and more -- even first-year students -- who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, etc. They are getting information from our Inclusiveness office. It’s about preparing people for their futures. And if we can continue to bring in people who challenge what people think and promote inclusion then we’ll keep doing it.”
Sam, who was honored with ESPN’s 2014 Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, says his message is geared to those young people like Hughes.
“To anyone out there, especially young people feeling like they don't fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself,” he told ESPN. “I'm Michael Sam, I'm a football player, and I'm gay.”
Hughes' bright future blossomed at NKU. The social work major went on to become president of an organization on campus for gay people of color called Colours of Pride. He cannot wait to hear Sam speak.
“My dad was a huge athlete -- he even worked as a trainer for the Bengals,” he said. “I think Michael Sam would have made my dad think of gay people in a less sinister light if he was one of the players on the field with him.”
Meyer says the Sam speech is just the beginning of the overall conversation, as athletic departments still seem to be an area in college where some are hesitant to talk about LGBTQ issues.
“Yes, it won’t end here,” she said. “By bringing in people like Michael Sam and (Orange is the New Black’s) Laverne Cox, we can have conversations in the mainstream about these topics.”
Hughes says he especially hopes young people hear the message.
“I really hope students leave Michael Sam's keynote inspired to live life with courage,” he said. “I want students to feel encouraged to tell their stories. These stories change minds and hearts.”
If you go
WHO: Michael Sam
WHAT: keynote address for NKU’s fourth annual celebration of LGBTQ History Month
WHEN: Doors open at 6:15 p.m., speech starts 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6
WHERE: James C. and Rachel M. Votruba Student Union Ballroom on NKU’s Highland Heights campus
TICKETS: It is free and open to the public, but tickets are required, available in the NKU Center for Student Inclusiveness, Student Union Room 309. To reserve a ticket, contact Bonnie Meyer at email@example.com or 859-572-5835.
For more information, visit lgbtq.nku.edu.