If you don’t follow football, aren’t from Minnesota, and didn’t read the New York Times article you probably don’t know who Chris Kluwe is and why his support of gay marriage is such a big deal. Chris Kluwe is a punter for the Minnesota Viking professional football team. Professional sports are one of the last bastions of closeted men and women (although maybe less so for women since Martina Navratilova came out all those many years ago). But I don’t know of any man with an active career who has come out. And given that about 10% of the population is thought to be gay, about 10% of male professional athletes are likely to be gay. There is still a stigma.
Let Kluwe explain how he first voiced support for gay marriage.
In late August, the Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote to the Baltimore Ravens’ owner, Steve Bisciotti, urging him to silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. Ayanbadejo had been supporting the state’s Civil Marriage Protection Act, which will allow gay couples to obtain a civil marriage license beginning Jan. 1 if it passes a Nov. 6 referendum. Burns asked Bisciotti to “inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.”
“I know of no other N.F.L. player who has done what Mr. Ayambadejo is doing,” Burns wrote, misspelling Ayanbadejo’s surname.
Nine days later, at 11:30 p.m. in the master bedroom of the modest Savage, Minn., home that Kluwe shares with his wife, Isabel, and daughters, Olivia, 4, and Remy, 2, Kluwe came across Burns’s dispatch while surfing the Web.
“So I’m lying in bed, and I keep thinking over and over about this letter, and I’m like, ‘I can’t fall asleep,’ ” he recalled. “I have to write something.”
So he pulled off the covers, turned on his MacBook Pro and spent less than an hour composing a response to Burns that was published on Deadspin.com and lifted Kluwe off the sports pages and into the national conversation about the rights of same-sex couples.
“This is more a personal quibble of mine, but why do you hate freedom?” he wrote. “Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life?”
The letter is a profanity-laden rant, as well as a multilayered, point-by-point decimation of Burns’s argument, so insidiously thorough that Burns waved the white flag two days later in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in which he said, in effect, “Never mind.”
You should click the link and read the letter.
Kluwe is a man who described himself to the Times by saying “Football is what I do for a living, but it’s not even remotely who I am.” As the Times article points out he is smart, articulate and extremely well read.
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe practicing music with his band. (Photograph: Stephen Maturen for The New York Times)
But his letter about the Maryland marriage equality referendum is not his only support for gay marriage.
What added to Kluwe’s angst that night in his bedroom was the proposed amendmentto the Minnesota Constitution known as Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman, which is on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“There are only 4 percent of Minnesotans undecided on this question,” says Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager of the coalition Minnesotans United for All Families, an umbrella organization for more than 600 groups working to defeat the amendment. “Right now it’s a dead heat.”
Kluwe lent his brash voice against the amendment, appearing in radio advertisements and writing a letter on behalf of Minnesotans for Equality, a fund-raising arm of Minnesotans United for All Families. He recently began selling T-shirts printed with two of the more colorful terms from his letter to Burns. Proceeds will be split between Kluwe’s charity, Kick for a Cure, which benefits children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and Minnesotans for Equality.
So what has been the reaction of the NFL and his teammates?
Handling such politically delicate matters is new territory for the N.F.L., which has recently been assaulted by concussion issues, player bounties and inept replacement referees. When asked to comment about the Ayanbadejo situation during a Politico forumin September, Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “Listen, I think in this day and age, people are going to speak up about what they think is important. They speak as individuals, and I think that’s an important part of our democracy.”
Paul Tagliabue, the previous N.F.L. commissioner, said he planned to donate $100,000 to support same-sex marriage in Maryland.
Despite the league’s macho culture, Kluwe said: “I had quite a few teammates come up to me and say: ‘We appreciate you speaking out in support of Brendon. We may not agree with you on that marriage issue, but at the same time everybody has got the right to speak.’ And then I’ve had a couple teammates come up and say, ‘We agree with you, we think you did the right thing, and that was a great letter you wrote.’ ”
Chris Kluwe is unique. He not only wants to speak out but he has the ability to do so and for that supporters of marriage equality should be grateful to him – and to Brendon Ayanbadejo.