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The choices of Michael Sam

– Michael Sam, an outstanding college football player, has come out of the closet. He’s expected to be picked in the National Football League draft. He’d be the NFL’s first openly gay player.

Sam didn’t grow up in an environment where homosexuality was accepted or tolerated. In his ESPN interview, he recalled “seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, knowing that my older sister died when she was a baby.” A second brother went missing and was later pronounced dead. Two other brothers have been “in and out of jail since eighth grade, currently both in jail.” Sam reflected:

“I could be in jail. I could be dead. … But I made a choice. I made a choice at a young age that I knew that I didn’t want to follow that path of my brothers. … I knew that I wanted to have some success so my family could be proud of me.”

The key words are “I made a choice.” Against the grain of everything that had happened in his family, Sam chose a different course. You can question lots of things about Sam.What you can’t question is his will.

And that should make you think hard, if you haven’t already, about the role of willpower in sexual orientation. Some people think homosexuality is a choice. Many others accept that it’s an inclination but insist you can overcome it. Even among liberals, there’s occasional talk that being gay is a personal decision.

There are some people, at the margins of bisexuality, for whom that’s true. But gay men – those who know they’re gay – don’t choose to be gay and can’t make themselves straight. If the science and the spectacular failure of “ex-gay” ministries don’t convince you, look at Michael Sam. He’s about to take the brunt of being the NFL’s first openly gay player – an ordeal any sensible person would avoid if he could. To get here, Sam had to find the moral strength to break a family history of crime and death. What he couldn’t break was his sexual orientation. It wasn’t his choice.

William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.

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