Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Michael Sam and the new America

By Frida Ghitis
updated 12:57 PM EST, Mon February 10, 2014
Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, became the first openly gay player drafted by the National Football League after being selected by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday, May 10. Sam was drafted in the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Sam told ESPN and The New York Times on February 9 that he is gay. Sam is seen here before the NCAA Senior Bowl on Saturday, January 25, in Mobile, Alabama. Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, became the first openly gay player drafted by the National Football League after being selected by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday, May 10. Sam was drafted in the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Sam told ESPN and The New York Times on February 9 that he is gay. Sam is seen here before the NCAA Senior Bowl on Saturday, January 25, in Mobile, Alabama.
HIDE CAPTION
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
Michael Sam's breakthrough season
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: The Netherlands once seemed permissive to U.S. on pot, same-sex marriage
  • But changes in public opinion, laws have narrowed social gap in the two countries
  • She says "family values" stance conflicted with libertarian notion of freedom
  • Ghitis: U.S. differs with many nations on gun issue, but definition of freedom shifting

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- When a massive, muscle-bound American football player announced this weekend that he is gay, we watched yet another brick crumble in the monolith of American prejudice. To some, Michael Sam's words might have come as a shock, but most Americans know the country is in the midst of a fundamental social shift, one that conjures images of a different place.

Where? Well, if you traveled from the United States to the Netherlands a few years ago, what you saw -- and smelled -- in the streets of ultra-liberal Amsterdam probably shocked you. Young people smoking joints in an open-air café, gay couples holding hands on the streets and people of all ages not batting an eye about any of it gave U.S. visitors a novel and exotic experience.

Back then, the United States and the Netherlands stood on opposite sides of the front line of the social wars. Not anymore. It's not because the Netherlands has changed. It is the United States, the American people, who have changed.

The transformation in U.S. public opinion, increasingly reflected in legislation, has narrowed what was an enormous gap between the two countries. Change is coming at such a fast, accelerating rate that one wonders, is America turning into the Netherlands?

Will coming out hurt Sam's NFL chances?
Watch NFL prospect reveal he's gay
Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

I will save you the trouble of answering. No, but there is no denying there is a visible convergence on key issues.

As a frequent visitor to the Netherlands for many years, I can tell you that the disbelieving questions I used to face about America's puritanism have become much less frequent. (Others, mostly about guns in America, have not abated.)

In the summer of 1998, then-U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey triggered an unseemly diplomatic skirmish during a fact-finding visit to the Dutch capital. The four-star general, charged with leading America's war on drugs, tensed up as he saw the smoke wafting out of perfectly legal pot-selling cafes in Amsterdam. He surveyed the permissive drug environment and publicly judged Dutch drug policy an "unmitigated disaster."

Dutch government officials responded with a barrage of statistics to prove the visitor wrong, and coffee shop customers declared McCaffrey had no idea what he was talking about.

The general may have been too focused on the drug situation to notice what was happening on the same-sex marriage front in the Netherlands. Perhaps he would have found that also disastrous. The parliament had just approved an innovative concept of "registered partnerships," allowing couples, gay and straight, to be treated more or less the same as their legally married counterparts.

In the United State then, during the 1990s, the weapon of choice in the Republican arsenal was "family values." The approval of same-sex marriage was about as likely in the United States as, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin officiating a gay wedding in Sochi today.

The 1992 and 1996 Republican conventions, which I attended as part of the CNN team, were choreographed carnivals of anti-gay invective.

It wasn't just Republicans. By substantial majorities, Americans opposed gay rights and, incidentally, strongly supported drug laws outlawing marijuana use.

In a CNN poll in 1998, a majority said they believed gay people can change their sexual orientation if they chose to do so.

But at the same time, American views were beginning to budge. Just as President Barack Obama's public embrace of same-sex marriage gave a boost to popular support, Bill Clinton sensed an increase in acceptance and tried to propel change with an effort to end the ban on gays in the military.

The reaction would have been laughable had it not been so outrageous. Sam Nunn, then the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, toured a submarine, expertly examining the bunks where sailors slept in close quarters. Obviously, the tour indicated, gay men would find the temptation of nearby sailors simply irresistible. Clinton changed course, approved the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and signed the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which caused enormous injustices, both of which stayed in place until recently.

Va. attorney general flips on same-sex ban
2013: Success of same-sex marriage
Obama: Pot not worse than alcohol

In 2001, George W. Bush took office, invigorating Republicans. That same year, the Netherlands became the world's first country to legalize same-sex marriage. The day the bill became law, Amsterdam's mayor became a registrar and personally officiated the country's first such wedding.

A Pew Research Center poll clocked support for same-sex marriage among Americans then at just 35%.

Despite the head winds, the battle for equal rights has not stopped, not in the United States, not in other corners of the world. As the German philosopher Georg Hegel explained more than 200 years ago, history itself is the progress of the consciousness of freedom.

It can be slowed. It can be delayed. But it cannot be stopped.

Today, America looks like a different country. In fact, in many respects it looks very much like the Netherlands.

Today, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, which is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. And that majority is sure to continue growing, because the numbers are overwhelming among young people. Even the legalization of marijuana, which is picking up legal support around the country, enjoys majority support.

Does that mean America is becoming more liberal? Not really.

In the Netherlands, the driving philosophy is one of tolerance and compromise. In the United States, the shift reflects a closer alignment with the country's historic embrace of freedom from the government. The "family values" efforts to legislate morality run counter to that libertarian notion of freedom. Liberals have always been more comfortable with the differences between people. And conservatives are increasingly redefining their stance on a number of social issues, concluding that different people can live different lives. The government should not interfere.

There are many other factors, of course. Activists have worked persistently to educate the public. And the entertainment industry has played an important role.

And the changes in America are echoes of a global trend. Secular, affluent countries tend to be more accepting of different lifestyle choices. Homosexuality is gaining acceptance in the West, while it is overwhelmingly condemned in Muslim countries, and in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Western world's attitude toward drugs is changing. "Hard" drugs and addiction are seen more as a disease than a moral failing. Marijuana, once demonized, is increasingly viewed as less harmful than alcohol.

There are many areas in which progressive Western nations, such as the Netherlands, are still sharply different from the United States. Differences over gun policy will likely persist, while views over contentious topics such as the right to die are likely to converge. For America, the driving force behind the transformation is found in a changing definition of the meaning of freedom.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT