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Michael and Vito

Michael and Vito

George De Stefano (May 14, 2014)
New York Daily News
Michael Sam and Vito Cammisano

I had been following the Michael Sam story with some interest, but when I found out who his boyfriend is, it really grabbed my attention.


It was the lip-lock seen around the world: openly gay National Football League player Michael Sam, hearing that he had been drafted by the St. Louis Rams, kissed his boyfriend on the lips while the TV cameras rolled.  
And who was the recipient of that ardent smooch?
A twenty-three-year-old former college swimmer named Vito Cammisano.
I had been following the Michael Sam story with some interest, but now it really grabbed my attention. I am a middle-aged, gay Italian American who grew up at a time when the media treated homosexuality as a dirty secret – simultaneously vice, sin, and disease – and no public figures came out. And certainly no athletes did, given that pro sports was an unassailable citadel of (male) heterosexuality. Unlike gay kids today, I had no "positive role models" to inspire me and make me feel I wasn't a freak. The flaming actor Paul Lynde was married (to a woman); even Liberace was closeted in his public life. 
Besides societal homophobia, there was the notion of male (and masculine) identity that prevailed in Italian American culture: I well knew that I was supposed to be maschio, not frocio. I was expected to learn and perform that cultural script, even though I was all wrong for the part.
I also was quite aware that Italian Americans could be racist towards African Americans. Although I never heard racial epithets from my father or mother, I'd certainly heard "moulanyan" and its variants ("moolies," "yoms") many times from Italian American relatives and friends.  A black football player having sex with an Italian American guy would have been incomprehensible – and repulsive – to them.
People who are homosexual or gender-variant still face stigma, violence, and discrimination, here in the United States and in many other places. But, in the years since I was a scared and lonely gay adolescent, the world has changed considerably, in ways I never would have imagined. An openly gay, African American football player kissing his Italian American boyfriend on TV certainly ranks as one of them. The fact that there even exist gay jocks like Michael Sam and Vito Cammisano still feels like a novelty to me.
What feels all too familiar is the media coverage of Cammisano's family history. The Sam – Cammisano lip-lock is, as an academic might say, an overdetermined image whose effect comes from its commingling of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. There's another sociocultural trope to add to the mix: Italian Americans as criminals.      
Sam had barely finished kissing the guy he calls "my cute little Italian boy" when the media reported that Cammisano comes from "a Midwest Mafia family," as the headline writers put it. Cammisano's hometown paper, the Kansas City Star, after noting that he had been a freestyle swimmer in college, told its readers, "Cammisano’s name may be familiar to Kansas Citians for another reason: According to Cammisano’s bio on the MU swim team’s website, he is the youngest child of Jerry and Josephine Cammisano. Vito Cammisano’s grandfather was William Cammisano Sr., one of the most feared mobsters in Kansas City history, who died in 1995. The scrap dealer, a four-time felon who had been arrested more than 100 times, was widely known as Willie the Rat."
"The main squeeze of openly gay NFL player Michael Sam comes from a family of Midwest mobsters," the New York Daily News announced. The paper also reported that Vito's dad, Gerlarmo (Jerry) Cammisano, "followed in the family’s shady business and ended up doing 14 months in prison for running a Kansas City-based gambling ring, according to records."

The "mainstream" media couldn't resist this story, and who could blame them: the first openly gay, African American NFL player is dating the scion of a "Mafia family." Most of the coverage that I've seen reported this straightforwardly, with a minimum of snark and the usual journalistic clichés. But not all. The pop culture site Radar in its headline wondered if Sam was now "married to the mob." Referring to Vito, the piece, credited only to "Radar online staff," observed, "So far, the communications major, who graduated in 2013, seems to be on the straight and narrow, and will continue supporting Sam, 24, from the sidelines…"
Watch out, Michael Sam! Your cute little Italian boy just might go off the "straight and narrow" he "seems" to be on "so far." You never know how a domestic spat with the offspring of wiseguys might end.
But what of la famiglia Cammisano? If stereotypes were reality, Vito's kin would have ostracized him, and maybe done worse, when they learned about his sexuality. Instead, they seem to have accepted him and his relationship with Sam. “I was very proud of them both,” said Cammisano’s aunt, Cathy Nigro. “I think the whole family is.”
Yes, the world definitely has changed.

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