By BRENDON AYANBADEJO
After winning the Super Bowl in February, the entire Baltimore Ravens organization was invited on a White House tour, which included a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet President Obama.
The older paintings in the White House detailing everyday life depict black servants and maids. Depending on the dates, they were either workers or, more likely, they were slaves. Even our first president knew slavery was wrong. Our country, which was built on the backs of slave labor, turned a blind eye to this unconstitutional act. In his will following the death of his wife Martha, George Washington declared his slaves free. It took another 60-plus years before the majority of African Americans tasted freedom by way of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, which didn’t even apply to the entire country just yet.
President Lincoln died for what he believed in — that every man is created equal just as stated in the Constitution. But 150 years later in 2013, we continue to fight for the same things we fought for in the Civil War — the civil rights and equal rights of every single American man, woman and child. We will continue to spread our message of love, freedom and equality not only in the United States but worldwide. (Civil rights meaning the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality. The keyword being “citizens” — meaning ALL citizens.)
The government should not discriminate or segregate by color, age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or a myriad of other classifications. In 2009, President-elect Obama became a beacon of light shining as bright as Nelson Mandela did upon his release from prison and election to prime minister of the apartheid-torn South Africa.
In 2016, we may see a-mother hero in Hillary Rodham Clinton (pun intended), who could become the most powerful woman in the world since Hatshepsut the (female) king of Egypt’s 18th dynasty in 1870 B.C. some 3,883 years ago. This is the evolution I see in the periphery when we talk about equality, and when we bend down on both knees to tell our children to chase your dreams because you can do anything you set your heart, soul and mind to achieve, as we look them in their eyes with truth and conviction.
Now, how the hell did an athlete get caught knee deep in this whole mess of a deal that some people like to call gay rights? For me it was quite easy because there is no such thing as gay rights. There’s just rights and no rights, and today as you read this article, gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry in 37 states. In many of those same states, you can be fired from your job and even evicted from your home for being part of the LGBT community. There are more than 1,000 benefits of marriage under the law that do not convey to the LGBT community. We fought through women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, anti-miscegenation laws and today we continue to fight for the same rights for our LGBT brothers and sisters all over again.
As an athlete I realize that I have the ability to traverse the territory between sport and entertainment. I would much rather improve people’s lives than entertain, so I chose to start voicing my views on issues that resonated with me and my personal life. The Super Bowl was witnessed by more than a billion eyes and ears. The timing couldn’t have been better even though I have been publicly campaigning for equality since 2009. What was a grassroots movement is now one of the most relevant topics in America and around the world.
There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As we have seen in the United States, it is inevitable that we will one day have marriage equality in every state and federal marriage rights as well. This shouldn’t be up to popular vote or opinion, the Constitution guarantees it, but if this is the route we must take, domino by domino, so be it, and we will look back several years from now in amazement that we ever had such barbaric laws and practices in effect just as we look back on segregation, slavery and other draconian practices over the history of our beloved country.
Reminders of how far we have come are never more evident than when we see the injustices in Russia and its lack of acceptance and tolerance. Worse yet is West Africa, where it can be deadly to be a part of the LGBT community, as people are literally killed simply for being gay. Changing America is the tip of the iceberg. Changing the world in places like my father’s native Nigeria, where the acceptance of one’s homosexuality is as difficult as cultivating a garden in a desert, poses even greater challenges.
As the seeds were planted in America years and years ago by heroes like Abraham Lincoln, Branch Rickey, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Billy Bean and Greg Louganis, to name a handful, we must plant the seeds in our deserts abroad, in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Russia, Iran and all the other intolerant nations so one day they too will be accepting of love, equality and the pursuit of happiness.
Many people ask me, “Why gay rights?” I simply reply that they are just rights and because they would do the same thing for me. Perhaps they already have.
Brendon Ayanbadejo is guest editor of the Washington Blade. He played for the reigning Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and is owner of OrangeTheory Fitness and a longtime LGBT and human rights advocate.