By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com October 04 2012 12:31 PM ET
Just weeks until Maryland voters decide on whether to legalize marriage equality, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo will take any opportunity he can get to lobby for same-sex couples and their families. "I'm a product of a biracial family," he told The Advocate Tuesday. "There was a time when people of two different races couldn't get married. [Marriage equality] was just a relevant issue that I needed to speak out about." And so he has, for the last few years, even though others in the league — and certain state politicians — weren't quite as comfortable with the idea.
Ayanbadejo spoke to The Advocate about his teammate Matt Birk, whose beliefs on marriage are the opposite, what he's taught his children about gay people, and why more NFL players are supportive of LGBT rights than ever before.
The Advocate: What spurred you to begin becoming actively involved in the fight for marriage equality, specifically in Maryland?
Brendon Ayanbadejo: I actually was just speaking out just in general, back in 2008 and 2009, when Obama was running for his first campaign, and it just seemed like it was a hot topic. It seemed like you were either against [marriage equality] if you were a Republican, or you kind of straddled the fence to get both sides if you were a Democrat. Obama didn't speak up for it until this year. So I just decided to just speak out at that point.
There was a lot of back-and-forth recently to your campaigning for marriage equality — first Emmett Burns, then the Minnesota Vikings' Chris Kluwe, and now your teammate Matt Birk. How have you felt watching all of that unfold?
It's been a firestorm. It's been a media gem, I guess. It's just interesting that we're talking about human rights and that people are speaking out against human rights in this day and age. So it's kind of remarkable that the people who are speaking out against human rights, they don't treat it like a human rights issue in any way. A lot of people say, "How dare you compare it to civil rights and human rights," even though that's exactly what it is. It's not a human issue to them. It's really just a preference issue or a sexual pleasure issue to them.
Has your relationship with your teammate Matt Birk changed since he wrote an op-ed about his opposition to marriage equality?
He's a really great guy. He's the go-to guy in the locker room. There's other guys as well, but he's the perfect example of what a teammate is. I was shocked when he opposed it, but I can't let that issue get between me and him, and all the great things we've experienced together. I was shocked and I was a little sad, but I can't let that affect our relationship. Before he knew me and accepted me as a friend, he knew my brother and played with my brother for several years. He's done a lot for the game and for the community, so it's hard. So it's not like I'm sugar-coating anything, I'm just telling the truth.
The difference is that he doesn't see it as a human rights issue. It's just a fundamental difference in how we both see the issue, and it's kind of hard to get across to someone who's not even in the same ballpark as you on the issue. I haven't even talked to him about the issue either.
Recently you've said that the amount of support over gay rights and marriage equality has grown exponentially among NFL players. Why do you think that's true?
Just because every few years there's a new generation of NFL players, and unless you're a great, great player, the average career is about three and a half years, so when I first started talking about this issue, it was a completely different set of players in the league, and the league has turned over so much in the last four years since I first touched the subject. Now this younger generation has come in and they're a lot more accepting, a lot more understanding. They're just a completely different generation of young men who see the world differently. That's the main reason why.
There's only a couple of weeks left before Maryland votes on whether to legalize marriage. What would you say to recruit some of your NFL colleagues to join the fight?
I would say before the issue of equal rights for gay people, there was the issue for equal rights for women, for minorities, specifically for African-Americans. It's going to take heterosexuals to approve marriage equality just like it took white people to stand up to abolish slavery. Now it's our turn. We've benefited from equal rights and human rights, and now it's time for us to help another minority group, the LGBT community, so we can treat them like equals, because they are our equals.
You're an avid Twitter user, and you use the platform frequently to talk about social justice issues and politics. How do your fans react who just want to follow you because you're a football player that they like?
I've been on Twitter for a year and change now, and when I first started getting followers, it was mainly football people. But as time has gone on, the demographics have changed, and now LGBT people follow me, some people in fashion follow me, a lot of health-conscious people who are into training follow me. There's a little dog community that follows me. A lot of people in different subgroups that I commingle in. Football is just one of the groups that follows me. It's like a pie that we divide up — 20% are football, and like 50% are LGBT. I do get complaints like, "When are we just going to talk about football?" No one else complains. It's just the football people. Last time I checked it was my Twitter, you know?
Ayanbadejo family, from left: Brendon, Anaya, Brendon Amadeus, and Natalee
What do you think about how the NFL management handled the replacement referee situation?
I thought it was awesome. It just shows how amazing our country is and how things can work. The owners tried to make a power play by getting replacment refs from other areas. Now you even have less ground to stand on, but all it did was get them the solid pillar to get the deals done. They were getting refs from all over the place, and they saw how subpar some of the refs were — some were from NCAA Division III, Division IA — and they couldn't handle it. The NFL game is so fast, they just couldn't handle it. Plays happen quickly, the game moves fast, the plays get overturned fast. And it wasn't the refs' fault. It was the NFL's fault. So it was just awesome that they got the real refs back, and it was awesome that the referees got what they wanted. We want the best refs, we want the best players, and we want the best product on the field, and we got that. The whole situation was totally the American way of doing things right. I just loved the way it all played out, with a culmination on Monday Night Football. I was just really happy about it.
Your kids are incredibly adorable, by the way. I know they're fairly young, but are they politically aware yet?
I know they're definitely aware, just from the TV shows we watch and the people that we know and hang around. My daughter is 7 now. We'll be watching TV, and she'll ask, "Why are two girls holding hands?" or, "Why did two boys just kiss?" and I'll say, "Well, everybody's different. Sometimes, some people fall in love with someone that's the same sex as them. That's just the way the world is, and it's perfectly OK."