by Joey Saunders
Vito Cammisano explains that he was wearing a hat on his ride home to Kansas City from St. Louis where his boyfriend, Michael Sam, had just made his NFL debut as a St. Louis Rams defensive end against the New Orleans Saints. “I thought I was going to have hat hair,” Vito says, “but I took it off and I kind of liked it so I just left it like this.” He laughs, “Don’t you think I’m having a good hair day?” I’m driving, but glance over and see that my air conditioning is blowing a few strands of Vito’s hair helter-skelter, making it look as though he had just had some mild electroshock therapy. I smirk, shake my head, and we continue to Jasper’s restaurant.
Vito tells me his family has been coming to Jasper’s since he was little. We agree it is one of the best Italian restaurants in Kansas City. When we are seated, the smell of fresh basil flirts with my nostrils. Many staff members greet Vito warmly and ask about his family. He has two older sisters, both recently married, one of whom moved to St. Louis to teach. Vito’s mother is also a teacher and helped pay for her daughters’ weddings by working as a server at a local country club. When I pick up Vito for dinner, a tall shadow accompanies him: his father, Jerry. Jerry might have looked ominous if it weren’t for a pair of small, eccentric glasses that sit low on his aquiline nose. His voice is soft and gentle, but deep. He asks about me, I ask about him, he tells me he has become very passionate about antiquing and invites me to take a look at his shop sometime. In his home, he has a large collection of rare Pez dispensers. With a formidable hand, he pats Vito on the back and me, briefly, on the arm saying, “Good luck with whatever you’re trying to do.” At Jasper’s Vito tells me, “We were a very traditional Catholic, Italian family and my dad, I love my dad, but … coming out to him was literally the scariest thing I have ever done.” If you’re having a hard time coming out, Vito suggests hard cider. Let me explain:
A few years before Michael Sam had come out as gay, was drafted by the Rams and kissed Vito Cammisano, making himself one of the most recognizably famous and controversial athletes in the world, Vito saved up money from lifeguarding and took a trip to the United Kingdom. He was 20 and a swimmer for the University of Missouri in Columbia. Vito says he had already met Michael by this point but wasn’t out. He calls their initial interaction “embarrassing,” explaining it makes him look bad. “You have to understand, I was a freshman and I swam so I was really inexperienced with drinking and just had had way too much.” It was at a Playboy-bunny-themed swim team party where Michael came upon a slim but sinewy young Vito in a Speedo with a fluffy tail and rabbit ears that practically fell off as he vomited. “Mikey came up and asked if I was OK, and I basically yelled at him and told him to go away.” He says they didn’t speak again for a couple years. During that time, Vito traveled to meet his friend Steph, “She was, and is, one of my best friends from college. Her family does something with oil.”
In a particularly gay-friendly part of London that Vito can’t remember the name of right now, he went out with Steph and had a great time. “It just felt different over there, people seemed more open.” Men started flirting with him but Steph told them not to bother Vito. “She would say I was straight and I would, in my head, be like, ‘No wait, don’t tell them that! I like this.’” At a dive-y bar in Aberdeen, Scotland, Vito had a few hard ciders and compulsively blurted out the truth. “Steph was the first person I came out to. Out loud, anyway. Like, I always knew I was gay. I just didn’t necessarily know any gay people or have the right word for it when I was growing up. But I always felt different.” And how did Steph react? “There was a moment where it was like I had blacked out. I knew what I had said but I didn’t really remember saying it and she didn’t say anything right away which made me nervous. Finally she said, ‘Vito, I love you and I will take this to the grave with me if that is what you want, but I really hope you’d like to talk about this.” So they did, and Vito says it felt incredible to tell the truth for the first time. He wishes he had come out sooner.
I ask if he experienced any homophobia or bullying growing up. He attended private Catholic schools until college. Middle school, he says, was horrible. “It was just the boys, especially the ones from other (Catholic) middle schools. Most of my friends were girls so I would go to dances and try to have fun and dance with my friends, and the boys would make fun of me and say I was girly. I don’t really remember anything specific.” Do you remember the first time someone called you a “faggot?” “Oh yeah, it was at a Pius football game.” St. Pius X is a Catholic preparatory high school that looms over I-29 highway atop a hill near Vito’s neighborhood. His sisters were at Pius when he attended a game as an eighth-grader. A peer was teasing him relentlessly and called him a faggot. It was the first time he remembers being called a faggot and the first time he had ever punched somebody. “I did, right in the stomach. I’m sure he barely flinched, he may have even laughed, but he left me alone after that.” We notice our waiter seems to be eavesdropping.
After finishing some limoncello, we leave to walk along Brush Creek near the Plaza. Vito seems more at ease when it’s just the two of us. “I didn’t want to get too much into anything personal because I felt like our waiter was a little intense.” Vito says that while Steph was the first person he came out to, there is something I should know. “Mizzou had counseling resources for its athletes, and I told my counselor – I remember the exact words – I told her, ‘I think I might be gay.’” He says he would go back and forth, but after coming out to Steph it was all forward, even though, “Some days things were really hard, and I would wish I had never told anyone, but by seeing my counselor – and I know this sounds cheesy –she really helped me be comfortable with who I truly am.” He considers himself lucky to have had access to free counseling. Most young men and women don’t have any way to pay for such a thing without going through their parents’ insurance, and the stigma associated with receiving any sort of therapy is a sad deterrent.
Prior to coming out, Vito had never experimented with men. He attended Rockhurst, an all-boys Catholic high school not far from Jasper’s, and dated a girl from the all-girls parochial school, St. Teresa’s Academy. “I just did it to fit in.” He broke up with her (“I told her I wanted to focus on swimming and academics, which was true”) before the relationship became too physically intimate but he tried to date another girl in college. “She was on the swim team.” He was 19 and lost his virginity to her. They slept together three times, Vito estimates. By this point he knew conclusively that he was gay.
When he came back from the United Kingdom, Vito slowly became comfortable with the man he would be today. He says he didn’t immediately go to any gay bars or join “the scene” in Columbia. He experimented with a diver but says, “We didn’t have sex. It was very high school, very juvenile. Just, like, kissing and touching.” Still, he adds, “I was so nervous, but it was exciting. My heart was beating really fast.”
The diver may have told some other swimmers, but Vito says he didn’t come out to the whole team at once. “There wasn’t some big announcement. I told the people I wanted to tell, and everyone else just found out.” In Kansas City, one of Vito’s best friends, Brooke, only found out accidentally, the result of a drinking game called “Never Have I Ever.” Brooke and Vito swam together since they were small. Vito explains, “It was harder for me to tell people I had known for a long time, but it was really starting to stress me out … I was living as my true self in Columbia at Mizzou and living this other life with friends and family in Kansas City.”
As liberating as it was to live honestly in Columbia, Vito tells me it wasn’t always perfect there. “I think my friends and my counselor were great, but when I was totally out and pretty much everyone on campus who knew me knew (that I was gay) I know some of the more quote-unquote masculine athletes, like some of the football and basketball players, would talk about me. Some of them would give me dirty looks but no one really said anything to my face.” At a dining hall, a friend introduced Vito to the burgeoning college football star, Michael Sam. Vito said they laughed off the awkwardness of their original, literally vomit-inducing first impression. “I sort of apologized and explained my side of things.” Then they talked and flirted a little, exchanged numbers, flirted a lot and started dating. Even as he and Vito became closer, Vito says, Michael had a difficult time admitting even to himself that he was gay. If Vito went to visit family and brought Michael along he was always his friend, never his boyfriend, “Which is true, he was my friend. Mikey is my best friend.” But being closeted put an immense strain on Vito’s relationship with his family. He remembers how devastating it was for his childhood friend Brooke to find out inadvertently. “She said she was sad that I didn’t feel like I could tell her.”
One Christmas, Vito brought rare cigars to his parents’ home as extended family mingled and ate. Downstairs, Vito tried to sell the cigars to his cousin. The cousin thought this was unfair and thought Vito should give them away since they were family. Vito laughed it off but his cousin was upset, said something Vito found very insulting, and told Vito to “quit being such a fag.” A brief but loud physical fight ensued and ended as Vito flipped his cousin over a couch. The ruckus alarmed Jerry and other family members. Vito ran upstairs and out to his car where he felt miserable and wanted to leave but his father came out to confront him. “I figured if he knew what my cousin had said and saw how unusually angry I had gotten, he would piece it together. I wasn’t ready for that.”
Vito says, “Tony George, my (eldest) sister’s husband, called me and told me he knew that I was gay and was completely OK with it but said I needed to tell my family before they heard from someone else. Oh, and he said my mom was really worried about me and thought I was on drugs.” Vito was always close with his mother but their conversations had grown terse and strained. He spoke with his counselor and made plans to be home. He called his sister, Tony George’s wife, Antoinette, and confided in her. They wept, and she, like Brooke, was frustrated and saddened that Vito had kept such a massive secret from her for so long. Next, he went through a similar process with his younger sister, the teacher, Mariann, whom he always had a healthy rivalry with. They all met to eat Vito’s mother’s sauce and bread at the family dining table. Vito describes how painfully nervous and terrified he was. He kept trying to say it but remained quiet for most of the meal. Jerry sat stoically at the head of the table. Vito says he never felt incredibly close to his father. They didn’t have many of the same interests. He was always his mother’s son.
Finally when mom, Josephine, clears plates, Vito says he needs to tell them something. “I knew it,” Josephine says. “You’re on drugs aren’t you?” Vito shakes his head, “No, mom. I’m not on drugs.” Vito tells his mother and father that he is gay. “Oh Vito,” his mother says, “You’re too handsome to be gay.”
“I remember,” he says, “my dad wouldn’t look at me and it was upsetting me so much. My mom was crying, and I started crying and I yelled, ‘Look at me!’ And he said something like, ‘I guess this is the end of my line.’” Jerry Cammisano’s only son is gay. The Italian patriarch would give his son two weeks of silence before finally picking up the phone and calling Vito and saying, “You’re my only son, and I love you no matter what.” And slowly, through this revelation of truth, Vito became closer to his father than he had ever been. “We didn’t use to before, but we talk all the time now,” Vito smiles.
Vito invited Michael to Christmas with his family. They talked to each other, rekindled their relationship. Michael came out to his Mizzou football team and then to the world. The Rams draft Michael, the first openly gay NFL player; his chin shakes and brow crinkles as he weeps and buckles at the waist. His agent, Cameron Weiss, pats him firmly on the back. Vito tries to stifle his tears as he rubs Michael’s arm until he stands tall again. He kisses Vito briefly, they hold each other, inseparable for a long moment, before their lips meet again, a little longer this time. The kiss courses through the skies and underground wires until it’s broadcast to millions of people. Some think it’s beautiful, others are apathetic, some dissect it cynically, others still think it’s disgusting and shameful.
“The phones at our house – I have no idea how they got our number – just started ringing off the hook asking if I wanted to talk to this website, or Anderson Cooper, or People magazine, or do this show.” Vito says he remembers walking into his parents’ bedroom where Jerry was reading in bed. “What should I do?” His father had no idea. How do you prepare for a moment like that? Vito says Jerry was always the sort of person who cared deeply about protecting his family. It was a priority, and now his son was being lauded or criticized on every other channel. He had no control. “But, he said he trusted me.”
When I ask Vito what Michael needed to hear to convince him to come out, I can see him become visibly anxious. At one point, as we sit facing the water on a stone wall, Vito begins tearing blades of grass from the earth. He insists that there wasn’t any grandstanding or any distinct discussions but does not elaborate.
I refer to how Michael, in his Arthur Ashe Courage Award acceptance speech at the ESPYS, called Vito his inspiration. Vito is worried that he may be saying too much and asks me to clarify “when were you saying we were talking on the record, versus off the record.” I ask him what’s wrong. “I’m just confused,” he goes on, “I’m just worried you might be trying to write a different article than I had originally thought from talking to you. I mean, I had decided to talk with you and not any other show or magazine because of the way we were talking about how I’m just, you know, an average guy and how maybe my story could help someone struggling to come out. I don’t want this to be focused on me and Mikey, and I feel like he keeps coming up.”
I tell him, “It’s like you said, you are a regular guy. I mean you’re a great swimmer, but you aren’t going to play for the NFL.” Vito points out that Michael didn’t play for the NFL when he came out yet either. He also clarifies that he doesn’t swim anymore. He is about to finish coaching a swim team, but for the most part he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. He graduated from MU with a communications degree and moved back in with his parents. But he feels a little lost and overwhelmed.
“That’s part of my point, you don’t have everything figured out. I think some people might look at Michael and think his story, as incredible and inspiring as it is, is too different than theirs. In some ways it might have been harder for him to come out because he was in such a, to steal your terminology, ‘more quote-unquote masculine sport,’ but in another way he has his incredible talent to fall back on. Most of us aren’t super-athletes or movie stars, and we never achieve our dreams, as sad as that sounds, but I think it’s true, and we’re all kind of lost and overwhelmed. I mean, don’t you ever feel like it’s amazing that you in some way inspired this huge thing?! Don’t you ever feel like you’re in the middle of something so much more colossal than you are?!” At this point my voice is raised and people across the street are looking at us. Vito practically screams, “Yes!”
I try to lower my voice, “Do you know really what you’re in the middle of? Do you know who Vito Russo is?” He doesn’t. “He was a huge gay rights activist. You should go home and watch “Vito” on HBO Go. It’s an amazing documentary about him. What I would like to do is show you how long and hard the fight has been for people like Vito and Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk and Tony Kushner and many others to even get us to a point where you could feel safe kissing another man anywhere let alone on national television.”
“Right, but our kiss, it just happened. It wasn’t like we strategized about it and said, ‘OK, you’re going to get drafted and we should kiss.’ No. We didn’t know. He was getting a call that made his dream come true, and we were happy so we kissed. I mean, that’s what you do when you’re happy, you kiss. It was normal, it just happened.” Vito takes a breath, but it doesn’t calm him down. “I don’t know about those people you were going on about but I want to. I wish I did. I wish someone had told me about them or that I had someone like Mikey to look up to when I was young.”
I tell him, “Vito, you can be that somebody too.”
He shakes his head and looks at me, “The thing I hate is when people say things like, ‘Well, how do I explain this to my kids?’ Well, if I had it to do over I would kiss him again, I would kiss him a hundred times just so people would see and would have to explain it. I want that! I want to do whatever I can to help anyone who might be struggling, but I just don’t … I don’t see why I need to talk about Mikey or our relationship. I don’t see how that would help anyone.”
Vito apologizes for getting upset and tries to explain himself, but I stop him and apologize. I suggest it’s time to take him home.
The next day Vito calls me saying he’s worried he may have said too much and asking me to go over some of the details with him of what the final article will look like. I had said that Vito would be the focus of this article, which he clearly is, and that Michael would only be mentioned incidentally when Vito’s story involved him, but even then things would be from Vito’s perspective. He understands but he didn’t realize how often Michael was going to come up and said he may have divulged too many distracting, personal details about Michael at a sensitive time.
Vito, I have removed most of what you have requested. Obviously I have added a lot of material about us arguing and about how actively protective you are of Michael, your family and their privacy. I hope you don’t feel like this is a betrayal. I think Michael Sam’s story is just beginning. I think yours is, too. The reason I asked to speak with you and not Michael was because it seemed to me that you set this all in motion just as much as he did, and yet the world knows so little about you. When I really think about it, what we both want out of this little article is for someone to pick it up, read it, and say, “Hey, I really identify with this guy. I am really moved by the fact that he was able to believe in who he was enough to be himself in the face of adversity, to trust in his family’s love enough to risk ostracizing them and then become closer to them than ever as a result of unyielding honesty. I really find it incredible that he made such an enormous impact just because he had the courage to make his love known and to demand that his love be respected, recognized and validated.” I know we both want any reader who might not be fully out of the closet to know they aren’t alone and that even if everything feels overwhelming, being truthful can lead to amazing happiness and progress. Being truthful can birth ecstatic freedom.
While support for marriage equality has increased enormously across the country, there are a number of states that have no laws protecting men and women who want to be truthful from being harassed, ridiculed, discriminated against or fired for being who they inherently are. Missouri is one of those states. And while municipalities like Kansas City and St. Louis have ordinances in place, we remain incredibly vulnerable to discrimination. There is essentially a ban on Missouri public schools’ abilities to define any specific groups in their anti-bullying policies leaving them largely up to conjecture. Coming out is a brave first step, but we all need to do more. You’re right, Vito: Dwelling on the minutiae of your relationship probably doesn’t help anyone, and I hope I’ve omitted everything you wanted removed and I hope my addressing you directly like this isn’t upsetting to you. I think just by being honest about who you are, you and Michael have made some very important progress. That being said, so much more needs to be done.
We can start by supporting organizations like PROMO that are helping raise awareness and create legislation that will bring about statewide anti-discrimination reform. We can educate ourselves and figure out how we can make an impact. I want Michael Sam to do well with the Rams. Hell, I’ll probably root for him even if they’re playing the Chiefs. But even more than that, I want everyone to feel secure in being truthful about who they are whether they are at work, in a school, in a locker room, or in their family’s dining room. I thought it was particularly beautiful when, at the ESPYS, Michael said, “To anyone out there, especially young people feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.”
Photo – Cameron Gee with CameronGee.com
Photo Styling – Seth Elliott