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Straight athletes for marriage equality: 'It's okay to be who you are'

"Same Sex Marriages: What's the Big Deal?" was the headline Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote back in 2009 for the Huffington Post.

"Same Sex Marriages: What's the Big Deal?" was the headline Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote back in 2009 for the Huffington Post. Four years later, Ayanbadejo--a linebacker for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens--is a Super Bowl champion, and one of the most visible straight allies for the LGBT community. Ayanbadejo and fellow NFL athlete Chris Kluwe have been vocal advocates for the LGBTQ community over the past couple of years, speaking in public forums about paving the way for equality in all aspects of American culture.

In a joint interview this week with, both Ayanbadejo and Kluwe spoke out about the evolution in professional sports on the subject of equality and same-sex marriage. "In sports, we're part of a society that is machismo, especially in football. And really we're just here to say, 'It's okay to be who you are,'" Ayanbadejo said.

Kluwe, a punter with the Minnesota Vikings, backed up Ayanbadejo in September when a Maryland lawmaker asked the Ravens to censor his support for marriage equality. In the interview, Kluwe noted that the two of them have chosen to involve themselves in the fight because of their roles as athletes, rather than remain silent and perpetuate the stereotype of an intolerant environment in professional sports. The two recently filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to reject Proposition 8.

"A lot of guys might not really do anything because they don't want to have to deal with any sort of distraction because it's so hard to make it to the NFL in the first place. But I feel that we're in a very privileged position and if we can [speak out], then we should do something about it," Kluwe said. "As we keep going forward, you're gonna see that happen more and more where athletes realize that this won't be a distraction from their sport and that they can actually come out in favor of the right thing and do the right thing, and it's not really that big a deal because you're talking about being a human being first and then an athlete second."

But even as more straight athletes join the cause for equality and past NFL players come out, homophobia remains an issue in pro sports. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons tweeted on Tuesday that any player who chooses to come out while in the NFL would be making a "selfish" move.

But Ayanbadejo and Kluwe hope they can serve as role models for fellow athletes and for the politicians struggling to evolve on the issue as well. Kluwe says when he first entered the NFL, he saw league veterans who felt very differently on the issue of gay rights.

But now as an "eight, nine year veteran" himself, he sees younger athletes coming into the NFL who are more accepting and tolerant--a turnover that isn't often seen in politics. "Politicians are generally in office for a much longer time than we play sports," he said. "I think you see that change happening so much faster with us because it's just that quick turnover in terms of who is an athlete, whereas politicians are there for 20, 30, 40 years, and someone like that, it's very hard for them to change their minds."

Both Ayanbadejo and Kluwe will accept awards in New York City in April from Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National at the organization's Straight for Equality Awards Gala, along with a handful of other straight men who have also put themselves forward as allies for the LGBTQ community.

"An ally is someone who wants everyone to be treated equally. That's really what it boils down to," Kluwe said. "If you have the freedom to live your own life, then other people should have the freedom to live theirs. It's a very simple concept."

The Straight for Equality in Sports Awards will be presented by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son serves as the executive director for PFLAG New York City. In a statement released by PFLAG, Tagliabue applauded Ayanbadejo and Kluwe's contributions to the fight for equality and for helping the sports world open the door to everyone. "We expect NFL players to be leaders in the community, and they are setting excellent examples,” Tagliabue said.

Ayanbadejo said times were changing quickly for professional sports. "We have a lot of athletes in our corner, they just don't make the public stance. But eventually we're going to put this whole thing behind us. Our 'Jackie Robinson player' is going to come out soon--this year, next year, some time in the near future--and everything's going to change. We're going to put this behind us. We're going to do the right thing," he said. "I believe it."

Update: Ayanbadejo was released by the Ravens on April 3.