Michael Sam has been lauded as the NFL's first openy gay player. Photo: AP
T first American casualty of the war in Iraq always wanted to fight for his country, but he knew to do so he would have to lie, break the law, and violate the Marine Corps' honour code.
Nevertheless Eric Alva's grandfather had fought in Korea and his father in Vietnam so when he finished school in San Antonio he signed up, too. On the morning of March 21, 2003, he stormed across the Kuwait border into Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Just three hours later he trod on the landmine that blew his right leg away.
There was so much media attention back in the US that they had to put a guard on the door at the Walter Reed Medical Centre. One day President George W. Bush came to visit and told him stiffly, ''Your country thanks you for your service.''
''He was my commander-in-chief and I respect him, but I remember thinking, 'Nobody talks like that, you idiot','' Alva told Fairfax Media during the week. And besides, if his country knew he was gay, Alva would have been drummed out of the Marines. When he signed up it was simply illegal for homosexuals to join the military, and he distinctly remembers lying about his sexuality on the forms he signed.
That changed while he was enlisted when President Bill Clinton signed the Don't Ask Don't Tell regulation, a half-baked attempt to soften the military's stance that even Clinton has since confessed to regretting.
The lies wore Alva down. ''It is constant, you are always lying. People are nosey. Every time someone asks you why you are always on base on a Friday night or if you have a girlfriend or what you are doing for Thanksgiving, you have to lie.''
Four years after he lost his leg, Alva came out on Good Morning America specifically so he could join the campaign against Don't Ask Don't Tell, which was finally repealed in 2011.
Alva believes that pragmatism drove the repeal. With the nation at war, its stretched military was losing too many soldiers to the regulation, especially specialists such as linguists and air traffic controllers.
But historians might one day look back at the scrapping of the regulation as part of a tidal wave of cultural change in America, unimaginable to Alva himself just a few years ago.
Since the repeal,President Barack Obama has come out in favour of gay marriage, the Supreme Court has struck down the Defence of Marriage Act denying gay marriage rights under federal law and 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalised gay marriage. In July 2013 a CBS poll found 55 per cent of Americans supported gay marriage, up from 27 per cent in a Gallup poll in 2006. Last year the Boy Scouts of America started accepting gays.
In this context the recent decision of a young American college footballer to come out earlier this month and the eloquent support he won from a prominent Texan sports anchor remain remarkable, but perhaps not that surprising.
A couple of hours after the American college footballer Michael Sam came out, the sports anchor Dale Hansen drove home to his ranch outside Dallas, Texas, wondering if he should comment on the issue on air the next night. Sam seemed destined to be the first openly gay footballer in National Football League history and his revelation was making international news.
The next morning the lead story on the Sports Illustrated website made up Hansen's mind for him. Eight anonymous NFL officials had said Sam's decision would hurt his career. Two words in the story really bugged Hansen, he told Fairfax Media during the week. Sam would make players ''uncomfortable'', the anonymous officials said, and he would not be ''welcome'' in locker rooms.
''What hypocrites,'' says Hansen of the nameless NFL men. That day he sat down in his office and spent 15 minutes putting his thoughts to paper.
''You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You're the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft,'' he wrote. ''You kill people while driving drunk? That guy's welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they're welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away?
''You lie to police trying to cover up a murder? We're comfortable with that.
''You love another man? Well, now you've gone too far!''
He wrote that the arguments about gays in the locker room were the very same that had been used to oppose racial integration a generation ago.
The next morning Hansen was surprised to find hundreds of emails in his inbox, most thanking him for speaking out. His commentary did not normally provoke too much response among his north Texas audience. Besides, he knew his progressive views were still alien to many football fans.
A couple of days later he took an excited call from his producer telling him that his commentary had gone viral. ''I suppose from the way you are saying that, that that's a good thing?'' said Hansen, whose understanding of the internet does not extend far beyond email.
By Wednesday his comments had been viewed more than 4.5 million times on YouTube alone and he had received emails of support from nearly every nation on Earth and from every state of the union bar Mississippi and Montana (''I don't think anyone lives in Montana though,'' says Hansen.)
Many expressed shock that such an articulate champion of acceptance was a 65-year-old straight football broadcaster. ''A big, fat, white guy from Texas,'' as he later put it.
The gay conservative activist Jimmy LaSalvia believes conservative social forces are now driving gay rights rather than retarding them. LaSalvia founded the group GOProud in 2009 because he believed another gay Republican group, Log Cabin Republicans, was not conservative enough. He believes in marriage and monogamy, low tax and limited government. In January this year LaSalvia quit the Republican Party angry that too many of its leaders were too scared to speak out against what he calls anti-gay bigotry in its ranks.
His problem is not only the anti-gay attitudes, but that he believes the Republican Party is now too far out of step with Middle America to win the White House. ''All politics is personal,'' he says, ''and now gay rights are personal to everyone because everyone knows someone who is gay.''
While gays began to come out during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s, they tended to move from their home towns to places such as New York and San Francisco, says LaSalvia. Today when people come out ''they want to stay at home, they want to be married, they want to lead happy, monogamous lives''. By demanding the right to marry, gay activists have been able to secure the support of moderates in what remains a socially conservative nation, he believes.
''There will always be bigots,'' he says, ''but the time of institutionalised bigotry in America is passing.'' Just as it is no longer acceptable to use racial epithets in polite American society, those [in major institutions] who would attack homosexuals must now hold their tongue, he says.
The focus on marriage might even be advancing gay rights faster here than in less religious societies, such as in Europe and Australia, he says. (LaSalvia has offered support and advice to the newly formed conservative Australian gay rights group LNProud. He says Tony Abbott's sister, Christine Forster, who is engaged to her partner, will advance the cause in Australia ''simply by living her life openly and honestly''.)
Since last summer's Supreme Court decision overturning the Defence of Marriage Act, gay rights activists have enjoyed a sweep of victories in cases in US states.
On Thursday judge Arenda L. Wright Allen overturned Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, writing in her decision: ''Our Constitution declares that 'all men' are created equal. Surely this means all of us.''
She accepted that though laws seeking to limit marriage to heterosexual couples ''were rooted in principles embodied by men of Christian faith … the laws have nevertheless evolved into a civil and secular institution sanctioned by the Commonwealth [of Virginia], with protections and benefits extended to portions of Virginia's citizens.
''Tradition is revered in the Commonwealth, and often rightly so. However, tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage.''
In response some states with conservative governments are now seeking to defend discrimination against gays on grounds of religious freedom. Republican politicians have written bills in Congress and at least six state legislatures - Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, Idaho and Mississippi - that would permit discrimination against gays by businesses and government employees if those people claim their bias is motivated by their religious beliefs. In Oregon this November voters will decide two separate ballot initiatives, one that would recognise same-sex marriages and another that would permit discrimination against gays on religious grounds.
So far the Kansas bill has already collapsed and LaSalvia sees bills like these as evidence of fear rather than a potent new threat to gay rights.
Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group in Washington DC that trenchantly opposes any extension of gay rights - especially marriage - believes that the issue will end up, again, in the Supreme Court. He calls this issue the new Roe v Wade, in reference to the Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion and remains controversial. He believes the court learnt from Roe v Wade that a ruling enforcing a nationwide ''one size fits all'' position would be ''unwise''.
At once echoing and opposing Hansen and Wright Allen, Sprigg says gay rights advocates have hijacked the language of the civil rights movement to advance their cause. He blames resultant ''political correctness'' for his movement's setbacks. ''People ask me if I am worried that we are on the wrong side of history,'' he says. ''We just want to be on the right side of truth.''
Despite the anonymous comments of some officials after Sam came out, the NFL issued a statement offering its welcome and support should he be drafted to professional ranks later this year, as now seems certain. The NFL has recently aggressively investigated claims of gay bullying in the Miami Dolphins and last year condemned anti-gay comments by another prominent player. To Hansen and LaSalvia this is evidence of a ''Walter Cronkite moment'', a reference to the revered broadcaster's declaration in 1968 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. President Lyndon Johnson is said to have responded privately, ''If I have lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.''
With the NFL, a $10-billion-a-year corporate behemoth steeped in tradition and American hyper-masculinity, now backing gay rights, the argument goes, Middle America has been lost to those who would oppose them.