NEW YORK (AP) — Years before Michael Sam was born, gay-rights activists Kate Kendell and Paul Guequierre were already die-hard National Football League fans.
Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, grew up in Ogden, Utah, far from any NFL city, and became a fan of the Los Angeles Rams because she's an Aries and liked their uniforms.
For Guequierre, raised in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and now a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, it was a family affair. Treasured season tickets for the Green Bay Packers were acquired by his grandfather, passed on to his father, and now are his. The cover photo of his Facebook page shows the towering statue of a Packers wide receiver.
For Kendell, Guequierre and other gay fans of the NFL, their passion for pro football was rewarded May 10 with a moment they describe as thrilling: the decision by the Rams — now of St. Louis — to make Sam the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.
"I feel like my support for the NFL now doesn't have an asterisk come with it," Kendell said. "It's now truly America's game."
The milestone has made gay fans more enthusiastic and already is drawing newcomers into the fold. Many may become Rams fans or — like Guequierre — henceforth consider St. Louis "my second favorite team."
The NFL says it hasn't done any marketing research to gauge the size of its gay and lesbian fan base. Gay sports fans surveyed by Outsports said pro football was their favorite sport by far.
Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler said that Sam — if he makes the Rams' roster — will further boost the NFL's popularity among gays.
"People who have never liked football are buying Michael Sam jerseys," he said. "People who have never watched a game watched the draft."
As of midweek, Sam's Rams jersey was the No. 2 seller among rookies at NFLShop.com, trailing only Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback drafted by the Cleveland Browns.
Sam — although drafted 249th out of 256 players — also was among just 10 draftees selected by the league to be featured on special bronze and silver commemorative coins, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
Howard Bragman, a public relations expert who has been working with Sam, expects the NFL and advertisers to capitalize on fans' excitement over Sam's debut.
"The first time he plays, you're going to have huge numbers watching," said Bragman, the vice chairman of Reputation.com.
"The NFL is a business," Bragman added. "It understands very well that LGBT fans are passionate, they have good incomes, they're concentrated in NFL cities."
Sam already has done a nationally televised ad for Visa.
"The tide has turned," Bragman said. "Martina Navratilova said she lost endorsements after she came out. You'll find that Michael will do very well."
That doesn't mean the NFL's advertisers will shift their focus away from heterosexual young males, nor are sexy female cheerleader squads likely to disappear. But gay fans may be all the more at peace with such things.
"We know who they're marketing to with those ads," said Guequierre. "Most (gay) people I know are OK with that. We don't feel like we're being left out."
Now based in Washington, D.C., Guequierre, 36, tries to attend at least one Packers home game per year, and makes his tickets for the other games available to relatives and friends, including a lesbian couple who are devoted fans.
Guequierre said gay fans, like gay athletes, increasingly feel less pressure to conceal their sexual orientation while at games.
He recalled an incident at a Packers game a few years ago, when he stood up and vocally scolded a fan behind him who had called a Chicago Bears player a faggot.
"No one else gave me a hard time," Guequierre said. "The guy looked embarrassed. ... He came across as the bad guy."
While surely there will continue to be homophobic remarks, there is a sense of a corner being turned. What I feel more than anything is a sense of elation and joy, that the game I loved since I was a kid I can now embrace without reservations.
Guequierre's passion for football extends to the playing field — he's an avid competitor in the D.C. Gay Flag Football League, which has 20 teams and about 275 players.
One of the main sponsors is Nellie's Sports Bar, one of a wave of gay sports bars that have opened up in cities nationwide.
Doug Schantz, co-owner of Nellie's, says there are now 25 TVs in the bar, all tuned to sports, with pro baseball and the NFL neck-and-neck as the most popular.
"With the Redskins, it doesn't matter if they're bad or good," Schantz said.
On the other side of the country, Kate Kendell has settled into San Francisco, and is a zealous 49ers fan — though her girlhood love of the Rams is now rekindled. She has raised her 17-year-old son to share her football passions.
"On Monday nights, we break with tradition of sitting around the table as family," Kendell said. "We all watch the game. I leave office early to make sure we're there for kickoff."
Kendell expressed delight that gay youths would now be able to grow up with openly gay sports stars as role models.
"Many of my gay male friends are not sports fans — not because of lack of interest, but because their earliest introduction to sports made them feel stigmatized and shamed," she said, evoking epithets such as "You throw like a girl."
"While surely there will continue to be homophobic remarks, there is a sense of a corner being turned," she said. "What I feel more than anything is a sense of elation and joy, that the game I loved since I was a kid I can now embrace without reservations."
Follow David Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP
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