When Scott Heggart came out he was surprised at the reaction of fellow hockey players on his Ottawa minor-league team.

The sports-loving teen had spent years worrying about how family and friends would react to his sexuality. But he mostly worried about what his athletic teammates would say.

Heggart recently told the Ottawa Citizen he’d learned quickly in sports that the worst thing is to be a fag or homo. But when he eventually opened a Facebook account, changed his relationship status and shared a photo of his boyfriend, a strange thing happened.

Heggart received one private message from a friend: “What you did man, it takes a lot of courage and I’m proud of you. And I’ve been talking to a lot of people and they all say the same thing.”

Teammates soon apologized for things they’d said in the past; many others wrote with similar statements of support.

Heggart says he realized then that teammates may have said horrible homophobic things, but they didn’t actually feel that way. Given the chance to support a gay friend, most chose acceptance rather than hate.

It is a story repeated elsewhere, more often every day — the story of straight jock allies coming out as supporters of gay people.

Andrew McIntosh was the captain of his lacrosse team at Oneonta State University in New York when he came out to his coach and teammates. He had tried to kill himself previously — so sick was McIntosh with fear that his team would reject him if they found out.

But it was for naught. In an Outsports article, McIntosh recalls the day his coach called out a player for saying a lacrosse drill was “so gay.” That was all McIntosh needed — he immediately sent his coach a coming-out email.

“After he read the email, he called to meet with me,” McIntosh writes. “He told me that if we had a roster of 30 players and 15 of them did not want to play on the team because I was gay, he would tell them to leave the team.”

It wasn’t the case. His teammates didn’t care about his sexuality — they cared if he could play.

It’s a message echoed this month in Patrick and Brian Burke’s You Can Play campaign. It’s simple: if you can play, you can play; to hell with what you do in the privacy of your bedroom or your brain.

The message is catching on in the NHL, with the roster of straight-ally professional hockey players increasing every day. Xtra’s Robin Perelle recently interviewed Vancouver Canucks’ centre Henrik Sedin, who said the Burkes had yet to ask him to take part, but if they did, he would surely say yes. “I don’t think anyone I know wouldn’t do it,” Sedin said.

How did this happen? It feels like a tipping point. Wasn’t it just yesterday the world of sports was the last great bastion of homophobia?

In all of this there may be a clue to eradicating these so-called last spaces of homophobia where people are scared to come out. Sports, yes, but also religious circles, the military and, of course, parts of the developing world — and don’t forget the Conservative Party of Canada.

Last year Rick Mercer famously implored gays in the public sphere to stop being invisible. But what about those invisible straight allies?

It is often said that on every sports team there is a closeted gay person. If this is the case, then every sports team must surely have at least one closeted straight ally — someone like Patrick Burke, who has admitted he was more scared than his late brother Brendan when the youngest Burke came out in 2009.

The positive reaction to Brendan’s coming out is well documented.

This week I proudly use this space to thank the straight allies in my life and those in the public eye. You seem to be the new vanguard, our Trojan horse, in the fight to topple these last bastions of homophobia.

From Patrick and Brian Burke, who have admirably carried on the advocacy begun by Brendan, to all the coaches and players out there who refuse to allow homophobia (and racism and sexism) in the locker rooms. And to all you invisible allies, like the hundreds of hockey fans who erupted this week in cheers, rather than boos, when a lesbian orchestrated an on-ice marriage proposal at a Leafs game in Ottawa.

At this juncture in the fight to end homophobia, it is as critical as ever for gay people to come out, but it may be equally important that you straight folks do, too.
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