I play on two hockey teams. Members on one team know I’m gay. Members on the other do not.
The players on the straight team are of high calibre. I count some of them amongst my closest friends. None has ever given me the impression they would reject me if they found out I am gay. And yet I cannot be sure of that unless I tell them.
Before and after each of our games, I sit in the locker room listening to their stories — stories of partners and children and women they are dating. I don’t contribute to these stories. I don’t feel secure doing so.
As I have felt a distance growing between these teammates and myself, I thought it might be easier to walk away from them, and the team entirely, rather than risk rejection.
But I love hockey. So before giving it up for good, last fall I decided to check out Ottawa’s gay hockey club to see if it could replace what I felt was missing on the straight team. This wasn’t an easy step.
Even as a gay man I had reservations about walking into a gay locker room. I felt anxiety, perhaps even fear, of what I would find on the other side of the door. I asked a friend whether that trepidation was rooted in homophobia. He countered, suggesting I hadn’t been fearful of homosexuals, rather I had been fearful of a possible truth: that what I thought could happen in a gay locker room actually did and that the negative stigma toward homosexuals in sport was well-founded and would thus be directed at me. Guilty by association.
So let me tell you what I found on the other side of that locker-room door. There were no Speedos or pink boas. Nor were there towels being slapped at exposed body parts. Instead there was just a group of guys lacing skates, taping hockey sticks and telling stories. Fun stories and serious stories — of partners, children and men they were dating. The same stuff straight locker rooms are made of. Game on.
Now, after a full season of play with this club, I can honestly say I am happy it turned out to be great hockey with great people, in a locker room where I can share stories about my life without fear of rejection.
However, the original question remains: are my concerns about being openly gay in a straight locker room valid? A recent locker-room experience after a gay hockey league game helped me answer this question.
A league official entered while our team was getting cleaned up. His first comment was, “Whoa! Lots of naked guys in here! Too much all at once!”
After some additional awkwardness, he concluded, “The good news, though, is that I’m not gay. The bad news is at least one of you might be.”
There you have it. Homophobia exists, the stigma is real and the challenges are there. We can speak all we want about how far we’ve come, but the reality is that some attitudes remain an impediment.
It is for this reason that the launch of the You Can Play project should be applauded.
Its goal — to eliminate homophobia in sport — is a difficult one. Coming out in the locker room is not an easy mountain for any gay person to climb, and the campaign does not provide instructions on how to do this, nor should we expect it to. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect this campaign will give a gay professional hockey player (or this amateur one) the courage to share that side.
Instead, the campaign should be seen as a small but valuable step toward the overall solution, nudging us all in a more positive direction.
I’m beginning to believe the day may come when I introduce myself to my straight team for a second time. I will tell them I’m gay because I understand what makes hockey teams great is not the hockey but the camaraderie, friendship and trust that exists amongst its players.
And when it happens, hopefully I will discover that having at least one gay player in the locker room isn’t such bad news after all.