Steve Anderson likes to tell the story of visiting Wisconsin on business a few years back and attempting to explain the sport of curling — a game he’s been playing since he was in grade seven in Nova Scotia, where he grew up — to an American.
He described sliding big rocks over sheets of ice while your teammates use brooms.
“She started looking at me, like, ‘What are you talking about?'” recalls Anderson, a 26-year-old insurance adjudicator. Even when he finally said curling is like “shuffleboard on ice,” the looks of bewilderment didn’t subside.
Ironically, the same puzzled looks sometimes glaze over the faces of Torontonians on the subject of curling. It may be popular in the East, on the Prairies and in rural Ontario, but in the T-dot, curling is still seen as a little, well, queer.
So it’s no surprise that many gay men and lesbians are avid curlers. In Toronto, there are not one, but two gay curling leagues: the Rotators Curling League, the oldest gay curling league in the nation, and the Riverdale Curling League, together totalling about 200 players.
Not only is gay curling popular, but it is growing. There are now leagues in seven cities across the country — Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. Toronto will play host to Canada’s second Gay Curling National Championships over the weekend of Fri, Nov 24 to 26, bringing together more than 14 teams from the across the country.
“It means that gay curling has come to a certain level of maturity,” says Murray Leaning, the driving force behind the national gay curling event and the president of both Toronto leagues. “Now we are working on big cash prizes for the future.”
Will they call the cash prize a purse?
“Yes, but it will have to be tasteful — and, of course, match the shoes,” Leaning jokes.
Curlers, much like bowlers, need specially designed shoes for walking around on the ice. You could make your own out of running shoes, “but it’s an excuse to buy a new pair of shoes, which is kinda gay,” Leaning says.
If it weren’t for a group of Canadian National Railway porters, there would be nothing to accessorize. In 1962, these porters launched the Rotators League. In a pre-Stonewall era where not many people were out, it didn’t take long for these porters to realize that the majority of them were gay. They played at a curling club in the Merchandise Building, now condos, near the corner of Church and Dundas streets. Over time, as the players were more willing to be out, word of mouth helped open up the league to all gay players, not just porters.
Then in 1982, a group of gay softball players launched their own curling league, the Riverside League. Gary Manz, who owns the Church St club Crews/Tango, was one of the league’s founders.
“I grew up a Saskatchewan farm boy, and people in Saskatchewan curl,” says Manz.
He remembers the homophobia that the league encountered in its early years — nothing overt, but curling club officials certainly didn’t know how to react to a gay league renting ice on their turf, offering looks of disapproval.
Today the atmosphere couldn’t be more welcoming. Hanging around the lounge and rink, the players are as relaxed and comfortable as they would be on Church St. One of the club’s straight staff members confides that she has more fun with the gay league than any other players.
“I learn so much from these guys,” she says.
She’s also the person who pours the beer — and beer is a huge part of curling. Not just with those watching the game, but with the players — even while playing. During one match on a recent Sunday afternoon, one player even stops the action to order more beer.
Socializing is clearly a big part of the curling experience. At one point that Sunday afternoon, there are as many people mulling about in the lounge area, with its dingy décor and 1970s-era earth tone sofas, as there are players on the ice.
But people are not here to see and be seen. They are here to play, to watch, to support their friends and partners, to socialize and, oh yeah, to drink. One of the sport’s traditions is that the winning team buys the losing team a round. But then it’s good form for the losing team to reciprocate by buying a round for the winning team.
“Then seven drinks later, you are up in the washroom getting your cock sucked. Or you’re doing the sucking. It’s really up to you,” Leaning jokes.
Other benefits? Invariably, at some point all the players will be looking down the ice and contemplating their next move, standing with their asses toward the spectators. Naturally, the conversation turns to who has the best buns. You can get an even better look when players kneel to push their stones down the ice.
Beyond socializing, gay curling is also a family affair. Kevin Ferneyhough’s partner Scott Girdler is an avid curler, but Ferneyhough is not. Once he realized that there were a few others like him, they informally founded CWAC — the Curling Widows Association Of Canada.
“If I didn’t come here to watch the game, I’d never see him,” says Ferneyhough.
Garnet Barlow watches his partner Paul Dunford play as many as three times a week, but stays off the ice himself.
“It’s too cold,” says Barlow. The temperature on the playing floor, after all, hovers around zero. He also says he talked too much during play; so instead, he sits on the sidelines, where the conversation never stops.
Ferneyhough has advice to other curling widows. “You have to pretend that you are watching the game. You have to learn to say things like, ‘Great shot.’ Oh, and invest in a slow cooker, because your husband ain’t getting off the ice until 8pm.”
To make it all that much more incestuous, Scott Girdler got his sister Sharon to play on his team — that was six years ago. Not only is Sharon a regular, but it was at curling that she met her partner, Doris.
June Shiraishi-Hannon, who has been curling since she was 12, introduced her newlywed Tara to the game last year. “It’s amazing how many gay people curl,” says Tara Shiraishi-Hannon.
“In part, that’s because of the social aspect. It’s such a social game,” says June. “You come off the ice and you talk about the game. It really is a community.”
And it’s a community that knows how to have fun. At the annual gay bonspiel (ie, a tournament) in Toronto, players usually dress in costume, sometimes in drag and sometimes according to predetermined themes. Next March, Toronto’s “Do It On The Ice” bonspiel will mark its 20th anniversary.
The memory that gives players the biggest laugh is from a past bonspiel in Calgary, where many players were dressed in traditional Scottish garb — including kilts with nothing underneath. One player fell, melting the ice. Play had to be paused because of the two little indents he created. As players know, there are no balls in curling.
In the end, Leaning says curling gives many players an excuse to scream their nelly heads off.
“‘Come across the face,'” Leaning says, offering a few examples of things to shout while curling. “‘Sit on the nose. Take it deeper, harder, harder, all the way. Keep it coming.’ When you have a couple of guys with big sticks huffing and puffing over a big stone, if you have a sick mind, you could say it’s kinda gay.”