Tuesday, November 03, 2009

7218: Hockey Homophobia.


It’s time to end the use of gay slurs in hockey

By Justin Bourne, Special for USA TODAY

In my days as a hockey player, I did nothing but contribute to hockey’s culture of homophobia and prejudice against gays. I used gay slurs more times than I’d like to admit. Six months after I left my last professional locker room, I felt a twinge of regret, followed by a full-out, stomach punch of regret. And by the time I finished the first draft of this column, I was disgusted with myself.

At the time, it seemed harmless. After all — when you think about the NHL, AHL, ECHL and more, can you call to memory a single open homosexual among them? There was nobody in my team’s dressing room to offend, right?

The lack of a homosexual presence in hockey must mean one of two things: either homosexual men don’t play the game or they don’t feel comfortable admitting it — in which case I, and my brethren, were offending some teammates with our close-mindedness, and furthering what must have been unsettled feelings of fear and general exclusion.

For us as a culture, that means another two things. That either we need scientists doing research on professional hockey players ASAP, because apparently there’s a link between our sport and sexuality. Or, much more realistically, we need to alter the culture of hockey, because homosexuals are being forced to play entire careers masquerading as people they’re not.

As many times as I used these slurs, I heard it back tenfold. As well as I fit in behind the doors of a dressing room, I had pursuits that made me seem different. I kept a journal while I played. I’m into piano music and reading. In the hockey world, that’s your basic formula for eliciting more comments about sexual orientation than acting in “Rent.” It’s always the first shot fired.

Hockey culture is something I’ve known and loved, but I’m not oblivious to the disconnect between how players and coaches act behind that dressing room door and how society expects them to act in public. Since we have to change something about how we act and what we say when we leave the team room, we’re probably acting improperly in the first place. And during my playing days, I was aware that was the case.

There hasn’t been progress on this issue for years. When I ran the idea for this column by my uncle, a sportswriter and editor, he mentioned a piece he wrote 20 years ago after the general manager of a major junior hockey team in Canada said something like: “We don’t have any weak-wristed players in this locker room.”

Twenty years later, this attitude has yet to be shucked from hockey. We can’t wait another two decades ignoring the small but consistent strides of progress that the world outside sport is making.

We need to make a change now, because kids who move away from home to play junior hockey at 16 or 17 are still impressionable. If they don’t encounter a good role model, the seeds are sown for a person, who after trying to fit in, thinks it’s OK to drink, treat women a certain way and use homosexuality as a punchline.

I recently read a quote in the “Verbatim” section of Time from Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, encouraging African-Americans to support gay marriage. He said “black people, of all people, should not oppose equality.” But really, shouldn’t all of us have learned from the horrible mistakes of our past, not just African-Americans? There’s not a single good reason for any of us to continue to support inequality in any shape or form. We’ll look back at this time in our history and hang our heads for allowing this prejudice to continue.

Policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are the kinds of things that when our kids grow up, they’ll look at us and say “dudes couldn’t fight for their country because they kissed dudes? Wait; explain that again, I’m lost. They were fighting for their country, right?”

The goal is to get to a place where our differences aren’t so much as a blip on anyone’s radar. By the time we have our sixth black President, let’s hope it’s not a story anymore — he’s just the President.

And maybe the first openly gay NHL star will elicit stereotypical responses but hopefully the 100th is just a guy who will show up in my columns for being “a completely overrated, third-line defensive specialist at best.”

It will be hard to survive the dressing room for the first players to come out. That’s a fact. Very few things are off-limits for jokes and barbs. This is a place where “Right, but your girlfriend has cheated on you like, six times” is a witty comeback.

On the ice, the first gay professionals will likely take some verbal shots. Trash-talking is part of the game and we all look for the easy target. The stuff I used to hear was harmless: I was called “skinny” and “soft” and worse (but not much).

Whoever the pioneer is will have to know what he’s in for — he’ll have to be a strong man, possibly in the literal sense.

We’ve somehow made something totally irrelevant to hockey performance – sexual preference — such an issue that every gay player has been forced to conclude that their private life is something best hidden.

Hey, hockey players: not knowing doesn’t change the reality that there are gay men in the professional ranks today.

And maybe it’s not many, because we’ve driven so many away; players who didn’t want to be teased, shunned, and worse, a target for on-ice violence. Who knows how many great players hung up their skates in favor of some lesser talent, strictly to find acceptance and peace of mind.

So it’s time.

It’s time to acknowledge we’ve been unfair to the gay community, that the culture of our sport can be misogynistic, homophobic and cruel. More important, it’s time to make a stand that we want it to change.

I know I can’t take back the words I said during my time as a hockey player, but this is a start. I think if you asked any minority group that has won the rights and freedoms that all people deserve, they’d agree on one thing about change — it’s better late than never.

1 comment:

warren said...

Hmm. Gay hockey players. Would tend to give the term "high-sticking" a whole ’nother meaning.

Kudos to Mr. Bourne for the article, and the self-realization.