Sport, very much including hockey, is for the most part a hostile environment for people who do not conform to the dominant ideals of the given sporting culture. Especially in physical contact sports such as hockey, football, or lacrosse – in short, sports that have always been associated with and have always celebrated an aggressive and violent masculine identity – there is minimal room for players who are seen as weak, effeminate, or non-physically dominant. Such players are tolerated at best (if they possess the skill and mental fortitude to stay in the sport) and, at worst, punished with physical or psychological abuse to the point that they may consider taking their own lives.
While this is sadly a phenomenon that occurs in various walks of life (especially in high schools) where straying from the social norm is met with suspicion or hostility, most sport sociologists agree that competitive sport can be a particularly cruel environment for those who do not conform to expected codes of behaviour. This is because sport, unlike many other spheres of social life, has been extremely resistant to change, even in the face of much broader progressive social change. In the area of gay rights, sport is light years behind a North American society that has, despite a significant and ongoing resistance in many quarters, significantly shifted its attitudes toward the acceptance of LGBTQ persons.
This resistance in sport circles can be at least partly explained by sport’s history as a crucible for the sculpting of uber-masculine men (read: tough, aggressive, and heterosexual; scholars refer to this as “hypermasculinity”), and the lingering effects of this approach. Sports – especially aggressive ones – thus have been inextricably tied to a particular kind of masculine identity that dictates what is and is not acceptable behaviour for players. It creates and inside/outside dichotomy in which failure to conform to hypermasculine ideals can make an athlete an outsider and can have devastating consequences. As a result, players who fear they might not fit the hypermasculine ideal often tolerate, or even participate in, the belittling and dehumanizing of others who also do not fit this ideal – these targets typically include women and gay men. Consider just this one example, from an OutSports.com feature on former NFL player Esera Tuaolo:
Tuaolo, a 6-3, 300-pounder who could bench press a house, has to compose himself as he recounts the nasty anti-gay epithets and jokes he heard in various locker rooms in his nine-year career. “Faggot … queer … fudge-packer … There’s a joke and it’s about anthropologists going to this tribe and it’s about them having intercourse, so they …,” Tuaolo says, his voice trailing off as he looks away, fighting tears.
“I’m pausing,” he tells HBO correspondent Bernard Goldberg, “because you just took me back, took me back to me biting my lip again.” Tuaolo would laugh at the jokes on the outside, but “inside it would be tearing me up, that I stood there and listened to it and didn’t say anything about it.”
He never does finish the joke and the incompleteness mirrors how Tuaolo felt about himself as an NFL player with a secret he dare not reveal–he was gay.
This is just one of the countless examples that illustrate the damaging consequences of sporting hypermasculinity on those who do not conform to its ideals. However, recently in hockey there have been some encouraging signs that damaging attitudes toward gay people are slowly changing. While this process is a slow one, it hopefully is like poking holes in a dam: at first the water will flow through slowly, but eventually larger cracks will develop until the whole structure collapses. After the jump, I examine some of the recent cracks that have appeared in the homophobia of hockey cultures. Read more of this post