Bursting the Dam? The Slow Erosion of Hockey Homophobia

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.

The story of Brendan Burke is as inspiring as it is tragic. In 2009 Brendan, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, was working for the Miami University (Ohio) Redhawks hockey team as a video analyst when he finally went public with the fact that he was gay. Given that his father is an old-school hockey guy who espouses “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” as ideal characteristics, and that he was working for an NCAA men’s hockey program, it was a tough move for Brendan but one that was met with support from family and friends.

John Buccigross’ ESPN column in which Brendan speaks about his experiences is both very emotional and revealing. As much as it is a story of triumph, there are unsettling tidbits, including the fact that Brendan quit hockey due to an increasingly intolerant social environment (keep in mind, Buccigross is intentionally using the second-person voice to try to put the reader in Brendan’s shoes):

You eventually attend Xaverian Brothers High School, a prep school in Westwood, Mass., and make the competitive varsity hockey team as a senior, but choose not to play. You say it is because you don’t think you would get enough playing time and you are upset at the coach. But you actually don’t play because you don’t think you can go another season without someone finding out your secret. . . .

The real reason you choose not to play your senior year is because the atmosphere in the locker room gets progressively harder to deal with as you get older. Homophobic slurs become as commonplace as rolls of hockey tape. Pressure to hook up with girls gets more intense. You are really upset for a couple of months. Your mom later tells you she thought you were depressed. Back then, she keeps asking you if something is wrong, but you don’t want to talk about it with anyone.

Fortunately for Brendan, he was able to persevere and eventually find a welcoming environment at Miami University. As Hockey Against Hate reported, once Brendan told players about his sexuality, the team agreed to stop using homophobic slurs and to alter the locker room culture:

“After Brendan came out I realized that those words shouldn’t be used, even in slang,” said junior forward Trent Vogelhuber, who admits he once liberally tossed around anti-gay slurs. “[Brendan] said he didn’t take it personally, but he noticed when those words were used. I just made a conscious effort to not use the words he might feel uncomfortable around.”

Tragically, Brendan died in a car accident just a few months later, cutting short a life that had already done a huge amount to change the culture of hockey. Brendan’s legacy, however, continued to have an impact: if his honesty and courage in coming out were the first crack in the dam of homophobia, others soon appeared. Brent Sopel, then a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, chose to celebrate his day with the Stanley Cup by marching with his family in the Chicago Gay Pride parade, a gesture he told the Chicago Sun-Times that was largely intended to honour Brendan’s legacy:

“When Brendan came out, Brian stood by him, and his whole family stood by him, like every family should,” said Sopel. “We teach our kids about accepting everybody. Tolerate everybody, to understand where everyone is coming from.”

That same summer, Brian Burke fulfilled a promise to his son by marching in the Toronto Pride Parade and publicly announced his intentions to carry on Brendan’s work. Meanwhile, Brendan’s brother Patrick – a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers – has dedicated his time to combating homophobia in hockey, with the full blessing of the Flyers organization. As Bruce Arthur recently wrote, in a great piece about Patrick:

So in the last 19 months [since Brendan’s death] he has immersed himself, from books to psychology journals to religious textbooks to current events. He can summon the results of studies on NCAA athletes who came out (since 2006, backlash appears to have virtually disappeared). He can cite the American statistics on gay bullying, where 66 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) high school students feel physically unsafe in their own school, and the most common place for gay bullying to occur is a locker-room. He knows all about gay suicide rates. He knows about Jamie Hubley.

And being a good Catholic boy, he can cite chapter and verse; ask him about Leviticus and Romans sometime. When Halton region Catholic schools banned gay-straight alliances earlier this year, he sent them a letter with a link to the Catechism, which among other things states homosexuals should be treated with respect and dignity. The school board did not get back to him.

Puck Buddy’s, a hockey website written by and for gay hockey fans, also has a fantastic post from a recent chat with Patrick, in which he speaks about honouring his brother through his advocacy and trying to eliminate the “casual homophobia” that is so common in hockey (and other sporting) cultures. The article not only gives hope that a gay NHL player can come out without fear of repercussion, but also indicates that NHL teams are beginning to embrace – and thus normalize – their gay fanbases:
There are more and more teams doing gay nights, like the Kings, Caps (December 3), Blue Jackets and even the AHL Toronto Marlies. This kind of acknowledgment shows how attitudes in sport are progressing, but there are still miles to go.
And then there is Sean Avery, who has been a very outspoken advocate for gay rights. Hockey in Society’s writer Simon Darnell has discussed Avery in another post, although he presents a less rosy picture of hockey homophobia than I am currently painting – arguing, in essence, that progress has been minimal:
Homophobia does still have a place in the game and is still part of the culture. At the very least, it remains a yardstick by which men mark the boundaries and territories of what professional sports like hockey are and are not, and who is in and out, literally or otherwise.
Certainly this seems to be the case. But, as the public efforts of high-profile advocates such as the Burke family and Sean Avery gain increasing traction, we can only hope that hockey cultures are slowly becoming more welcoming and tolerant, and that the casual belittling of “outsiders” – be they women or men, gay or straight, who do not subscribe to the hypermasculine ideal – disappears. There is undoubtedly a long way for this to go, particularly when we talk about junior hockey cultures in which awkward and insecure teenage boys play up their masculinity and heterosexuality to conform to expected social norms.
But there are signs that, in the past few years, cracks have appeared in the dam – and that they are spreading. The question then becomes: how many more cracks must occur before the dam crumbles and is washed away by the flood waters?

17 thoughts on “Bursting the Dam? The Slow Erosion of Hockey Homophobia

  1. Such a good read, Mark. Thank you. I wish I could believe that the dam is ready to burst, but I think it’s more structurally sound than we want it to be. Perhaps we need to get some dynamite and move this dam destruction along… ;)

    • Thanks so much Marty, glad you enjoyed the post! But you are right, and I hope that I don’t overstate the extent to which there is still a long way to go before homophobia is fully (or nearly fully) eroded in hockey cultures. But I do feel that the issues I’ve mentioned above, as well as some others, do point toward a gradual shift in the attitudes in hockey. At the very least, they suggest that there is now space for discussion and for the staking of anti-homophobia viewpoints. But yeah, some dynamite would definitely be fantastic if it could be done! In the meantime cracks in the dam will have to, I suppose.

  2. Really great read, Mark. It does go to wonder how long some people’s gum can keep the cracks from bringing down the dam, as you put it. It will be a very interesting next few years for sport (especially the NHL) and how they either formalize their intent on getting rid of homophobia or continue to turn a relatively blind eye.

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  4. Great post, Mark. Another important piece in the ongoing quest to demolish the proverbial dam in hockey’s homophobic culture.
    I’m once again showing my shameless Leafs bias here, but I’d like to think that having such a high profile organization (and their equally high profile GM) championing this cause is quite important in thrusting this issue into the limelight. I don’t think a majority of hockey fans would simply write off Burke or MLSE as they might someone like Sean Avery (maybe I’m stating the obvious here). My fingers are crossed that these efforts go beyond an attempt at branding the Leafs and MLSE as tolerant/inclusive (as we’ve seen with campaigns around multiculturalism and other forms of “strategic inclusion” that have been written about previously in this space).

    A side note: MLSE did allow the use of the TML logo in Laurie Lynd’s 2007 film “Breakfast with Scot” in which the main character is a closeted former Leafs enforcer turned sportscaster. Although, they also allowed the logo to be used in the Mike Myers disaster “The Love Guru,” so maybe I’m reading too much into this…

    • Thanks Matt! Yeah, I agree with you about MLSE. And I had completely forgotten about Breakfast With Scot, mainly because I heard it was terrible and so I never saw it! But yeah, that was actually quite progressive. Totally had slipped my mind.

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