On Sunday, the Edmonton Oilers took to the ice for their annual skills competition with rainbow coloured “pride tape” in support of LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer) communities and players. The tape was launched in late 2015 by the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS) with the following approach:
How can the hockey world show their support with pride? With a simple roll of tape. Pride tape is a badge of support from the teammates, parents, coaches and pros to young LGBTQ players.
I have refrained from commenting on the tape but now it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds so I think it’s time.
I first learned about the pride tape from the Copper & Blue blog where author, Ryan Batty encouraged readers to purchase some pride tape for those on their Christmas list:
If you’re like me and you still haven’t even considered Christmas shopping, backing the Kickstarter campaign is an easy way to cross a few people off your list with a very original gift, and one that will do a lot more good than whatever you would have ended up buying on Christmas Eve from the local gas station.
Better than anything you would find at a gas station? Definitely. Do a lot more good? Questionable.
Showing LGBTQ solidarity with rainbow “stuff” isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. In 2014, pro soccer players in the UK donned rainbow shoelaces. In early 2015, a Swedish hockey team wore rainbow jerseys in support. Before rainbow stuff was “in” it was (RED) stuff in support of AIDS, before that it was yellow bracelets and t-shirts in support of (testicular) cancer, and before that it was pink everything (and still is) in support of breast cancer research.
I asked fellow Hockey in Society contributors, (Dr.) Matt Ventresca and (soon-to-be Dr.) Cheryl MacDonald their thoughts on the pride tape via Twitter. Cheryl replied that she was torn because, on the one hand, it represents much needed solidarity in a sport that has yet to have any NHL player, current or former, come out as gay. On the other hand, rainbow tape doesn’t do much to change the culture of masculinity in the game. Matt referred to it as a nice symbolic gesture, but also a superficial one. He likened it to changing your Facebook profile photo for the cause-of-the-day; it is slacktivism – just like pink laces and teflon pans, and/or (RED) laces or vodka. The fact of the matter is, the AIDS and breast cancer movements have been at the “buy stuff in support of…” game much longer that the LGBTQ community and it hasn’t gotten them very far. People still contract and die from AIDS and we still don’t have a cure for breast cancer.
We like these types of initiatives because:
- They are easy
- They are fun
- We like buying things
- We wear our identities
- They don’t require any commitment
Showing solidarity with rainbows (or pink or red or yellow) feels good because, I think, when faced with an issue as deeply ingrained in North American culture as homophobia, it gives us an outlet where few exist.
Still, this is not to say that nothing has changed. For example, AIDS became something that we could talk about more openly; making AIDS marketable made it less stigmatized. And, that was a big deal in and of itself. So, in that respect, if rainbow tape facilitates meaningful conversations where they did not exist before, then great. Buy as much as you can! Andrew Ference, who helped launch the tape, “admits that he would never have imagined openly discussing LGBTQ issues when he first started his career, but believes most people now realize ‘it’s the right thing to do.'” Opening dialogue is a necessary first step; unfortunately, rarely do we get past the first step, with breast cancer serving as the prime example. We continue to talk about awareness and early detection; yet, the problem is that these discussions take up the space where we should be talking about prevention. We also don’t talk about the causes of breast cancer because we don’t fully know what causes it – most of the money goes toward finding a cure. As, Matt pointed out very succinctly, the caution that we need to heed with pride tape is that, it gives the impression that we are doing “something,” which makes calls for wider change seem radical or drastic.
We have rainbow tape, what more do you want from us?
We want a culture change and that’s not something you can purchase. It doesn’t fit in a Christmas stocking. A culture change means a re-conceptualization of masculinity from the ground up. As Tyler Shipley wrote for The Left Hook in 2012, “The tone of hockey culture is still set by those who adhere to a version of ‘manhood’ that belongs in the 1920s…” I think we can all agree that when you envision men in the 1920s with rainbow tape it is neither a progressive nor coherent image. It means that Don Cherry wouldn’t be allowed to insult players by calling them “sweethearts” on national television. It means that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are no longer called the Sedin sisters simply because they…are Swedish? Don’t fight? Don’t have the requisite amount of chest hair? I really don’t know. A culture change means that we all curb the language in our own locker rooms. It means that we no longer assume that all players are heterosexual unless proven otherwise.
I don’t want to belittle the efforts of the ISMSS because it is getting homophobia on the hockey agenda. The purpose of this post is to caution all of those who think that pride tape is the end of the battle because sometimes initiatives like this become the alibi that enables an underlying culture of homophobia. Canadian multiculturalism is a perfect analogy. We don’t talk about racism in Canada the way Americans do because we have an official policy of multiculturalism. What we fail to recognize (at an institutional level) is that the policy only provides legal options when needed, it does not eliminate racism. The policy, in effect, has silenced all conversations about race and deemed them unnecessary. I have similar concerns for pride tape, whereby everyone’s favourite Commissioner, perhaps inspired by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could say, “Homophobia? We do not have this phenomenon in our league. We have the tape.”
The work that the NHL has been doing with the You Can Play project is commendable, yet we keep waiting to see the fruits of this labour. Maybe this is because until a player feels emotionally and physically safe coming out in a league and sport that equates violence and intimidation with strength and honour, and doesn’t see a problem with insulting men by calling them women, there is no amount of tape in the world that will make hockey a safe space for sexual minorities.