Feature photo of Voight Demeester taken by Brent Mullins, obtained from outsports.com
As part of my postdoctoral work on LGBTQ inclusion in hockey at the University of Alberta, I had the opportunity to interview six openly gay competitive men’s hockey players. I spent anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes speaking with each of them either over the phone or on Skype. I asked them to share their coming out stories, to discuss the idea of problematic hypermasculinity in boys’ and men’s ice hockey, to make speculations about reasons for the lack of openly gay men in the National Hockey League (NHL), and simply what needs to happen in order to boost progress in terms of LGBTQ inclusion in hockey.
It was important to the athletes to participate in my work in order to create visibility and dismantle stereotypes about homosexuality in ice hockey. They held that an effective way of doing this was to share not just their stories, but their identities as well (research participants in my field are almost always anonymous). Without real human role models, an individual could be led to believe that they are somehow different, if not bad or wrong. Although a lack of role models was an overarching subject throughout all of my interviews, two of the athletes, Voight and Alex, felt that they grew up without a very particular kind of role model both in and out of hockey: gay men who presented themselves as traditionally masculine (i.e. cisgendered and/or the opposite of feminine and flamboyant).
There is a strong negative connotation between homosexuality and femininity, especially in boys’ and men’s ice hockey. One need not look any further than the most common insults hurled on the ice—faggot, pussy, bitch, cocksucker. As a result, there is an underlying assumption that hockey players who embody the ‘manly’ characteristics that the sport demands could not possibly be gay. My interviewees said that the assumption of heterosexuality increases with the level of play, which explains the difficulty I had finding openly gay men who had played beyond U16 (Midget). I will introduce Voight and Alex and then share snippets of my conversations with them that describe their struggle to see themselves among their idols.
Voight is a recent graduate of Pennsylvania State University who came out in 2015 while playing for the school’s Division 2 club hockey team. He played Midget hockey in the Hershey Junior Bears system in Pennsylvania after having relocated from Canada. He also played Junior B (Tier III) hockey for the Central Penn Panthers of the North American 3 Hockey League. Alex is a recent Humber College graduate who first came out to his community in Newfoundland and then to his high school hockey team, but not to his U16 (Midget) team. He has been a member of Team Newfoundland, was inducted into the CBR Junior Renegades’ Hall of Fame in the Saint John’s Junior (B) Hockey League, and won a championship with Humber College in Toronto. Most recently, he has played in the Toronto Gay Hockey Association and the Avalon East Senior Men’s hockey league in Newfoundland.
Where are the ‘manly’ gay hockey players?
I looked up both Voight and Alex online before speaking to them and, in both cases, admittedly found myself thinking, “he doesn’t look gay”. That’s right: I am part of the problem in the hockey community, if not society at large. I don’t think that we should be able to assume one’s sexual orientation just by looking at them and this experience has finally cemented that in my brain. They both expressed to me that such assumptions made them confused about their own identities in a hypermasculine sport.
Voight recalls that coaches and teammates first made assumptions about him because of his size. At over six feet tall with a strong build, Voight’s coaches expected him to be the tough one who would play physically and protect his teammates. In his interview, he connected these expectations directly to masculinity in ice hockey: “Masculinity is—I mean, from the beginning of time—has always been, ‘who can lift the most? Who can hit the hardest? Who can shoot the puck the hardest?’ and I think within hockey, if you can’t do that, you’re kind of useless to the team.” While Voight was happy to undertake this role, he knew that part of his identity on the inside did not fit the favourable description that had been laid out for him. He knew he was probably gay, but the fact that he didn’t resemble other gay men confused him:
Growing up, being gay has always been seen as, you know, being weak. That’s just the way it’s been portrayed in movies, TV shows. When I was growing up, you never saw this, like, big burly man being portrayed in everyday life as being gay; it was always the skinny little guy that had, you know, the very feminine voice, very flamboyant with their hands. You never saw that normal, average-looking guy that no one would suspect as being gay.
Voight was able to conceal his sexual orientation for quite some time by fitting the accepted image of a hockey player. Ultimately, he decided to come out because he felt that he would be happier being honest with his teammates and he was tired of people asking him why he had no girlfriend or wasn’t accepting attention from women at parties. He holds that his coming out experience was mostly positive, especially among his teammates, who he says were all accepting of him and still treated him as an equal member of the team.
Alex also had an overall positive coming out experience. He was able to fit in with a group otherwise homophobic hockey players all his life because he was a skilled athlete and presented himself in the same masculine way as the others. In fact, his teammates would mock other gay students at their high school but not him:
It does pose some problems when you’re gay and it gets scary…but, for me, being part of them made it a very different experience than a lot of people who are on the outside of it. In high school I still was kind of a bully, I guess. I was on the hockey team, I was one of the guys. There was a gay person in our high school who would walk back and forth and I’d kind of laugh along because, growing up there weren’t really any gay role models for me ‘cause all my role models were [my teammates’] role models—the douchy NHLers and people I wanted to be, so if I wasn’t one of those then I would have had to be a Project Runway, RuPaul—those would have had to be my idols, so…I chose my side! Haha
Alex’s point about Project Runway being one of his only options is a valid one. The media, in particular, has taught us to focus on the feminine and outlandish aspects of gay culture. For my generation, a common icon was Jack from (the original) Will & Grace. Jack may have presented himself physically as masculine, but his show tunes and wild emotions could be interpreted as distinctly feminine and, thus, the ‘wrong kind’ of gay. Moreover, his friend Will was the gay counterpart who often frowned on Jack’s character, preferred to keep to himself more, and felt the need to act ‘less gay’ at his male-dominated law firm. I would argue that Will was relatively uninteresting and perhaps even ashamed of his sexual orientation at times, so Jack is the character that everyone recalls.
When he was younger, Alex would try to be patient with his teammates’ anti-gay attitudes, not because he was trying to make excuses for them, but because he felt that they didn’t know any better. In his words:
There was no real role models or I didn’t know any gay athletes or even gay people that I kind of wanted to be like. So if I didn’t know about those people then the guys I played hockey with definitely didn’t know about those people. The only gay things or people you knew about were extremely flamboyant and feminine, so other than the gay guy walking down the hall with flamboyant colours and prancing around, they didn’t know any other gay. Having that person in my dressing room even as a straight hockey player just wouldn’t be me or who I’d be friends with, so it’s not someone I want in my dressing room. So when I come out to them, it’s their first experience to be like, ‘Okay, gay is normal because you’re good or better than I am at hockey’. Once you find someone you’re comfortable with, it’s normal. I think it’s ignorance—I think most professional or really good hockey players just haven’t had the opportunity to meet somebody who’s gay and who’s similar to them or like them.
Alex is pointing out that being gay matters less than being able to fit in with the hypermasculine culture of the dressing room. Voight appears to have had the same experience. Of course, my sociologist wheels began to internally critique the fact that there is a ‘right way’ to be gay, and that may be true, but Alex framed it more as an issue with standing out in general. After all, there is a commonly held belief that to be a ‘proper’ hockey player, one must not draw attention to himself. Proof of this could lie in the suggestion that the NHL’s PK Subban was traded away from the Montreal Canadiens for this reason. Subban’s sexual orientation is not in question, but his fashion-forward clothing and active social media engagement could be interpreted as flamboyant. I will let you decide how much validity there is to that particular argument.
This post is not meant to encourage gay hockey players to out themselves. While I hold that more role models are necessary, it should not be at the expense of someone who does not feel ready or does not want attention from the media and activists. I’m just of the opinion that athletes like Voight and Alex deserved to see themselves represented among their idols growing up and I want to put them on a pedestal for their willingness to be the roles models they needed. As they continue to make hockey a safer environment, young athletes will feel less like they need to abandon hockey out of fear of being rejected. We may even see an openly gay player in the NHL someday. If we do, I’m relatively confident that it will be someone like Voight and Alex.