Admittedly I’m a million years in internet time late on this, but I wanted to talk about the You Can Play project. I almost think posting late is better, because I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan issue. Time moves quickly on the internet, but as much as people talked about this last week, I want them to keep talking. I’m excited by this being a sustained, long-term effort on the part of YCP. They’ve got my enthusiastic thumbs up.
Obviously I’m gay, like I said in the SI article on Friday; I’m also a hockey and college basketball fan, and back in the day I used to play soccer. I was pretty decent at it, or as decent as any elementary/middle schooler can be, and I really enjoyed it.
But then I got to eighth grade. I was going to school in North Carolina, which tends to have thriving girls’ and women’s soccer programs, and my school had a decent program, so I decided to try out for the team. On the second day of try-outs, though, one girl said to another, “What are you looking at? Are you like, a dyke or something?”
I’d known I was gay for a good five years at that point. I half-tried during try-outs that day, and once I went home, I never went back. I figured if people were paying attention like that, then they’d find out about me. They’d somehow know. So I removed myself from sports almost altogether, until college, when I was in a more accepting environment and I felt comfortable becoming a sports fan.
My relationship with hockey, as a gay fan, has been interesting. Overall, the internet world – bloggers, sportscasters, etc – are supportive of gay fans and hope for an NHL player to come out soon. As I became more aware of sports in general, I enjoyed other sports’ positivity as well – particularly the NBA, who put out this anti-homophobic slurs PSA, along with fining Kobe harshly for his gay slur. Sir Charles’ rant helped too. But hockey is my sports home, and I keep a sharp eye on people’s reactions to talk of gay players and gay fans.
I was somewhat disheartened after the Wayne Simmonds incident, because there were a lot of people insisting that f***** (nope, not spelling it out) was a totally fine thing to say on the ice. I’ve done some trash-talking in my day – just ask my family during Uno tournaments – but I’m of the opinion that some things should be off-limits. And a slur that kids kill themselves over should be one of those things. My response to the arguments that it’s said in the heat of the moment, it’s not meant to be demeaning, it’s not about the player, it’s just a harmless insult, etc., was mostly to put my head in my hands and ignore it all, because sometimes, as a gay person in a homophobic world, you just get tired of dealing with people.
Obviously I know about the Burkes. I was in Chicago when Brent Sopel took the Cup to the Pride parade, and while I didn’t go, I did have queer friends who went, and were very touched by it (I was too busy fighting off the death flu in my apartment a block away from the parade). It was a big deal for an athlete in the NHL to take the Cup to Pride. It was an even bigger deal that the Burkes approved of Sopel taking it in honor of Brendan Burke.
When I first heard about the You Can Play initiative, I was excited. The first video just increased my excitement. Here are actual NHL players supporting gay players, encouraging them to keep playing. Would I have become a soccer star if I’d had something like this? Probably not. But I might have had a hell of a time playing soccer through high school.
YCP is important for a couple reasons. One, they support all athletes – lesbian, gay, and bisexual – which is great, because female queer types often get ignored in stuff like this. But two, because of the legitimacy gained by NHL management and players standing up and supporting gay athletes. Where I grew up, the only time you heard about anyone being gay was when someone was slurring someone else. My mother was one of the more accepting people in my community; she told me being gay wasn’t a good thing, but that some people did it and it was important not to hate them. I was the subject of plenty of homophobia growing up, as were many people I knew. Homophobia is a reality, not a punchline or something to split hairs over. And combating it is vital.
Visibility is incredibly important. High-profile actions of acceptance will help whichever athlete finally comes out to do so. There’s never been an out gay player in the NHL, MLB, NBA, or NFL. Hockey’s got a fighting chance, because of the liberal nature of the sport, and I think it would be absolutely wonderful for hockey to get this kind of visibility and be an agent of such tangible change.
In many ways, being gay is about when, and how, and how much, you choose to hide. And that sucks. So much of our lives are spent navigating the tricky waters of homophobia – at home, at school, and in the workplace. YCP won’t change everything. It might not even change most things. But for me, it’s a sign of hope, and a huge one at that. They’re doing good work, reaching out to young, gay athletes, and I applaud them for that. I can only hope that hockey keeps stepping forward: players, team management, media figures, and fans, all together.