The NHL thinks it’s ready for its first publicly out player. It’s not.

Jul 6, 2016 · 9 min read

(CW: homophobia)

The NHL thinks it’s ready for its first gay player.

Players have said so. Patrick Burke has said so.

And now the Commissioner, Gary Bettman, has weighed in and declared that the NHL is ready for its first out player in an article for the Chicago Tribune.

The NHL most likely has out players among their former athletes. There are most likely out players among the NHL’s current ranks. What these apparent allies mean, and what they want, is a player who is publicly out. A player who is willing to tell the media that he is gay.

There is no standardized coming out experience for LGBTQ folks. How and when we choose to come out and how we’re received varies from person to person. The variables in play are not always the same. This is certainly true for male professional athletes. There are very few examples of male athletes publicly coming out in major North American pro sports and none in the NHL. When an NHLer does come out, his actions will surely receive greater scrutiny.

The coming out narrative has a certain currency in our society. Those outside the rainbow often think it’s what every good queer person should do; live loudly, visibly, and out for cishet folks to see. Ally organizations like YCP happily celebrate athletes who come out. LGBTQ publications like Out Sports prioritize this specific narrative when it comes to athletes. But nobody owes you their coming out story. Nobody is required to publicly express their sexuality or gender, to expose their pain to an audience, to reveal love that is still misunderstood, to perform hardship for a captive crowd. When our society or a subset of society, like the NHL, clamours for a publicly out player, I am always skeptical of the motivation.

Why does the NHL want a publicly out player? Why haven’t any current or former players come out publicly yet? Why isn’t the league exerting the same pressure on officials, coaches, and management to be publicly out? Why don’t most of the folks who talks about LGBTQ issues for the league or who write about queer matters in mainstream hockey media seem to know any gay people? Why don’t they talk to LGBTQ folks instead of deferring to cis and straight white men?

Repeatedly, the NHL and hockey media have stated they’re ready for a publicly out gay player. But even in this dialogue, LGBTQ voices are missing.

The NHL thinks it’s ready for a publicly out gay player and has the receipts from straight men to prove it. In the Tribune piece, Burke is quoted about the strain of living a closeted life and how a publicly out player might perform better. He states,

“An athlete who’s wasting time and energy and mental health and well-being hiding himself in the closet isn’t bringing his entire individual self to the team…. The idea this would somehow distract from or be a negative from a team concept is fundamentally at odds with the truth of the situation.”

The reality is, there are numerous reasons why an athlete might choose not to come out publicly that a straight man who works within a problematic institution like the NHL can’t see. Burke may be right but LGBTQ folks are skilled at reading any space, including a dressing room. It’s a matter of safety.

In that same post, Bettman spoke of sending a signal by suspending Andrew Shaw in April for his use of a homophobic slur in a game, and hoped that the idea that homophobia was unacceptable would transcend the use of the word itself. Maybe it will for some players. But I don’t think it’s cynical to suggest that the message received by some was “don’t get caught”. Homophobic slurs are bad and the league was right to suspend Shaw, but how does the league respond when its first publicly gay player starts hearing vile, misogynistic taunts instead? The way discrimination is expressed overlaps. The NHL has demonstrated time after time, that it cares little about denigrating women in the language it allows players to use and fans to shout. The NHL has an abysmal track record when it comes to responding to issues of sexual assault and domestic violence in its community. Slurs are damaging and they hurt. They’re meant to. But without combating the underlying attitudes behind slurs, concrete change isn’t possible.

You can’t combat homophobia in isolation.

But that’s exactly what the NHL is trying to do. By not acknowledging the way homophobia, misogyny, cissexism, and racism overlap and interact the league puts subtle limits on the publicly out player the NHL is willing to accept. By ignoring the variety of ways hockey is discriminatory, the NHL hints that the first publicly out NHLer should be someone who is gay and monogamous, in a committed relationship, who mirrors heteronormative family values and reflects the league’s whiteness. There are a lot of LGBTQ folks who don’t fit those standards.

The NHL and organizations like it can continue to do work to make their culture more inclusive and welcoming for gay players whether a player comes out publicly or not. Such actions include tackling the homophobia that exists in hockey fan culture, or finally having serious, informed discussion in league and hockey media circles about the ways in which homophobia, cissexism, misogyny, and racism overlap and merge to undermine not only the league’s commitment to being inclusive, but also those gay players who aren’t out publicly and who the league claims to welcome.

If your commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity requires a publicly out player to confirm the success of your actions, your motivations are suspect. If you value someone regardless of their sexuality, you shouldn’t urge them to live their sexuality in a way that benefits you and doesn’t take their well-being into account.

As fans, we are not owed that story. Nor is the league.

It would not be my choice to come out publicly to suit the needs of my employer. But the more the NHL and ally organizations like YCP, and those ambiguously connected to them, like Patrick Burke, push for a publicly out NHLer, the more it feels like what they value is the symbolic value the player will provide. League officials like Bettman act this way because they fundamentally don’t understand the coming out process. What it comes down to is the fact that coming out means different things to LGBTQ folks than it does to the rest of our heteronormative society.

For those who don’t have to do it, coming out is regularly misunderstood.

For many LGBTQ folks, coming out is the beginning of a new relationship with cishet folks. However, frequently in our heteronormative society coming out is seen as an end. Sometimes cishet folks get that coming out is a big deal and focus a lot of energy on making that specific moment one of acceptance and inclusion. That matters. But what happens with too much regularity is acceptance fades with time and those efforts to be inclusive stop.

For those not in the rainbow, coming out is a culmination of actions that bestows upon the listener the status of “good ally”. From reactions I’ve had when I’ve come out to people, it often seems like the listener takes my disclosures as a sign that their actions have been accepting enough, inclusive enough, welcoming enough. Having someone come out to you is seen as an end in itself, requiring no further modification of behaviour.

But for many of us in the rainbow, it’s just a beginning. I am fortunate to have a few people stay steadfastly by me through the highs and the lows of being out, but many who readily wish you well when you come out are silent when you talk about the homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia you experience or who perpetuate the discrimination you face in various subtle and not so subtle ways. Those who in one moment told me to “live my true self” have subsequently acted in a way that perpetuates harm against LGBTQ folks.

I see something similar happening in hockey.

The NHL wants to be given “good ally” status without earning it. The straight men of the NHL can continue to proclaim the league ready for a publicly out player, but I suspect the gay players in the league are wondering how the league is prepared to support them once they’re out. Winning is paramount in professional sports and social justice is relegated to the sidelines with damaging consequences. On top of that, players are traded, waived, and see their role diminish for a myriad of reasons not specifically related to on ice performance. Earning potential is effected by buzzwords as nebulous as being “coachable” or “bad in the room”. In short, there are many ambiguous concepts actively in play in hockey that could be leveled against a publicly out player without disrupting hockey’s current culture. At the same time, these concepts provide players, coaches, general managers, and owners cover for marginalizing and ultimately dismissing a gay player. Hockey’s mainstream media would defend it.

At the heart of the problem is hockey’s archaic culture.

This sport still enforces the dictates of a code which prescribes a set of normative behaviors for players. The code is based in a specific kind of masculinity; expressly toxic, it emphasizes physical toughness and retributive violence while privileging whiteness. It is also a heteronormative code that is enforced as early as the ranks of minor hockey and at the junior level, associating masculine weakness with both femininity and homosexuality. This code thrives on seeing difference as other and enforces its standards on those who would challenge such rigidity through hazing, bullying, verbal abuse, and in extreme cases, physical violence. We see examples of difference being punished in the NHL frequently. Hockey’s code is most commonly seen on ice when player X seeks vengeance on player Y for Y’s clean, or otherwise within the rules, hit. Hits, slashes, crosschecks, and at times, fistfights ensue. But this controls all sorts of behaviour, on and off the ice. Gay professional hockey players are probably intimately aware of how even just the act of being publicly out is reason enough to inflict violence for some of their colleagues. They know this because they’ve developed their skills on teams and in leagues in which “homo” and “faggot” were common words whose impact was dismissed by even the “good guys” around them.

They know this because violent reprisal is sadly a commonality in LGBTQ experience.

They know this because just last month, Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, was the scene of a massacre in which LGBTQ folks, specifically LGBTQ folks of colour, were murdered for their sexuality, gender, and race. In the face of such a tragedy, gay hockey players saw their teams and their league respond to the deliberate murder of LGBTQ folks by sending thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families while ignoring the context of the massacre in their tributes. In this way the NHL aligned with other men’s professional leagues in removing homophobia as a culprit. If your employers are unwilling to acknowledge the most transparent examples of violent homophobia when they occur, in what way can you, as a gay hockey player, believe them when they say they are ready for a player to be publicly out?

You can’t.

No amount of Pride tape can seal these cracks. Videos of players reading scripts about inclusivity haven’t permeated hockey’s toxic culture. Continuing to turn to a straight man, Patrick Burke, for LGBTQ answers because he works for the league and founded YCP won’t do the job either.

The culture of men’s hockey is the problem. The culture of men’s hockey is homophobic.

The culture change hockey must undergo to become a sport of inclusion is drastic. That sort of change is painful, requires long-term commitment, and systemic overhaul. It would leave bigots at every level, player, coaches, management, and league officials, curbside regardless of their obvious skills and smarts. Such change requires the league and its players, coaches, and managers, to acknowledge the many other ways they have been discriminatory and problematic as well. It requires actual depth of thought and of feeling. So far, the NHL prefers a surface commitment to LGBTQ equality: the occasional march in a parade, rainbow logos, and YCP nights. Even this, a rudimentary commitment in 2016, mostly occurs in the offseason to coincide with Pride events, a happy coincidence for the league and its teams as the attention of many hockey fans will be diverted by the joys of summer.

The NHL’s efforts at LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance take place on the periphery, where LGBTQ folks still reside. To become the organization the NHL professes it already is, leaders like Bettman must repeatedly speak when the spotlight of the season shines. To become that league, the NHL must center queer voices and listen to queer voices. To be a league in which a player would want to be publicly out, hockey culture must radically change.


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gender, sport, and culture

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