A University of Alberta researcher says attitudes towards homosexuality in hockey are changing — but there is still more to be done.
Cheryl MacDonald, a post-doctoral researcher with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, said there are or have been openly gay players in lower levels of hockey and in other professional sports, like football, but not the NHL.
That, along with other research she had been doing in hockey, prompted her to look at homosexuality within the hockey world.
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“I had a conversation with George Laraque, who is a former Edmonton Oiler. I was looking for something to study and… asked him what he thought was important for me to study in hockey. He said homophobia,” she said.
“He said there were gay men in the NHL and he knew who some of them were but they weren’t going to come out until we did more work to make that okay.”
WATCH ABOVE: In June 2014, Brian Burke spoke to Global News about the ‘You Can Play’ project, which aims to make locker rooms and sports venues free from homophobia.
MacDonald said the hockey world seems to exist exclusive of other worlds.
“A fist fight in hockey is quite alright on the ice, but not off the ice. [Players] know they can act certain ways, in certain contexts, in certain environments. So, for instance, within the dressing room, it is quite normal to use homophobic discourse, such as calling one another names or calling something gay. But they’re very well aware that’s not okay off the ice,” she said.
“I think the fact that [players] understand that certain attitudes and behaviours are okay in one place and not the other allows things like homophobia to persist but only in little pockets of their lives.”
MacDonald’s doctoral project examined masculinity within hockey, including the idea that players are supposed to be super masculine and macho. She conducted surveys and interviews with roughly 120 players and six coaches. Opinions about homosexuality and hockey along with relationships with players’ parents, partners and teammates were examined.
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“The biggest concern they had with the idea of having a gay teammate, because this population had never had an openly gay one, was being naked in the showers with them. They were worried a gay teammate would see them naked and be attracted to them,” she said.
“That was the only fear of homosexuality.”
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She said players are still often expected to prove their masculinity to one another.
“Things are getting better in that sense, but within that locker room and with teammates, they’re really expected to act a certain way that is not like the way they act outside of their sport.”
And while MacDonald said there have been huge strides within the hockey world, thanks to programs such as You Can Play and Pride Tape, improvements can still be made.
“We need to do a bit more educating. In the case of teenagers I met with, some of them just didn’t know what LGBTQ meant. They had never been around a homosexual person for instance. The more we educate and the more we talk about it, over time, things will continue to improve,” she said.
Justin Connelly, 25, has been played hockey since he was around four years old. The sport played a huge role in his life and still does – he works and volunteers in hockey.
But Connelly said he started questioning his sexuality while he was age 15 to 18, and playing bantam and midget hockey.
“I just started to feel a little different in the locker room,” he said.
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Connelly said he did not speak with his teammates about the matter, but was affected by the language used in the locker room.
“That homophobic language and culture that can be within hockey, [it] made me feel a bit fearful and uncomfortable. I was worried about what people thought about me and how they would perceive me,” he said.
“The hockey culture, I don’t think [at the time] was very accepting. It hasn’t always been the most accepting sports environment. Hockey is known as a very masculine, macho sport. I don’t think it was very accepting.”
Connelly came out to family and friends roughly one year ago and now plays on a gay hockey team in Calgary called the Calgary Pioneers.
“I feel a lot more comfortable now,” he said, adding he feels like the hockey culture has changed as well.
“I think it has become a lot more inclusive. It has become a lot more accepting.”
He has advice for hockey players who may be questioning their sexuality.
“Don’t be afraid to be your true, genuine self. There are people out there that are willing to help, that are willing to be an ally for you.
“There is hope out there.”
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And as for the teammates of those players who are struggling with their sexual orientation, change comes with the gestures that are made.
“Do your best to be an ally. Just be aware of the language you’re using in the locker room or in the dressing room. They can definitely make a change by just not using that homophobic language, not using those other slurs.”