I thought about yesterday’s firestorm by the Rangers ‘a girl’s guide to hockey’ a lot. All the great friends I’ve made through hockey. Specifically, in response to this article, all the great women I’ve met through hockey. I did some pondering.
When have we reached equality? Is the equality we’ve made gains towards a mere facade?
Hockey is by far the most diverse sport in terms of audience in my opinion. That’s because conceptually, it’s an easy game to grasp. There’s a 4×6 net, and you want to put the piece of volcanized rubber in it. That’s it. You don’t need to get the infield fly rule or why the defense is changing from a 4-3 base set to a nickel package. You need to follow the puck. If you’re in the arena, you get to expand that vision. You follow the chatter on the bench. You watch the Alternate Captain work the referee during a play stoppage. You avoid the screaming children following the Tshirt cannon. You… immerse yourself in this surreal world. You escape into it.
This ‘easily inhabitable relatively smooth to acclimate to living on’ world can be shattered in an instant though. For me, a homophobic chant is a good way to pop my balloon. My reaction is always the same. I get angry, confrontational, and then after the adrenaline wears off? Sullen. My world that is my reprieve has been invaded, and once more I’ve been reminded that this world is a mirage and any loud mouth moron can damage it any time they want.
This is the same for a large number of my female friends or other minorities who have gone to great lengths to learn a sport which is predominantly played by white males. These folks work hard to fit in and hold their own and make the world I speak of their own. They challenge conventional wisdom, barge into this narrow prism of ‘who should be here’ and defiantly declare ‘i belong’. They play the game at a high level, like Sophie Merckx. They become the foremost sports medical analyst for one of Canada’s largest sports networks like Jo Innes. They create ‘trees for goals’ and other charity initiatives like Sarah Connors. They provide a sounding board and a port in the storm for an angry gay guido kid from Brooklyn to bounce ideas off of like Stephanie Hartigan does. Or… or they galvanize an entire community, nay a country, like Jessica Redfield did. We’ll reach equality when these people or pioneers like Craig and Doug over at Puckbuddys aren’t viewed as ‘outsiders trying to fit in’ but ‘people who love hockey helping the great game spread into exciting new places’. Then we’ll be there.
We’ll be there when the knowledge they have in spades isn’t challenged based on who they are. When they are accepted as knowing as much as the next person, not questioned for their knowledge like it’s a credential to access the inner sanctum of hockey because they have lady parts or sleep with boys.
That’s when we’ll have real equality as fans and people who care for and cover this game. What about people that play it?
Isn’t it awesome that in 2013 a successful female athlete still has various insults associated with being a lesbian hurled at her for having the audacity to be a strong female in a ‘man’s world?’
Why is that acceptable?
Because as strong as they may be, mentally and physically, outsiders are seen as ‘weak’ and someone to be tested.
While i vehemently support You Can Play and other equality groups, it’s different for fans and media. To push through the morass of bullshit that comes with being an athlete and proudly maintain what makes you different in a macho sports world that demands conformity takes a special strength of character. I hope that someone in the next generation of aspiring athletes is strong enough. I wasn’t. Learn from my experience.
Being antsy has probably freed up the mental block that has prevented me from writing about this for 12 years. I write about everything, you know? Yet one of the most important chapters in my life has gone completely untold. I’m a pretty cheerful person who has occasional bouts of mind numbing anger. People always ask where that comes from. Well, not surprisingly, it comes from a bad place. I don’t think it stemmed from my being homosexual. I was only sort of out (and that was nebulous at best) to one of the coaches and none of my teammates. My great ’emancipation’ of outing myself to everyone was still many moons away. Some of my teammates definitely suspected, with overt comments like “vinny just shows up because he likes being on his back with a guys sack in his face.” Granted, there were definitely homoerotic aspects to wrestling, and I’m confident I had gay teammates. So, if the homosexuality wasn’t the catalyst of my abuse (though it definitely was part of my being unable to confront what was happening to me), what was it? I was weak. I was 70 lbs my underclassman years where I wrestled for a then prestigious all boys high school. Testosterone was flowing all over the place and well, the protection being on a team in such a juiced up environment offered was not free, especially for the little guy who wasn’t very good. Among the many times I was hazed or abused, three standout as particularly clear in my mind, but these are by no means the only incidents.
First, I was tackled and pummeled by a coach after I tied his shoelaces together at the behest of a team captain. I’ve fought a bit in my life, and this was probably the worst beating I ever took. Secondly, I was hogtied and squeezed into a half locker which was then closed. I still don’t like enclosed spaces. Lastly, I was stripped, bound to the red tackling dummy and left helpless as teammates sprayed an entire canister of icy spray ( the stuff to numb an area after an injury) on my exposed genitalia.
That about tells the story, but not my reason for telling it. My advice to high school athletes who ponder coming out is this: If these were my consequences just for being unable to defend myself… make fully sure you are coming out in a safe environment. There’s no shame in waiting a few years if it’ll preserve your mental health. If you have a safe and supportive environment, by all means, go for it. But please make sure first.
The wanting to fit in is something I’ve kicked around a lot in this piece. It’s what kept me from talking about it for so long. That’s a regret I’ll need to live with for a while, along with the fact I let this happen. I want better for the next generation.
The athlete who takes up the banner of being different will need more strength than the fans and media who strive to be different need to muster. But the athletes that do take on this challenge of facing down a world that screams for conformity need our support. That much we owe them. That… I owe them.