April, 2013 / Author:

In the second part of this series, OutWords explores what local experts are doing to give LGBT athletes a new beginning

Patrick Burke’s You Can Play project is a step in the right direction, but entrenched attitudes, like mountains, are only worn away over time by a steady drip of opposing ideas from people society respects.

The You Can Play project, profiled in the March issue of OutWords, enlists the moral support of NHL stars in attempt to open minds and hearts in locker rooms at the college level and beyond. The project seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit. Active sports stars are powerful straight allies for the GLBT community. 

No one knows that better than Dr. Sandra Kirby, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at the University of Winnipeg. Primarily a social scientist with a strong scientific background in the physical performance and health sciences fields, Kirby received a $300,000 grant from the International Olympic Committee, allowing a team of experts to develop an on-line education program aimed at ending sexual harassment and abuse of children and teenagers involved in Olympic sports.

She told OutWords boys and men have a harder time being open about their sexual orientation in a sports setting. “It isn’t easy for either gender to come out and it can be frightening, but I think boys and men suffer more,” she says. “It goes right to the heart of their masculinity and they can feel very isolated.”

Even so, Kirby says things have improved a lot since she was a member of the Canadian Rowing Team in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. “There is no way anyone, including me, would come out of the closet back then,” she says. “Today the world is a lot more accepting. Many courageous people have come out, but itís still much easier for women than men.”

She also notes there was absolutely no place for GLBT sports people to party after major events in the past. “Now with the Gay Games and Out Games that has changed and bright, sporting GLBT people can come together and celebrate internationally,” she says. “Ideally we ought to be more integrated into the major sports leagues and theoretically, we are getting closer to that. However, at a realistic level I suspect we are still two decades away from full sporting and social integration. A few major athletes may come out but usually only after they have retired. They still think it is a risk and it can damage an active career, with opportunities suddenly disappearing.”

It is that fear or perceived risk which drives closeted GLBT athletes to slam on the breaks. She says she made a decision to come out 25 years ago but she has known athletes who felt they had to “act straight” for their entire lives, thus living a lie. Kirby is a local rowing coach and ardent ski enthusiast.

“That’s why things like the Out Games are a wonderful venue for GLBT athletes,” she says. “They can relax and be themselves, focused on the sport rather than fears about how others perceive them. One of the proudest moments of my life was being asked to read out the Olympic oath at the start of the Out Games. Truly a very moving event.”

She says GLBT athletes should simply avoid any homophobic arena where gays and lesbians are trashed or disrespected. “A decision on whether to come out or not is entirely up to the individual,” she says. “But if there is clearly disrespect or outright homophobia, it can seriously damage an individual. Not everyone has a thick skin, so you do have to carefully consider whether itís wise to move to a friendlier arena.”

THE MANITOBA MIRACLE

Outright homophobic hostility is rarely encountered at the level of local high school sports anymore, according to Morris Glimcher, executive director of the Manitoba High Schools Athletics Association (MHSAA). He did a quick poll of city coaches and referees for OutWords and the response was consistent: no one could recall any recent serious complaints of homophobia in the locker room.

“A couple of decades ago we did deal with some racist slurs, but even that was uncommon,” he says. “Once in a while the ‘fag’ word might be used but it’s not always in a homophobic context. It may just be a word young people use to put down anyone.”

Glimcher says there is far more focus today in education on acceptance and tolerance of racial background, gender or sexual orientation. Many schools now have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) Gay/Straight Alliance to combat homophobia and that may be helping the sports scene too.

“More young people are coming out earlier today and it’s less of a big deal than it used to be,” he says. “People may be less open to being out in smaller, rural schools, many of which have less than 125 students. Everyone knows everyone else in small towns so it may be less open there. Even so, I have not heard of any serious problems.”

The MHSAA will follow clear procedures if a harassment complaint is filed. “If an incident did occur, we would certainly remove the offender from a tournament and we would have his school and school board follow up the complaint and act on it,” says Glimcher. “If a school refused to act, we would certainly act on it ourselves. School boards often have very different policies. No one should be discriminated against because of race or sexual orientation. Equally, no one should get special privileges because of those factors either.”

Though homophobia hasn’t been big on high school sports radar screens, one issue that is worrying coaches and educators is that of transgender people. “I have been to many meetings of sports officials and they know this is a coming issue but no one has a clue how to handle it,” he says. “Changing from one sex to another often takes years and it has legal and many other implications, so how does the sports world handle it? No one seems to know.”

IN SPORTS, GAY MEN HAVE IT WORSE

Seven Oaks School teacher Lindsay Brown played ringette for a decade then got involved with high school hockey in Grade 12. She is out and teaches English language was well as arts and drama. “I was never targeted for my orientation and was lucky enough to pass as a straight girl,” she says.

“Even so, I was aware when I hit puberty that there was an issue around discrimination, but it never affected me personally.”

She echoes Kirby’s assumption that outright homophobia was always more of an issue for males. “I think queer women were just more accepted than gay males,” she says. “Male athletes tend to be associated in popular culture with the ideal of masculinity, whereas gay men were always considered anti-masculine or not tough.”

Brown finds it sad that leading gay athletes such as Olympian swimmer Mark Tewksbury only feel able to come out once they’re safely retired. “My students usually look up to athletes, but if you’re a young gay male right now you have no big sporting hero to look up to as a gay role model,” she says. 

That’s why Brown loves the concept of You Can Play, launched by the Burke family. “It brings into focus famous hockey players who support the cause and are important allies,” she says. “That sends a message to gay youth that itís OK to be gay and that you are an equal if you are talented at the sport. You can play and succeed as well. Kids can look up and thus see themselves reflected.”

Brown believes all homophobia is based on fear and ignorance and eliminating it requires a change in social attitudes, led by education. “My own school has a GSA and these things are important in changing social attitudes for the future,” she says. “I am fortunate to be in a progressive school division with strong policies on these issues. However, many rural communities–where sports is a big thing–are often conservative and way behind on these issues.” 

“Societal change is definitely coming, but in some areas they are only taking baby steps so it will take longer,” Brown says.


– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg- based freelance writer, former producer for CBC radio and former Macleanís writer.

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