You Can Play Burnaby: Ensuring a level playing field for gay athletes

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How many professional gay athletes do you know? Zero?

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That's what BC Lions wide receiver Marco Iannuzzi, who identifies as straight, thought when he was asked that question. But he soon found he was second-guessing himself.

"Maybe I have played with some gay athletes," he said. "Maybe they just didn't feel comfortable enough to come out. And I wanted to know how many of them felt uncomfortable, why they felt uncomfortable, and primarily what can we do to break down these fences, break down these walls."

Iannuzzi was speaking as moderator of the You Can Play Burnaby forum on homophobia in sport on March 28. The event, presented by You Can Play and G-Force Sports, was sponsored by Burnaby Teachers Association, Burnaby School District, and the BC Teachers' Federation. It was initiated by the BTA's Frank Bonvino, who was inspired by Manny Malhotra's participation with You Can Play in the 2012 Vancouver Pride parade.

The panel consisted of three out gay athletes: Virginia-born, L.A.–based U.S. professional soccer player Angela Hucles (who won two Olympic gold medals as a member of U.S. Olympic soccer team); Montreal-raised, Seattle-based and NCAA Division 1 skier Jordan Goldwarg; and University of Ottawa hockey player Scott Heggart.

All three talked about the struggles they had growing up in the closet, such as trying to reconcile homosexual feelings that conflicted with wanting to be heterosexual, and being psychologically or socially isolated. Some of that was compounded by what they experienced on the playing field.

THE LOCKER ROOM

Heggart said when he was closeted, every time homosexuality was brought up, he'd hone in on the conversation, even if it was across the room.

"The entire time, you're analyzing to see who's gonna support you," he said. "If I'm outed, who's going to support me? And so if you hear someone using slurs or going on a rant, you assume that they're going to be hostile. You assume that you're not going to have an ally, that they're not going to stand up for you. In the more macho sports, that's most of your teammates."

Much to his surprise, he found that the same people who had used antigay expressions, including sports teammates, were actually supportive of him when he did come out. Such usage continued even after he came out, quickly followed up by apologies. Consequently, he sees the use of homophobic slurs as more as a sign of a "bad habit". He added though that's not a justification for that kind of expression.

Goldwarg pointed out that some sports can be conducive to homophobia than others due to different locker room cultures that vary between sports. In the example of his own sport, cross- country skiing, which is more individual-focused and sometimes involves more interaction between genders than other sports, he said he didn't have to endure overt antigay sentiment.

While some straight people might have fears about being in a locker room with a gay person, Hucles countered those apprehensions.

"When you're in the locker room, as a gay athlete, I'm not looking at my teammates in a sexual way," she said. "These are my family members. These are my friends. These are my sisters. You're just coming off the soccer field and you're tired and you're gross and the last you think about is anything like that."

Heggart added that things like pre-game preparation consumes him mentally to the point that he wouldn't even consider things like sexual attraction. "Before a game, sex is the last thing on your mind."

WHEN NAMES ARE STICKS AND STONES

If you think terms like faggot, dyke, "no homo", and "so gay" are fading away, think again. Goldwarg cited the website No Homophobes, which tracks how many times those words and phrases are used on Twitter. Usage often numbers in the thousands.

Goldwarg acknowledged that sometimes such terms are used without actual homophobic intent but that people need to understand what impact they have on people who hear it, which may include someone struggling to come out of the closet.

Hucles said that removing those terms from your vocabulary is one of the simplest steps in making change.

"It's such an easy thing to have people eliminate. It's something that everybody can do. That's one thing that anybody here or anywhere can do to really help advance this movement and be supportive."

Goldwarg said it's important not only to remove it from one's own vocabulary but to step in when others use those terms. Hucles agreed.

"I think it is powerful when someone else is speaking up, and especially to have straight allies speak up, because there might be someone in the room who is afraid to speak up for herself or himself," she said.

When children use such words, Hucles said it's an opportunity to educate them, in age-appropriate ways, why the language isn't appropriate.

Hucles pointed out people can also avoid inherent heterocentric assumptions by removing gendered language, particularly when asking questions, such as replacing boyfriend or girlfriend with terms like partner.

GO, TEAM, GO

If the goal of every team is to get everyone to perform their best, then eliminating homophobia is actually in the best interest of all athletes. Rampant homophobia may result in teams losing some of their best players.

Heggart talked about the stress he was experiencing from trying to ensure he wasn't perceived as gay. In fact, he began to drop out of sports because of the homophobic sports environment.

"The love for those games didn't match up to the names that I was experiencing….If I had felt more comfortable, I think I would've been playing a lot more sports later in life and I might be in a lot better shape than I am in now."

Similar to comments made by panelists at a recent Vancouver forum about being out in the workplace, Golwarg said he discovered that after coming out, his performance skyrocketed.

"Before I came out, I really think that there was so much mental energy that I was devoting to…trying to keep it secret, trying to deny it to myself, trying to understand it, that all that energy that I was expending up here [mentally] was energy that I couldn't put into my training, that I couldn't put into races and competition, and after I came out…I had by far my best season competitively….Most of it came from just freeing up mental and physical energy that had previously been wasted on trying to hide my sexuality and that was energy that I had available to train better and to train harder and to race harder."

WHAT YOU SEE AND WHAT YOU GET

Goldwarg said that growing up, it wasn't enough for him to simply see out gay people. He needed something more specific.

"I needed to see other gay athletes who were out….And really regardless of level, they didn't need to be a pro athlete….I really needed that specific role model who I could relate to, who seemed to have a lot in common with me."

He also emphasized the need to see the full diversity of queer community, not just stereotypical images.

In one of the few professional fields in which there are almost no major out figures, Heggart talked about the impact that a high-profile coming-out in the sports world might have.

"What that shows these kids is like, 'I'm a professional athlete. I'm gay. Being gay didn't hold me back from my dreams. I still accomplished them.' And that's something truly unique that a gay athlete can give."

Hucles discussed how news media, social media, and the internet play an important role in facilitating discussion when there are significant incidents, such as NFL players making homophobic statements. She noted that this helps boost awareness and contributes to social advancement and change.

On the subject of whether the implementation of antihomophobic policies is more important than individual athletes coming out, Heggart said that education is key.

"We focus on education rather than disciplining athletes….It's one thing to slap someone for making a mistake and it's another thing to explain to them why what they did was a mistake."

Hucles added that voluntary participation is more effective than being told what to do or think.

"I think it's much more powerful when it's more of a social movement where people are buying into it versus someone saying, 'Here are the rules. You can follow them.' "

INTO ACTION

Iannuzzi encouraged everyone to continue the discussion beyond the confines of the evening. Goldwarg also wanted people to continue to brainstorm ideas for how they can help improve things.

"Think about the people in your lives. If you know of someone's who a gay athlete, think about how you can support them. If you don't know someone who's a gay athlete, you actually probably do know someone who's a gay athlete so think about how you might be able to support those people in your lives now while they're still closeted and how you might be able to support them after they come out."

Hucles said there's much work to be done but she hoped that one day there won't be.

"My goal is to do this enough so that You Can Play doesn't even have to exist anymore [audience applause]….I also want to speak for those people who haven't yet felt comfortable to speak up for themselves as well."

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