Canucks forward Manny Malhotra came out as an ally for LGBT communities at the Vancouver Pride parade in 2012. But when will a high-profile NHL player come out of the closet?
When that happens, Frank Bonvino of the Burnaby Teachers' Association thinks that will be the tipping point for homophobia in sports in Canada.
"There's hundreds and hundreds of professional players," he told the Georgia Straight by phone. "And just from a statistical point of view…there's gotta be some of them that identify as being gay. But nobody has come out and identified as being gay….And when kids see that and they hear that, then they feel, 'Oh well, if they haven't done that, then maybe perhaps there's something wrong with it' or something like that, and they don't feel comfortable coming out themselves."
But Bonvino is helping to pave the way for change.
He was part of the fight in 2011 to get the Burnaby School District's antihomophobia policy 5.45 approved, in the face of protests from parents' groups.
"We needed a way to bring this policy to life," Bonvino said. "We didn't just fight to get this policy to just have it sitting at the back of someone's filing cabinet."
Inspired by Malhotra being in the parade, Bonvino contacted You Can Play. (The project, which aims to address homophobia in the world of sports, was launched by Patrick Burke, son of former Canucks general manager Brian Burke. Patrick's Vancouver-born brother Brendan came out as gay in 2009 while he was a university's men's hockey team's student manager but died in a car accident in 2010.)
You Can Play Burnaby, which is sponsored by the BTA, the B.C. Teachers Federation, and the Burnaby School District, will present the Invisible Athletes Forum, featuring three gay and lesbian athlete panelists at Michael J. Fox Theatre (7373 MacPherson Avenue) on Thursday (March 28) at 7 p.m. (Admission is free but an email RSVP is required as seating is limited.)
Former U.S. national team soccer player and Olympic gold medalist Angela Hucles, NCAA Division 1 skier Jordan Goldwarg, and University of Ottawa hockey player Scott Heggart will share their life experiences while BC Lions wide receiver and straight ally Marco Iannuzzi will moderate.
Bonvino also said that organizations like Vancouver Pride and Out in Schools will present information about community resources in the foyer prior to the panel discussion.
He added that they're also considering having future events that will go beyond the world of sports.
In spite of the history of politics surrounding the antihomophobia policy, he said they haven't received any negative responses to the staging of the event—only positive, supportive comments.
Although Bonvino identifies as straight, he regards LGBT issues as social justice issues.
"A lot of times, you'll see people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, for example, who are sort of in the forefront advocating for this. I think that, [someone like] myself, who identifies as a straight person, coming out there with this initiative and being in the forefront, just shows that it doesn't only hurt the gay and lesbian community but chauvinistic and homophobic attitudes are offensive to straight people as well."
He observed that while issues like same-sex marriage have become mainstream issues, he lamented that there's been little or no progress when it comes to sports.
"I think it's essentially the locker-room culture that is the problem generally. It sort of seems to be okay to use pejorative language when you're in the locker room and to make jokes about being gay and that sort of thing. I think that there's a certain stigma still attached, especially with males being gay in the sports arena."
He cited the example of former Vancouver Whitecaps David Testo forward who came out only after his soccer career was over.
American professional soccer midfielder Megan Rapinoe did come out in 2012 but she also noted the lack of out-gay professional athletes.
"I think that as a result of that, it's really difficult for young people, for example, in terms of them feeling comfortable doing the same thing, when they don't have any role models in the professional scene that have done that yet," Bonvino said. "And so we're hoping with an event like this, where we've got some really top-notch athletes sharing their stories about coming out that that's going to create a positive atmosphere and people can feel comfortable to express themselves, and build a really good locker-room culture, and both on the field and off the field."
He also said he hopes that one day, events like this won't need to be held.
"Really at the end of the day, the only thing that matters about you being part of a sports team is your ability, your integrity, and your work ethic, and that essentially frivolous things like your sexual orientation really have no bearing on your value to the team. It's just not important."