LGBTQ+ Inclusivity in Hockey: What's Wrong, and What Must Change?

From the NHL to the grassroots, hockey has made strides in becoming a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ+ community. But numerous barriers remain. What are the next steps, and what does the future look like?
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It was 2019, and Diane Dandurand couldn’t sleep. She knew something was troubling her teenaged son. They were about as close as a parent and child could be. Sixteen years earlier, Yanic Duplessis was born six-and-a-half weeks premature, and Diane always felt a bit more maternal or protective than your average mom. She knew Yanic so well that she could always detect even the slightest change in his mood. He wasn’t himself. He insisted he was fine, but her heart told her otherwise. He was typically such a happy kid.

Yanic grew up in Saint-Antoine, N.B. He was a charismatic leader who made friends easily and seemed to be good at everything, from javelin to chess. Hockey was where he really stood out, especially as he got older. A rugged right winger, he was tough to muscle off the puck at a stout 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds by his mid-teens, and he started filling the net. He knew he wasn’t an ordinary player, and 2018-19 was a big year. He was eligible for the QMJHL draft.

If he seemed slightly more stressed than normal that season, it wouldn’t have sounded alarm bells for his parents. But what Yanic was experiencing was so much more than draft-year jitters.

He was gay. He’d known it for several years. By the time he was playing hockey at the bantam level, he started to become nervous about it. He never sensed overt prejudice toward homosexuality in his teams’ dressing rooms, but he noticed a lot of casually homophobic language, like saying, “This is gay” to express dislike for anything. It was commonplace, even among his close friends. He wondered how he’d be treated if he was out.

He held his anxiety in, and it started to manifest itself in different ways. No one knew he was gay, but his body was practically crying out to tell someone. He began to vomit before games. He caught whooping cough. He struggled to sleep. He was experiencing panic attacks, and he repeatedly had to get picked up from school early.

Diane called the vice-principal at his school, crying, explaining she was losing her son and asking if anyone there could talk with him, hoping he’d tell that person whatever he didn’t want to tell his parents. She couldn’t let go of the idea he had something significant weighing on him. That feeling came to a head when, one day, he called from school with more urgency than normal in his voice. He told her she had to pick him up immediately. She told him she would – on the condition he open up and let her help him. She couldn’t stand to see him suffer any further and, since his father, Andre, had suffered a heart attack months earlier, she didn’t want Yanic to think his behavior was the cause of anything.

They sat together in the car.

“I said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Diane said. “He said, ‘Guess.’ ”

“I said, ‘OK. Are you tired of hockey?’ ”

“Nope.”

“Is it school? Is it too much pressure?”

“Nope, it’s not that.”

“Are you gay?”

“Nope.”

“Is it your father?”

“Nope.”

“I named four things. You’re going to have to help me out there.”

“You said it.”

Suddenly, Diane knew.

“OK,” she said. “You’re gay.”

Yanic held her hand and began to cry.

“It’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK.”

Diane wasn’t the first person Yanic told. He knew the moment was approaching in which he’d come out to his family, so he’d done a dry run with his close friend, Xavier Melanson, a few months earlier. It went well. Melanson was extremely supportive and was even a hockey teammate. It gave Yanic confidence that he could someday be out in the hockey community, and it gave him the push to tell his parents and his brother and sister.

A year later, Duplessis told his story to the world. He came out publicly and became the first openly gay QMJHL prospect. “I always told myself that when I came out, I would do something to help others who are going through the same thing as me, because it was a struggle,” Yanic said. “I wanted to help make a difference. So when everything got out, I said, ‘Well, all my family and friends know, and the people that I know love and support me, so I’ll try to make a difference.’ ”

Duplessis, at such a young age, is already a gay hockey icon, a difference-maker. He walks a path blazed by Brock McGillis, who became the first openly gay professional men’s hockey player in 2016. They’ve been joined by other pioneers in the LGBTQ+ community in recent years, such as trans athletes Harrison Browne and Jessica Platt and lesbian hockey power couple Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette. But on the men’s side, McGillis and Duplessis sit among the precious few. Unlike the women’s side, the men’s hockey-playing population at the elite level is a ghost town when it comes to openly gay athletes.

According to 2019 census data in the U.S., roughly 3.9 percent of the male population identified as gay, bisexual or transgender. If the current NHL population reflects that ratio, we should have as many as 36 active NHLers who identify that way. Officially, we have zero. It’s partially because barriers to acceptance prevent any player who isn’t heterosexual from feeling safe revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity. The number of actual non-heterosexual players in men’s hockey is also likely disproportionately lower than that of the general population because queer-identifying players tend to leave the game early in life.

Hockey has made strides in recent years toward becoming a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ+ community. But it still faces numerous barriers to true acceptance. What is the game doing right and wrong so far in the quest for LGBTQ+ inclusivity? What are the best solutions to achieving it at the grassroots and pro levels? And what does the future look like for the LGBTQ+ community in hockey? For the sake of this discussion, we focus on the men’s game, as it’s the sector of the sport that has been far more resistant to change than the women’s side.

THE BARRIERS

McGillis’ experiences in the years leading up to his coming out provide some hint at the barriers an LGBTQ+ athlete must overcome for acceptance.

In summer 2015, McGillis was working as a goaltending coach for the age groups then known as bantam and midget in Sudbury, Ont., and also providing off-ice skill development training for multiple teams between seasons. He was piecing his life together after reaching the precipice of darkness.

Just a few years earlier, he was so close to committing suicide that a close confidante had to talk him out of it. He was gay, he’d known for a long time and, more specifically, he was gay in hockey. He grew up playing hyper-competitively, drafted to the OHL by the Windsor Spitfires in 1999, and kept his secret buried from everyone in his life. He was terrified at being ostracized by his teammates for being attracted to men. He felt he’d be perceived as a distraction to the team if he came out. And, as a goaltender, he was already predisposed to being an outsider on every team.

He couldn’t bring himself to reveal who he really was, not in a team culture built around celebrating hypermasculinity. He drank heavily. He dated women. He sustained a season-ending injury every season from age 15 on and, years later, he wonders if some were psychosomatic. But he persevered. He made some friends in the gay community who could relate to him, most notably Brendan Burke, the late son of NHL executive Brian Burke. McGillis started dating men in his early 20s. He came out to his family in his late 20s.

And then, while he was coaching in 2015, the dam broke. The mother of one of his pupils called. She wanted to set him up on a date. McGillis panicked. He wasn’t ready to out himself. “I was living in Sudbury, and I was working in hockey, and I feared that if people found out, especially up there, I would lose any opportunity I had, and people would not want to work with me,” he said. “But then I was kind of curious what she thought my type might be. So I decided to ask her. I said, ‘What’s her name?’ ”

“Steve.”

“What?”

“Brock, you’re gay.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Yeah. My son told me a couple years ago. All the boys know. They’ve known for years.”

McGillis was working with close to 100 players a day, every single one of them knew he was gay, and they all still chose to work with him. He was blown away. But while the progress among the player population encouraged McGillis, he remained closeted at the time, though word started to leak around the Northern Ontario hockey community that he was gay. The following season, the league would only let McGillis coach for free and wouldn’t allow him to work with players off the ice even though he trained many of them during the off-season. So an organization full of players who accepted who he was decided it didn’t want McGillis around. He’d eventually come out as the first openly gay man to play professional hockey, but not until he was officially out of the game.

The notion that being gay is an unwanted distraction is one thing that deters athletes from coming forward about their sexuality. It’s just one barrier keeping gay athletes out of the men’s game, explains Dr. Cheryl MacDonald, sport sociologist and associate director of outreach at Saint Mary’s University’s Centre for the Study of Sport and Health. She has conducted extensive studies of gender, hockey and sexuality and spoken to countless players who maintained their anonymity. “In my research I have found that the ‘wrong’ way to be a hockey player is to call attention to yourself, and the best example I often get in my interviews is P.K. Subban,” MacDonald said. “Why was P.K. Subban traded from Montreal? Well, (the narrative tells us) he was drawing too much attention to himself, his clothes were too flashy, he was on Instagram too much, he was screwing up the team dynamic. If you are calling attention to yourself in the media, whether you are gay or not, that is seen as selfish and is not adhering to the team-first attitude.”

It’s a truth rooted in a culture of conformity that has long been baked into hockey, particularly in Canada. Kristi Allain, Canada Research Chair in Physical Culture and Social Life and an associate professor of sociology at St. Thomas University, has studied conformity extensively as the root of discrimination in hockey, from racism to homophobia. It traces all the way to the country’s national identity, ‘The Canadian Way’ of playing championed for decades by power brokers like Don Cherry. “We’re just not a place that accepts questioning of this sacred value, and people are very uncomfortable having people point out that this is quite an exclusive space in terms of who gets to play,” Allain said. “There’s a socioeconomic structure of who gets to play. Most of the league is white. Everybody who plays is able-bodied. Most Canadians would find it very difficult to name a Paralympian hockey player. Many Canadians find it difficult to name two women hockey players.”

According to Allain’s findings, the very environment the players grow up in preaches a sense of sameness, a specific and masculine way of playing, and it nudges uniqueness to the margins. It’s a big reason why queer kids leave the game in droves at young ages, Allain says. “Even the smallest difference in hockey is conceptualized as a problem,” she said. “We deal with hockey teams that are so tied to players getting along, players being the same, that are so resistant to any kind of difference including different friends and interests outside of the leagues. So I was really surprised, when interviewing kids in the CHL, that those who had different interests like music or poetry or reading, different from their teammates, made friends away from the league in secret and often wouldn’t talk about them. They knew their coaches and other players wouldn’t allow them to have lives really outside the rink. The idea of being an elite hockey player in Canada means that is your life, that is what you do, and it’s premised on a kind of conformity. But it starts when players are really, really little.”

If players in men’s hockey are afraid to even share their hobbies or secret non-hockey friends, how far of a leap is it to share that they’re gay or bisexual? Especially when the language used in dressing rooms acts as one big lock on the closet. “Anti-gay and anti-feminine language might not be offensive to everyone, but there’s overwhelming evidence that the more hockey players who are closeted hear it, the less they think it’s OK for them to announce that they’re gay,” MacDonald said. “Because even if their teammates don’t mean to insult someone’s sexual orientation when they use that kind of language, once you hear it enough, it doesn’t necessarily feel like the right time to announce that you’re gay.”

It’s no wonder that, according to MacDonald’s studies, the only gay players who have had positive experiences in coming out are the ones who play a tougher, more “masculine” game and even let slurs like f-- roll off their backs in the dressing room. “I think for the straight players in the room, if that person seems like you in every aspect except who they are having sex with or who they are attracted to, it’s easier to accept that they are different because everything else is the same,” MacDonald said.

ALLYSHIP: THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Does hockey have eons to go before achieving true acceptance for all sexual orientations and gender identities? Yes. Has hockey improved its inclusivity significantly compared to a decade ago? Debatably, yes, at least at the highest level.

The NHL has started conversations it never would have even five years ago. It launched the Hockey is for Everyone campaign in early 2017, affiliated with You Can Play, a non-profit dedicated to combating homophobia. The Hockey is For Everyone campaign was intended to promote diversity and inclusion league-wide and included appointing an ambassador for every team. Pride Nights became standard for teams around the league, and players such as goaltender Braden Holtby started decorating their sticks with rainbow ‘Pride Tape.’ It was a start.

Gestures like these can be positive things – if they’re stepping stones toward broader inclusive efforts. “I’ve been a participant in a lot of the Pride Nights,” said Browne, who in 2016 became the first North American pro athlete to come out as trans while still actively playing. “And a lot of people have said, ‘Hey, just seeing you dropping the puck at Madison Square Garden really made me feel like I’d be welcome in that rink.’ So I think they’re doing a really great job in making sure that it is accessible for fans. Do I think there needs to be more done to make sure the players feel safe, to make a player feel like they could come out? There has to be a gay player in the NHL. There has to be. To make that player feel safe to come out, there needs to be something more done to make that player feel safe, or those players, because I think there’s more than one. But seeing Brian Burke’s (inclusion efforts), Pride Nights in the last five years, there have been a lot of great movements made that can’t be understated.”

The NHL also unveiled its executive inclusion council in 2020, and it includes a player inclusion committee that will count LGBTQ+ issues among its areas of focus. That committee features four-time Team USA Olympian Chu, now retired as a player, though it doesn’t include any openly gay male members.

Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, oversaw the creation of the EIC. “When you think about the LGBTQ+ community, specifically, you have to think about all the ways that community intersects across all races, genders, ethnicities, and we have to be mindful of the experiences that people are having when they are intersecting with sexual orientation,” she said. “We want this way of thinking to be a part of the DNA of how our sport operates going forward. We are thinking about any discrimination, whether it is homophobia, sexism, racism, and we want to rid the sport of that.”

It all sounds encouraging in theory. The question is whether the league’s inclusivity efforts can make the jump from the theoretical to the practical. According to McGillis, if Pride Nights are merely one-offs that essentially give the LGBTQ+ community one night to feel welcome at NHL arenas, they’re akin to box ticking. It was a particularly bad look in March 2020 when the St. Louis Blues staged their Pride Night as a viewing party during a road game. Though the act was more tone deaf that malicious, it essentially swept Pride Night under the rug. It was an example of the wrong kind of allyship: performative. “To me, performative allyship is a sense of acting in a way that makes you seem like you’re an ally, like a tweet or a putting a rainbow flag as your company logo, or just saying, ‘I’m not homophobic’ or ‘I’m not racist’ but not actually doing the work to not be,” McGillis said. “Or for a corporation, organization or hockey league, it’s not doing the work to shift the culture that you know is racist or sexist or homophobic.”

McGillis calls the NHL “a reactionary league” that makes efforts to promote inclusivity if prodded but rarely leads the charge. He believes the NHL needs to have a group of speakers going from team to team, educating them on issues rather than just stamping the calendar with Pride Nights. According to Davis, the NHL plans to expand its efforts now that the executive inclusion council has formed. “The idea of amplifying any particular group and educating and helping audiences to understand and normalize things that people don’t seem to understand are normal, it’s part of what every organization, every sports organization should do and indeed what we are doing and why we do it,” Davis said. “However, if you stop there, then it is what I call ‘diversity theater,’ and it is the flavor of the month…Pride Night, like any other night, is one tool in a toolkit of many things that you have to do to build awareness, exposure and impact over time. If you just stop short of celebration, and you don’t go deep in terms of education, in terms of leadership, in terms of engagement, then in fact it is just that, performative.”

The NHL is at least slowly showing evidence of a commitment to inclusivity. The larger systemic problem arguably comes from major junior, in which athletes spend years together, soaking up similar ideologies with very few external influences. McGillis believes hockey has a three-tier problem right now, with culture trickling down from the pros to major junior to youth hockey. Each generation idolizes and emulates the older one, and major junior is the biggest problem because, unlike NHLers, the major-junior athletes are highly accessible for the younger age group – while still carrying a degree of celebrity status. If those athletes’ values are conformist, racist, homophobic or sexist, they get passed down to the next generation again and again.

That’s why a crucial next step for inclusivity must come from junior hockey, which, according to Allain, is the most “closed” system in the hockey world. “There’s just such a suspicion of anyone who has any academic interest in hockey,” Allain said. “We’re viewed with profound suspicion. We’re not given access to players. We’re not allowed to talk to people. I completed what I think was one of the largest studies of the Canadian Hockey League. I did this for both my masters and PhD, so it stretched over 10 years. I couldn’t get a meeting with the CHL when I was done.”

Perhaps major junior is attempting to change, however, starting with the OHL. In July 2020, it hired Rico Phillips as director of cultural diversity and inclusion. All forms of inclusivity fall under his umbrella, including LGBTQ+. If major junior is ready to move beyond a Pride Night here or there and commit to real education, the work will start with Phillips. It is, however, still in its infancy. He wants to make sure the league’s next major LGBTQ+ initiatives go beyond the performative.

As he worked to get a pulse of the league’s approach to diversity in his first several months on the job, it was easy to find players of color among former OHLers who could share their experiences. It was much harder to find gay athletes who were out and ready to share their experiences. What Phillips has been able to do is speak to all 20 OHL teams on virtual calls about the league’s diversity policies. “We’re looking to create dialogue and further educate the players and those of us from the internal side of things about initiatives with LGBTQ+ and platforms and make sure we have a welcoming atmosphere so that everybody, whether it’s a player or someone in the front office, feels welcome and that their sexual orientation has very little to do with feeling comfortable,” Phillips said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to promote.”

Phillips’ work with the OHL will serve as a form of pilot project, and we can expect to see similar positions filled in the WHL and QMJHL relatively soon, ensuring all of major junior ramps up its LGBTQ+ inclusivity. One early and attainable goal, according to Phillips: catch up to what the NHL is doing so that players graduate from major junior at least displaying standards of inclusion that match the NHL’s. “These 15- to 20-year-olds, it’s the first time most of them are out of their homes and living with billet families,” he said. “They’re on their own in abnormal circumstances. These are some of the most trying times of their lives. They’re learning the most about who they are during the same period of time. What we’re hoping to do is offer opportunities for these players to get to know each other on more than just the surface of being players and create different types of allyship and bonds among the group.”

SOLUTIONS

Slowly, like cruise ships trying to turn, the largest hockey organizations in North America are making efforts to promote inclusivity. But how can they bridge the gap between performative allyship and true allyship? It starts with trying to change people’s perspectives on what it means to be queer in hockey – and not just shut out the haters, as the haters, sadly, represent a large population of the hockey demographic. As MacDonald puts it, trying to influence the haters is the tougher road but ultimately the more gratifying one. If you can help change the perspectives of just a fraction of them, the game will become more inclusive.

One way to do that is through a role model who straddles the traditional hockey community and the LGBTQ+ community, such as San Jose Sharks right winger Kurtis Gabriel, who has become a celebrated example for how the straight-white-male demographic should approach allyship. It’s not just wearing the pride tape to check the box. He started out doing just that but, upon being singled out for it in 2019, realized he had to take his commitment much further, began educating himself on LGBTQ+ issues and became a true activist.

He identifies the NBA as a league in which the players have significant power and are more comfortable using their influence than NHLers are, but he thinks the NHL is gradually trending in that direction, too. He believes hockey’s next step is about being willing to get uncomfortable in the name of human decency. “I approach hockey that way, everyone approaches their career that way, and I just think we need to take that approach to these human-rights issues,” Gabriel said. “Because we’re all human, and we all have an obligation to contribute to them and speak up for people that are oppressed and basically just treated terribly. So that’s where I would start. You’ve got to get uncomfortable. It’s not going to be easy, but you’ve got to take time out of your day.”

According to McGillis, the next step to stimulate that leap in allyship is to begin educating people in the game from the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom, meaning at the grassroots, major junior and NHL levels. The best way to do that is to unlock the doors and let the actual experts help out. That means allowing for academics to contribute their ideas and share the findings of their research and countless interviews with closeted members of the queer hockey-playing community. “The leagues need to be more open to hearing critiques and having people who are outside the leagues come in and speak with players, deal with players,” Allain said. “The more differences infused into the league, the better.”

Applying that philosophy, McGillis began working on a project – a big one – in 2020. It involved creating a network of academics providing educational modules that could be reproduced and used by various hockey leagues, from the junior levels to pro leagues.

The modules covered topics such as homophobia, masculinity, misogyny, mental health and many more. The work was outsourced and organized by McGillis, meaning it would be a turnkey operation for leagues using it. But after he worked for months developing the idea with the Ontario Hockey Federation, the organization overseeing all major hockey leagues in the province, the OHF abruptly pulled out, citing COVID-19 complications, in a document sent to all the prospective academics which was obtained by The Hockey News.

It was a devastating blow to what McGillis expected would start a wave of progress in organized hockey. “This program had four stages of humanizing issues through town-hall discussions followed up by academic modules that were put together by the top academics in these fields,” he said. “Some are hall of famers of these respective fields in sport culture. And I put an all-star team together. We’d brought people in who study gaming and different things so that we made it engaging for youth hockey players all the way up to adults. We found a way that was not your typical boring module.”

McGillis was and still is extremely confident that the program has mainstream appeal that can be applied across hockey and even to other sports. What he needs is an organization willing to take that leap. It could’ve been the OHF. It could be the NHL. It’s a matter of being willing to make that stretch and get a little bit uncomfortable.

If that happens, and a major hockey organization goes beyond performative allyship, there’s no telling what strides the sport will make toward LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the years and decades to come. 

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