Jeff Perera looks at how sexism and homophobia in sport directly impacts heterosexual young men and boys and the need to create athletic spaces for everyone regardless of sexual orientation.
What a difference it makes when someone has your back.
It is excruciatingly difficult to face everyday moments in the game of life if not even one team mate has your back. It is not just about fitting in, it is about being supported. It is about finding a space where you can bring the best of yourself to the ice, court or field.
The principal & vice principal of Kew Beach Public School in Toronto, Canada understand that this is key. Inspiring and nurturing leadership and true team spirit is a key focus for this school with a strong athletic drive. After seeing how I addressed the impact of gender-inequality in sports and academic life during an It Starts With You presentation, they invited me to speak to their teachers and Grade 4-6 students. We discussed how it’s not just women and the LGBT community impacted by sexism and homophobia in sports, but that heterosexuals males are directly affected as well.
I like to go around the room during my White Ribbon workshop or presentations and, as an icebreaker, ask folks of any age the question “Name something you like and do not like about being a boy/man or a girl/woman?” Some of the girls discussed how they hate being teased or called names for playing sports, and that there aren’t enough paths that lead to a professional career in most sports for women. The boys will share that they don’t like the ultra-competitive nature amongst boys when it comes to playing sports. It’s all about winning at all costs vs just having fun, which leads to hyper-aggressive behaviour, cheating and name-calling.
The language used by some within sports culture is a great insight into how narrow ideas of gender are used as weapons to police men and boys, regardless of sexual orientation. In competition and struggle, when trying to incite anger in an opponent as well as bring out the best in a teammate, the quickest go-to for many is to challenge their manhood. This Man Up culture, having to constantly assert and prove your manhood is the silent weapon heard ’round the world. Many young men and boys (men of any age really) will resort to calling you a ‘fag’ or chant “do you have the balls?” or “I’ma make you my bitch” during competition…all in the name of fun…of course.
I’ve previously referred to this in a previous Higher Unlearning as the Invisible Gun of Manhood: the searing impact that taunting and reinforcing ‘Man Up’ philosophy has on men, and in turn everyone.
When talking to young men and women, boys and girls, I use images like the following to show how these pressures impact grown, professional and presumably heterosexual male athletes in the world of hockey.
First: Chris Pronger.
When the Philadelphia Flyers came to play the Chicago Blackhawks, here is how the Chicago Tribune and fans greeted Flyers leader Chris Pronger:
photo from Chicago Tribune
As you may or may not know, this is not the outfit Pronger plays hockey in. The image has Chris photoshopped with a figure skater. The insult here is clear, as the most effective way to insult a male is to call his manhood into question and feminize him. Think of not just the impact this has on women and girls watching hockey, but on men and boys to never be seen as a sissy or a (enter sexist/homophobic term here).
Second: the Sedin Brothers.
Photo from Primitive Puck
Daniel and Henrik Sedin are twin brothers and playmakers for the Vancouver Canucks. Their approach to the game is more about the skill but less on force and physicality, which is seen by some as not ‘manly’ (i.e. above meme). They are lovingly referred to as the ‘Sedin Sisters’ by opposing fans. Former player, head coach, general manager and NBC commentator Mike Milbury called the Sedin twins ‘Thelma and Louise’. Milbury has a history of comments like this, such as how folks against fighting work towards a “pansification” of hockey, encourages less physical players to “hit ‘em with your purse” and that Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma “should have taken off his skirt and gone over there” during a screaming match.
Third: Sidney Crosby.
Man Up culture enforces that you don’t show emotion, hurt, mental or physical pain: so going to a doctor is out.
Walk it off. Shake it off.
When Crosby got rocked into the boards and suffered a concussion, his reaction should have been ‘I need to get off the ice, I need to stop playing for a while. This is my future, I want to live a long, healthy and engaged life.” A lifetime of Man Up culture must have shouted at him internally to get back in the game. I explain to kids how your skull’s thickness is the width of 2 pennies, and we are not invincible. We are human, we hurt and can get hurt…this is not a sign of weakness. There is a line between showing determination and playing through pain and ignoring something that needs urgent attention. When players face a potential injury however, some fellow players and fans will shower homophobic slurs, demand they get off the ground, ‘stop acting like a girl’ and man up. For some pro-athletes, going to see the team doctor like getting spayed or neutered. If this impact can be felt all the way up to arguably the best hockey player in the world (who’s position in the line up shouldn’t be in jeopardy) imagine the visible and invisible pressures on the young man or boy on your street?
Toughen up. Man Up.
The world of professional and amateur hockey is a endurance test for the mind, body and soul. The gruelling Stanley Cup tournament is a quest unlike any other for a championship in sport. Yes, NHL hockey’s a tough sport, and that means it’s not a sport for those who aren’t ready for the challenge. But what does gender and sexual orientation have to do with being tough? What kind of tough are we referring to? Physical grit, battle-ready, mental focus and pure unfiltered determination: are these qualities only found when you are a super-hetero-macho-manly-man? Are these not wonderful qualities of character for any man or woman?
Policing young men into the idea that grit and character is possible only via an impossible standard of manhood is the problem. Saying those who are ‘not tough’ are comparable to LGBT people or Women is the problem.
Recently New Jersey Devils player Cam Janssen made remarks on a online talk show regarding his style of play, and idea of how to compete to win. This SB Nation article has the video
Janssen: “There’s some shit-talkin’ that goes down that pisses some people off. There’s a lot of personal shit, man, like, guys know personal shit. … You wanna get in people’s heads to get them off their fuckin’ game and don’t get me wrong, you don’t wanna go too deep with shit because we all have our issues here. Let’s be honest.”
Host: “But if the guy was suckin’ cock four weeks ago, you’re gonna let him know about it?”
Janssen: “Oh, if he’s suckin’ cock, he’s gettin’ his ass kicked.” [laughter]
Comments like these put gay male players feverishly trying to hide who they are in their place. Comments like these place that gun of manhood firmly to the temple of heterosexual male players and puts them in their place. It takes a role model to step up, especially in a world where there are ZERO openly gay athletes in team contact sport.
Enter the Burke family.
Meet Brian Burke, considered one of the Alpha Men of the world of professional hockey. A ‘man’s man’ who likes an aggressive, tough style of play.
I mean…look at that face…
CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
Here are his sons Brendan and Patrick
At 6’4″ the strapping young athletic Brendan aspired to play the sport his father was synonymous with. In 2007 however, he had something to finally tell his dad, the icon of toughness, the face of suck-it-up-buttercup play.
“Dad, I’m Gay.”
Imagine what raced in his head, imagine what horror await young people worldwide after revealing this to a loved one, a parent, nevermind the outside world. Brian’s response? “This won’t change a thing.”
What a difference it makes when someone has your back.
Of course, when that someone is your father, how much more an impact is had. The powerful story of Brendan coming out, how his family and the Miami hockey world embraced him, was shared in 2009 by John Buccigross on the ESPN website and is a MUST READ.
“Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn’t accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn’t come out because I’d be fired or ostracized. People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn’t all homophobic & that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are.”
— Brendan Burke
Months after coming out to the world, Brendan died in a car accident. Brian’s other son and Brendan’s brother Patrick wrote this moving piece after saying that men, gay and straight, needed to work together to end the hate. Now. Brian and Patrick continue the work. If you can play, You Can Play.
Created to honour the memory of Brendan, the sitestates “The You Can Play Project is about playing a game – any game – and winning. Winning because athletes are allowed to be all the things our parents taught us to be growing up. Honest. Dedicated to achieving goals. Hard working and full of competitive spirit. It’s tough to be those things when a player is keeping a secret. Teams get better results, and athletes are better, when they can be honest and open about who they are…It’s time to talk about sports and it’s time for us to create change. It’s one of the last bastions of society where discrimination and slurs are tolerated. It doesn’t have to be this way. “
Photo from Yahoo Sports.
In this interview with TV Ontario’s The Agenda, Brian spoke with Piya Chattopadhyay saying “In my mind, the notion that you can’t be a hard nosed guy that plays a violent sport if you are gay, that’s silly to me”. Brian also shares that the costs of this issue for young men include addictions, poor academic effort, depression and that suicides are just the ‘iceberg’ and only what we see on the surface regarding a much more larger issue under the surface. So Patrick and Brian work to make the playing surface open to all. Watch the interview below.
Reaching out to folks, showing them the way, growing allies and role models is a team effort we can all play a role in. When we work together to create a space where people can be free to be who they are, where they work, live, study…imagine how that can only benefit us all?
So, which side are you on? Time to truly separate the men from the boys…