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Fighting Homophobia in Hockey Must Come from the Fans as well as the League

Derek Zona at the Copper & Blue wrote a important post about the serious issue of homophobia and anti-gay bigotry in hockey today.  It is an absolute must-read. If you haven't read it, stop here, and go read it.  It is a powerful piece of writing, and it makes the strong case for the NHL and the NHLPA to take initiative in combating the bigotry of those who aren't heterosexuals.   Read the comments too, they go in depth of the complexities of the issue.

While reading it myself, one of the parts of the post really stuck out the most to me, and ultimately led me to write this post:

While it's a good sign that people at all levels in the NHL have begun to speak out, this isn't limited to professional hockey.  The anti-gay culture is pervasive throughout all levels of hockey and it's not likely to change any time soon without a giant push in the right direction from the NHL.  There are still over 15,000 near-adults playing higher-level amateur hockey in North America.  Of those, some 3,500 are playing Major Junior or NCAA Hockey.  As sure as Brian Burke is that there are gay men in professional hockey, I'm sure that there are many times that number in the amateur ranks.  Yet these kids are left on their own, far from home, far from any support system, invariably alone, a gay kid playing a sport in which gay men are reviled, living in fear of being discovered.  There is nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and nowhere to turn but inside themselves, and that loneliness and fear almost certainly impacts their on-ice performance and, to a greater extent, their careers.

With all due respect to Derek, I think the issue goes even far further than just players.  The culture not only dissuades gay players from coming out or even getting involved, but it would certainly affect those in other positions: management, trainers, coaches, and scouts among others.  And you can definitely believe it affects fans of the game at all levels.

I fully agree with his call for a top-down approach, imploring the NHL and the PA to both publicly and privately make an concerted effort to combat such bigotry.  I would like to argue that there also needs to be a bottom-up approach.  Basically, fighting this kind of hate needs to come from us, the fans, as much as it does have to come from the league, the union, and the teams.  And I believe the first step - perhaps the most important step - is something we can do by ourselves and right away.

Let me start off with an obvious statement: No one is born a hockey fan, much less a player.  We're all introduced to the sport in some way or form.  We learn about it from our families. We see it on TV. We read about it in the paper or online. We hear about it on the radio.  A friend tells us about the sport.  We go to a game and see for ourselves. And so forth.  By whatever means, we all have our own experiences that led to be hockey fans and to be fans of the New Jersey Devils.

Would we be fans of hockey, much less the Devils, if the atmosphere was not welcoming?  That there was a sense of intolerance of who we are by other fans of the team/sport?  For many, it's certainly a deal-breaker.  Why should I spend any time, money, or other resources supporting a team or being part of a fanbase that seemingly doesn't accept me for who I am?

And while I can't speak for anyone, I certainly wouldn't be.  So let me ask some difficult questions.  Why would a gay person want to play the game if the banter in the locker room is disparaging of homosexuals, as if same-sex relations are a bad thing?  How can anyone at any level of the game at any position on any team possibly think about coming out of the closet if being gay is the subject of derision and insult?

Honestly, I don't know.  Anyone who has put up with this has far more courage and tolerance of the intolerant than one can count.  What I do know is that it all contributes to an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Let me be cynical for a bit and talk about business in terms of how bad an unwelcoming atmosphere can be.  As fans, we claim to support the team. Here, I think it's fair to say that most of us support the New Jersey Devils.  Would anyone be a fan of the Devils if it wasn't enjoyable to go watch a game? No.   It is in the team's best interest to create as enjoyable of a time as possible for the people who go to games.  Yet, what does an unwelcoming atmosphere do for a minority of the people who go to games?  It would certainly keep them from coming to games, and they'll certainly tell other people to not go to games.  Given how many people know a friend, a co-worker, a roommate, a family member, or others who are gay, that's potentially a lot of people being told about said unwelcome atmosphere. That's toxic in terms of public image and by virtue of people staying away from games, it can cut into revenue.  

It's no coincidence that the Devils' pre-game announcements includes statements about how fans should see an usher if their "enjoyment of the game" is being compromised.  The Devils, like any other organization, want everyone to be welcomed.  The business is undercut when there is some kind of an unwelcoming attitude, perceived or otherwise, towards anyone.  Therefore, I don't see how anyone can honestly claim to support the Devils or any other team and be a bigot and contribute to a phenomenon that very well may hurt the Devils or any other team financially. That's not support at all.

However, I've heard the rationalizations from others about such sentiment and insults at games. "It's just juvenile." "The context isn't bigoted." "It's just banter."  "Who honestly cares, he/she is just a kid."  "They aren't using the f-word; don't be so P.C."  "It's traditional to yell Flyers/Gomez Swallows." No matter what it is, it's just an excuse that does nothing to address the problem, much less solve it.   One person may think it's just immaturity to disparage an opposing player as gay, but the person next to him or in the row or section over may feel it's an unsaid message: "Don't come here. We don't like your kind here."  Even referring the player as effeminate (e.g. Cindy Crosby - ring any bells, anyone?) or a metrosexual (e.g. Sean Avery) isn't the same thing as calling them gay - it's just close enough for certain people to pick up on that subtlety.

I don't doubt some if it based on (a lot of) immaturity, but it only furthers the unsaid message that it's bad to be gay, and that hockey/the Devils/some other sport or team isn't for gays.   That's unacceptable.

Can I claim to be so above all of this? Not really.  Do I take part in such juvenile-at-best, hateful-at-worst talk at games? No.  Of course not.  Such talk and feelings is wrong and unacceptable.  Do I always say anything about it when I hear it at games? Unfortunately, no.  I have had my own rationalizations from time to time at Devils games: "I don't want to start any trouble." "He or she isn't going to listen to me anyway."  "I didn't quite catch who said it." "It's only some kid, he'll grow out of it" "It's been a long day, can't I just watch the game and ignore this garbage?" "I can't tell thousands of people to stop yelling 'Rangers Suck' in Devils games against teams who aren't the Rangers; much say anything about Flyers/Gomez swallows."   As much as I don't approve of it and as much as I write here about how odious it is, I can't say I'm helping the situation by being silent.   Claiming that it's just the crowd and I'm not the crowd despite being among the crowd is nothing more than an excuse.

Therefore, here's my simple proposal that any one of us can do at any part of the arena at any level: speak out.

If you hear someone at a game - at the Rock, at your local rink, in your locker room - say anything disparaging or insulting involving being gay, or how the player/team is gay, or similar talk - speak out to that someone.  Let me emphasize the speaking out to that someone part.  Here's a suggested list of what to focus on if you're not sure:

  • Tell them that it's hateful.
  • Tell them that it's wrong.
  • Tell them to leave that garbage at home. 
  • Tell them that you're offended.
  • Tell them that it offends others. 
  • Tell them it paints a bad picture of the fanbase.
  • Tell them it makes them look incredibly stupid.
  • Tell them it hurts the team.
  • Tell them it hurts the sport.
  • Tell them it's just inappropriate in public.
  • Tell them to grow up.
  • Tell them to please stop saying such things.

Tell them in the stands, on the concourse, outside the arena, Tell them one-on-one, perhaps during intermission or at some point and let them know privately.  Just tell them some how, some way, something about their ignorance. Ultimately, simply speak out against the hate.

At a minimum, you can at least say you've said your piece.  It may not be much, and it's not guaranteed to stop anything.  However, the current method of sitting by and being silently disgusted isn't doing anything either.   Who knows, maybe the offender will actually listen, wisen up, and consider the man or woman nearby may be a fan or become a fan - and it's OK if they are gay.   That's the ideal and I'm not so naive to believe that such a change will happen immediately; it doesn't mean an effort shouldn't be made.

But it can be the start of something.  Again, perhaps I'm being too starry-eyed here, but people who play hockey tend to go to hockey games too.  If it is possible to firmly establish that homophobia and anti-gay bigotry is unacceptable in the stands, the people who are players or will become players could carry that attitude into the locker room and into the offices.    I know I'm reaching here, but I don't see how that's impossible logic.   My main point is that changing the culture of the fans can help change the culture elsewhere.

I'm not asking you to make a huge scene everytime you hear something.  I'm not saying you need to lecture someone.  I'm not asking you to act as a Thought Police (though I would recommend sic'ing an usher/security on anyone who doesn't stop yelling that garbage).  I'm not asking for society to completely change or for mountains to move overnight.  What I'm asking is simple: say something about someone's bigotry to their face so they know that you, as a supporter and as a person, do not approve.  Something that can be said in as little as a sentence, not even a minute long. That's all.  Certainly seems simple to me.

As much as the NHL and the union and the teams may speak out against homophobia and reach out to various gay communities (as they should) per Dereks' post, I don't think they can't fully control what gets said in the stands.  That's OK, because we do.  We are the fans who sit in those stands.  We buy the tickets, the food, the merchandise, and the privilege to watch our favorite team.  We create the atmosphere and we lead the best chants. Quite frankly, the sport isn't what it is without us.

Therefore, we can and should use our voices to police ourselves as necessary.  We should stand with those who represent and support our team regardless of who they want to sleep with.  The crowd is us, and we should take responsibility in supporting the ideal that hockey is truly for everyone who is interested in the game on any level regardless of sexuality, race, creed, class, national origin, and other categorization.  In conjunction with league and team action, the effort in reaching that ideal would be that much stronger and make it much more possible.

It may not be much, I'll at least make this simple effort and I hope that you will join me in it by speaking out against hate in hockey.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts on what else can be done by fans like myself at Devils games or any other games of other hockey teams at any level that can combat bigotry. What do you think the Devils or any team should do? I put this under Devils Issues & Views, but it really affects anyone at the amateur, minor pro, high school, junior, college, and all other levels of the game.   All the same, please leave your thoughts in the comments.