When I was a kid, I wasn’t really interested in sports at all. I vividly remember one Christmas when Santa left me a football and helmet under the tree, and my baby sister got an Easy-Bake oven. I wore the helmet and held that football for the obligatory Christmas morning photo-op. But after that, I was all over that Easy-Bake oven! I baked the most fabulous tiny cakes in that thing. I eventually did use the football helmet again as part of a costume for a musical review I staged in the back yard one Summer.
In High School, I was thin, dorky, nerdy and gay. The perfect target for teasing by jocks. And they did tease and taunt and bully. Gym class days filled me with absolute terror because the bullying was almost guaranteed and the gym teacher never did anything to stop it. One day when we were all piling into our next class, a few of the jocks started taunting me by calling me a fag and a fairy. But I was absolutely floored when one of the burliest football players who sat at the desk next to me told the guys to shut up and leave me alone. And miraculously they did!
That was the first time someone stood up for me in the face of homophobic bullies, and he just happened to be a top athlete in my school. It’s something I’ll never forget.
This is why I so admire what Patrick Burke and his partners and allies are doing with You Can Play, an organization created in the memory of Patrick’s openly-gay brother, Brendan, to combat homophobia in sports. Their mission is to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
Having been the target of homophobic bullying, I can imagine how hurtful and degrading it would be for a gay athlete to hear his or her teammates constantly using slurs like “fag” or “dyke” and making derogatory remarks about gay people right in front of them. Some of my fellow PuckBuddys writers who play recreational ice hockey, like Adam, have experienced this first-hand. It’s this kind of open and acceptable homophobia in sports that eventually led to the creation of gay hockey teams, like The Cutting Edges in Vancouver, Western Canada’s only gay hockey team.
After less than a year in existence, You Can Play has already had a major impact in opening a public dialogue about gay athletes and “casual homophobia” in locker rooms. NHL teams were the first to step up and embrace the project. In fact, all of the professional athletes who marched in Gay Pride parades this year so far have been NHL athletes under the You Can Play banner.
Now, I’m not a Bruins fan by any stretch. But when Zdeno Chara along with Jason Pominville from the Buffalo Sabres released the first PSA for You Can Play, I immediately recognized the power of their simple message: “If you can play, you can play.” You would be a welcome and respected member of the team no matter your sexual orientation. Ryan Kesler soon lent his support and recorded a PSA with former Canucks teammate Tanner Glass (now with Penguins, Dan Carcillo take a note) and Dustin Byfuglien from the Winnipeg Jets. Both Daniel and Henrik Sedin have also pledged their support.
But on August 1st the Canucks organization decided to officially throw their support behind You Can Play by sending Manny Malhotra, Jason Garrison and their mascot Fin to march alongside Patrick Burke and The Cutting Edges in Vancouver’s Gay Pride parade! This was the first time a professional sports club had participated in Pride, and I was fortunate and honored to have been invited by Terry Hutcheson from The Cutting Edges to join them.
Meeting Manny and Jason was a HUGE thrill for this relatively new Canucks fan. It was only a year and a half ago that I wondered if I would ever be accepted by other hockey fans while being quite obviously and openly gay. In fact, I’m proud to be endorsed by Patrick Burke as being the gayest hockey fan in his timeline on Twitter! If only that honor came with a crown. Heck, I’d even accept a tiara!
I never could have predicted back then that I would not only be blogging about hockey, but also marching in the Gay Pride parade with two Canucks players and their official mascot! I had to pinch myself and think, “is all of this real?” Am I going to wake up like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and think it was all a dream?
But watching Manny and Jason waving to the cheering crowds and getting photos taken with fans as we paraded through the streets was surprisingly emotional for me. Two worlds I never thought could live in harmony were making beautiful music that day. My heart was so full of love and happiness, and I was never more proud to be a Canucks fan.
One of my Twitter buddies, Lyndon Salas, summed it up best when he said: “I was cheering so loud for the Canucks I didn’t realize I had tears in my eyes.”
Manny, Jason and Fin probably don’t realize how their simple act of walking in a parade could touch people so deeply and emotionally. And that’s why Pride parades are still important even in Canada where gay people are fully equal under the law. It’s that yearly renewal of acceptance, tolerance, compassion and love so desperately needed in a world that is still intolerant and hateful for many.
Thank you Cutting Edges! Thank you Patrick! Thank you Manny, Jason and Fin! And thanks to the Canucks for standing up for their gay fans! It’s a day I will always remember just like the day in high school when that football player stood up for me so many years ago. #CanucksPride