Of Rink Rebels and Heroes
It’s the poignant story of a teenage hockey player who is struggling with being gay. Paul Rellinger tells the story of a kid named Ryan, who “…strongly believes his life would be at risk — either by his own hands, or his teammates,” if he came out.
His fears may be warranted, but what he may not know is the remarkable power he holds. If he chooses to come out, that next step of his could shake the hockey world well beyond Northumberland. We are not given to hyperbole, either.
Brendan Burke made that difficult decision years ago and was seen as a hero. Burke left some pretty big skates to fill and Ryan may come to realize that they fit him perfectly. But no matter what he decides, we’ll be rooting for him.
Teen Fears for Life if Outed
August 18, 2011
NORTHUMBERLAND — Sometimes one word can hurt more than any bodycheck can.
Ryan felt sick to his stomach after he made it to the bench after a bone-crushing check. But the pain he felt throughout his body was numbed by the one word which brought on the nausea: fag.
“After he hit me, he skated away and called me a fag,” said Ryan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I knew I was gay, but he didn’t. But in sports, that’s what guys do. They call each other names.”
The fact is no one knows Ryan is gay. No one — not his mom, and especially not his dad. If not for a close-knit, anonymous support group he visits, his story would not be in print today.
The young teen from Northumberland County fears if he came out, not only would he be ridiculed and embarrassed, but he strongly believes his life would be at risk — either by his own hands, or his teammates.
“The guys on my team talk, I’ve heard them,” said Ryan. “They say stuff like, ‘you’re such a fag’ and ‘I hate faggots.'”
Ryan recounts one time after a game where a teammate shared his disgust for homosexuals.
“He said, ‘If I ever meet a faggot, I’ll (expletive) kill him,'” said Ryan.
That’s when Ryan made the decision never to come out with his sexual orientation. He believes his love of the game and his sexuality may never co-exist.
The sporting world is greatly lagging behind when it comes to accepting gays into the locker room, according to Dylan Demarsh.
Demarsh, who is the communications and research coordinator for PARN Community AIDS Resource Network which serves Peterborough and Northumberland County, said from a young age, children are told girls do this, and boys do this.
“When you get into sports, it’s entrenched into you,” said Demarsh. “Hockey for example is a game for rough, tough and muscular traits.”
But Ryan has muscles and performs at a high level. That must mean he’s not gay. But he is. Ryan has known for some time of his sexuality preference, but his love of the game and the stigma attached has forced him to keep his mouth shut.
“I am unhappy,” said Ryan. “All the guys have their girlfriends at the game, cheering and yelling for them. I don’t get to have that. And I probably never will.”
Ryan doesn’t have a boyfriend, and believes he can never have one as long as he plays hockey. He added although he thinks men on his team are attractive, he doesn’t look at them that way in the locker room.
“At the rink, and in the dressing room, it’s all hockey business,” said Ryan. “Yes, guys on my team are attractive, but I see these guys and notice them when they are outside the arena also. That’s when I notice them. I would never date any of them, and just because I am gay doesn’t mean I stare at them in the dressing room and drool.”
Ryan is determined to keep playing hockey.
According to Demarsh, the sporting world is losing too many talented athletes because they are gay.
“We’re losing a lot of athletes and kids are leaving sports because they don’t feel comfortable in that atmosphere,” said Demarsh. “Sports should be an outlet for athletes to be free and enjoy an hour or two of the sport they love.”
Ryan remembers an awkward moment when one player once asked if he had a girlfriend. He quickly stated no, and was met with accusations of being gay.
“They weren’t seriously accusing me of being gay, but because I didn’t have a girlfriend, that’s what guys do — they called me a fag,” said Ryan.
Demarsh said kids often use homosexual slang when perceiving something as lame.
“The fact is that’s a slur, and you can’t throw words around like that without expecting someone to get hurt,” said Demarsh.
And those words hurt Ryan, game after game. But there is hope for Ryan, and players like him.
“Attitudes are starting to change but if it’s going to continue to change, it has to start at the top with parents and coaches having the right attitude,” said Demarsh. “It’s going to take brave people to evoke change and from bystanders who are brave enough to stand up and say no, that’s wrong. Gay people can’t win this fight by themselves, they need allies.”
Change is going to come from everybody, according to Demarsh. He added bullying and homophobia are dangerous and can lead to risky behaviour by its victims.
“They are driven underground and can turn to drugs, suicide and other types of harm,” said Demarsh.
Ryan will admit he has sat in his bedroom with no one home, with a rope in his hand and wondered if ending it all was the answer.
“Sometimes the pain is too great, but I know if I wasn’t here anymore that wouldn’t really help the situation either. I have to be stronger than that,” said Ryan.
Demarsh said players have to feel comfortable and need to have someone to talk to.
“While playing sports, athletes may never become comfortable about coming out,” said Demarsh. “But it’s very important for them to know there are safe places where they can feel comfortable talking to someone about their fears, thoughts and feelings openly and safely.”