June 20, 2023

Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Sports for everyone

Supplied, Brock McGillis, Joel Horton

TORONTO — Brock McGillis and Joel Horton grew up like so many other kids, falling in love with sports and having them become a crucial part of their lives.

McGillis grew up in Sudbury, Ont., with a neighbourhood hockey rink becoming a second home to him. He excelled in the game, climbing his way up to the pro ranks as a goalie with the United Hockey League and then played in the Netherlands. He came out in 2016, becoming pro hockey’s first openly gay player.

Horton grew up as a self-described American army brat that loved the camaraderie that soccer provided. In his adult years, he found that same bond with teammates in flag football. As he grew into his identity as a gay man, he withdrew from those environments that he had initially gotten so much from.

“I won’t say I had any particular negative experiences; a lot of it was internalized,” Horton told Donnovan Bennett in the CFL’s latest instalment of its Diversity Is Strength Conversations series.

“I drew away from from team and organized sports because I didn’t feel that it was a particular safe space. That’s why I feel some of the gay leagues that I represent are so important for people to find that safe space and still get that team experience, get that camaraderie and get that ability to compete.”

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Horton is the commissioner of the National Gay Flag Football League, which now bolsters over 200 teams across the United States and Canada.

Since McGillis came out, he has become an advocate for the LGBTQ2S+ community. In January of 2022, he launched the Alphabet Sports Collective, an organization supporting LGBTQ2S+ people in hockey.

McGillis found that those rinks and teams that he loved being a part of felt less welcoming to him the older he got and the further he went in his hockey career.

“I think there were many evolutions and many shifts in my relationship with sport,” he said. “I went from being this kid that was naive and loved playing and nothing else mattered but the game, to a young adult whose sole identity was based off of being a hockey player.

“When I recognized when my identity became that it also was around the time where I start to struggle with my sexuality in a more intense way.

“It wasn’t until I was in my teens and late teens, I was like, ‘Oh, something’s different. I don’t resonate or relate to what’s being talked about in the locker room and I only resonate with a homophobic language I hear because it’s something that I’m struggling with.

“I hated going to the rink. I hated bus rides, I hated anything but being on the ice. Because it was scary and I worried about being outed or worried about losing my career. I worried about the language I’d hear that made me feel like I was bad or wrong, it was just so intense. Then it got to a point when I stopped playing that I kind of hated it. I hated sport, I hated hockey because I was probably a little resentful of how it made me feel.”

Horton had similar experiences in the sports he played. What had been comfortable as a kid became increasingly toxic as he aged. That forces adaptations.

“You really learn to become a chameleon,” he said, “and it’s more for protection, for safety. At that time, at least in my life, I did not have people who I could look to as a role model (as a) Black gay man. I didn’t see that growing up, or find people who I could say, ‘OK, I can pattern myself after this person or that person. It was a bit of a lonely experience until I did become older and started to meet more gay men, gay Black men, gay people.

“In those younger times, you just kind of learn to fade into the background, hoping…you don’t become the subject of conversation, or the focal point of whatever’s going on. It’s a bit of a weird experience.”

“You really learn to become a chameleon and it’s more for protection, for safety. At that time, at least in my life, I did not have people who I could look to as a role model (as a) Black gay man.”

— Joel Horton on the challenges of being a gay man in sports

Both McGillis and Horton are working to eliminate that atmosphere around sports and make it a more welcoming atmosphere for everyone. In an almost hourlong conversation with Bennett, they tackle the challenges in that goal and how important support and allyship is from the sporting community and society at large.

McGillis said that men’s professional sports are 30-40 years behind in terms of an openness to people in that world coming out.

“I think that’s due to locker room culture. I think that is the most prevalent aspect that keeps it behind,” he said.

“I think language is one of the biggest barriers and language leads to attitudes and behaviours that aren’t ideal. Language on the ice or field could be or can be penalized. It isn’t always, but it can be. Whereas in the locker room setting, nothing really happens.

“If you’re hearing that day after day, after day, and every time you step into a locker room, essentially, the language use tells you you’re bad, tells you you’re less than, you’re going to hide it so that people don’t think that of you because the perception would be that your teammates wouldn’t want you around, that organizations wouldn’t want to sign you, that you wouldn’t have opportunities in your sport.

“The way to evolve it, I think, is through language. First in terms of locker room settings and evolving that. I think the attitudes and whatnot need to evolve as well and I think if they did, more people would come out without that fear of losing their opportunity in their sport, their job, their profession.

“What I’m talking about is essentially the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, of everyday society. We need to push past that, where people are out and are thriving in their sports.”

“I really learned this through the murder of George Floyd. That’s when I really had the wakeup call about silence. Silence can be deafening.”

— Brock McGillis on refusing to accept oppression 

McGillis said through years of therapy, he got past that anger and resentment that he held against the culture of the sport that he loved.

“I really love sports: playing them, watching them, being a part of the culture. I love talking trades, thinking about the game and studying it,” he said. “To this day, even though it’s not my job I still work with high end athletes because I love being around it.”

As the podcast episode ended, Bennett thanked both McGillis and Horton for humanizing this issue. The best way to continue to do this is to immerse yourself in these matters and put human faces to them. To that end, Horton invited people to check out the Gay Flag Football League in Toronto and other cities in Canada.

“We have a great Flag Football League in Toronto,” he said. “Check them out, get to know some of these folks. Play for a season, join and learn for yourself what the experience is for gay athletes in Toronto and throughout Canada.”

“I think we need leagues and teams and organizations to humanize the issues and then start educating people,” McGillis added.

“Outside of that, people need to become anti-oppression. Particularly in Canada, I think we all think, ‘Well, I didn’t say that, my friend did’ or ‘I don’t feel that way, I’m polite and I’m nice to everybody.’

“I really learned this through the murder of George Floyd. That’s when I really had the wakeup call about silence. Silence can be deafening. We need to stand up and use our voice and engage with people on being intolerant of oppression and being intolerant of oppressive language. Then from a corporate perspective, whether it’s leagues or other corporations, you’re going to stand with us in the good times, we need you in the tough times. And right now is a tougher time than we’ve seen in a long time for the LGBTQ+ community.”

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