June 15, 2024

Creating Safe Spaces In Sport: Diversity Is Strength Conversations

Photos: Supplied by Carly Jackson, Argonauts.ca, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Carly Jackson was reflecting on her journey in coming out and found one easy indicator for her comfort with her self-expression: her haircut.

“I definitely noticed a significant change from my first year that I was out,” she told Donnovan Bennett in the CFL’s latest edition of its Diversity Is Strength Conversations series.

Jackson, now a member of the Toronto PWHL team, came out in her senior year at the University of Maine.

“I still had long hair, I still appear to be fairly feminine to maybe the average person. But I really kind of accepted myself when I cut my hair. I think the evolution of my queer journey is actually really well-documented by my haircuts.

“I had tried all these different things and I look back at old photos and there’s like the super awkward almost like puberty haircuts, even though I’m 22 it was kind of a representation of my queer journey. I really found that when I started dressing more masculine, it was just a lot more obvious for people to identify that I was a queer person. And now I run around with a mullet. I make jokes about it all the time and I talk about my queerness very openly and it’s just been a really interesting evolution from my own life and it’s been a point of empowerment and a really special connecting point that that I’ve had with people.”

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The CFL’s fourth of five instalments of the Diversity Is Strength Conversations series centres on Pride month. Bennett hosted the conversation with Jackson joining, as well as Nashville Predators’ prospect Luke Prokop and former Toronto Argonauts’ defensive back Matt Black, who now serves as the Argos’ director of team performance and player relations.

Jackson’s memories of her process of coming out led her to encapsulating the spirit of Pride month.

“There’s no timeline, everybody’s story looks different,” she said. “Everybody’s haircuts look different if you want to think about it that way. But it’s a journey. I think the most important thing is to give yourself patience, to give yourself kindness, and spread that to the people around you.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Jackson and Prokop shared their experiences of coming out in two different hockey environments, in the women’s and men’s games, respectively.

In 2021, Prokop became the first player with an NHL contract to come out. A member of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, he admitted that it’s difficult for him to fully discuss the challenges that the LGBTQ2S+ community faces, as he’s trying to work his way up to the NHL level. In October, 2023, the NHL banned all theme-night gear, which included rainbow jerseys or the use of Pride Tape in warmups. The league backtracked on the use of Pride Tape, but held to its ban of uniforms for any theme night celebrations.

I fully disagree with with the decision to stop having those nights. I think those specialty games are (a) chance for the NHL to be welcoming to every community, every race and say that ‘You’re welcome in our building, in our arena to cheer on your team,'” Prokop said. 

“It definitely is falling behind and they’ve made some mistakes. But I think what’s very special about what’s happened over the last few years is there have been players, specifically high-end players in the league speaking up about it. Connor McDavid was talking about Pride Nights and Auston Matthews. Having the players who the fans ultimately want to go and see their favourite players play, supporting them.

“Those fans, whatever community they belong to, they feel empowered by that and they want to go to the game even more now. For the men’s game, having those nights specifically, will allow people to go and enjoy their game. No matter what race they are, no matter their sexual orientation and go and enjoy their favourite team and have a great time.” 

When it comes to the CFL or any professional sports environment, Jackson and Prukop said a welcoming atmosphere is crucial for the LGBTQ2s+ community.

“Whether you’re straight, gay, queer, wherever you fall on the spectrum, I think coming from a place of love and compassion is always a really good place to start.”
— PWHL player Carly Jackson on Pride Month

“I think just celebrating people — and Pride is one of them — but just the diversity of people, whether it’s where you’re from, your culture is just who you are. I think almost hyping up authenticism and personality and individuality and the things that make you who you are,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the key to creating safe spaces and fun places to be.”

The Argos and all of their MLSE counterparts make it clear that that’s their intention through a public address announcement prior to the start of games. In his role with the Argos, Black stresses that support for the LGBTQ2S+ community is a year-round endeavour that is celebrated in June.

The Argos will host their annual Pride game on June 22. The organization is partnering with Toronto United Flag Football (TUFF) — a division of Toronto’s Gay Flag Football League — and for any ticket to the game purchased through TUFF’s promotional link will see $5 donated to TUFF.

“The priority is creating those spaces for those athletes to be themselves and to be welcomed,” Black said. 

Our partnership with TUFF isn’t about us. It’s about them. We want to support them, we want to help them. They’re providing a safe and equitable space for members of primarily the gay community to go and enjoy this game that we love. Football has done so much for me and to see organizations that are dedicated to the community, giving them a safe space where they can just be themselves. That’s so important for athletes and that’s what’s TUFF’s doing and we’re just behind them supporting them.” 

As Pride has made itself a mainstream annual celebration, there comes a challenge in not having its spirit commandeered by corporations. That’s something that Jackson and Prokop have been mindful of themselves as they become voices for their communities.

“That’s one of the main things that me and my team have worked on is just making sure that they don’t want to talk to Luke the gay hockey player. They also want to talk to Luke, the hockey player,” Prokop said.

“Having those conversations, working with brands that don’t just put up the rainbow flag for June or for Pride Month. They show support year-round. I think that’s kind of been one of the coolest parts to see, is the brands that really want to connect with you on that level and really feel like that they support you and (you) feel that that company or that brand has your back.”

Jackson encourages people who are trying to connect or think deeper on this month to come at it from a place of love and compassion.

“Whether you’re straight, gay, queer, wherever you fall on the spectrum, I think coming from a place of love and compassion is always a really good place to start,” she said. “(It) will often find you connecting with moments or spaces or a mindset of authenticity.” 

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