Andrea Barone was the first openly gay man in professional hockey — and he knew it.
In 2017, a coach charged at Barone, an ECHL referee, using a graphic, expletive-laced anti-gay slur. The incident may have hurt Barone, but so did the coach’s punishment — a mere fine.
While hockey has proven to be among the sports leaders showing support for the LGBTQ2 community, a new study conducted among semi-professional male hockey players in Australia — none of whom identified as gay or bi-sexual — revealed that 68 per cent reported teammates using homophobic slurs in the previous two weeks. Another 60 per cent reported using the slurs themselves.
Still, 82 per cent of respondents said they believe “a gay person would be welcome” on their team. More than three quarters of players said they were confident they would stop others from bullying a gay teammate, and 86 per cent said they did not think it was OK to make jokes about gay people.
The players surveyed come from 11 different countries, including 25.3 per cent from the U.S. and Canada.
The NHL is the only major pro sports league in the world in which every team hosts a Pride Night to promote awareness of discrimination against LGBTQ2 people and former NHL executive-turned commentator Brian Burke is a well-known champion of gay rights. Burke’s son Brendan revealed he was gay three months before tragically dying in a car accident.
However, the NHL has yet to have an openly gay man get drafted or play.
Similar disconnect with sexist language
Barone, who hopes to one day reach the highest level of officiating, said the most interesting part of the study was the disconnect between the players’ languages and beliefs.
“The biggest reason for not acknowledging my own homosexuality [until I was 22] was the homophobic language being used both on and off the ice which only added to the hyper-masculine culture of the sport. As a referee, that same culture knows no borders,” Barone said.
Erik Denison, a former CBC reporter turned homophobia in sport researcher, led the study out of Monash University — the largest such institution in Australia.
The study also showed similar disconnect regarding sexist language. Sixty-two per cent of players reported hearing sexist slurs and 41 per cent self-reported using the language, yet around 80 per cent did not condone jokes about women and would have no problem with a female coach.
Denison noted both sides of the coin in his research: the good news that there aren’t high levels of homophobia or sexism among hockey players, and the bad news that homophobic and sexist language is still rampant.
“The language is generally not used with any negative intent, but the problem is that [LGBTQ2] young people do not know this,” said Denison. “There is a lot of research showing young [LGBTQ2] people who are exposed to homophobic language are significantly more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm.”
Ingrained into hockey culture
Denison said he suspects that younger players learn the language from their older ones, and use it to try to fit into the existing culture.
“In order to stop the language, we need these older players to stop using this language as that’s the only way for the culture that supports this language use to change,” Denison said. “The best way to change the culture is also through recruiting captains and coaches to be champions and also role models.”
The most important reason the language needs to stop, Barone said, is that it’s harmful to LGBTQ2 teenagers, half of whom experience suicidal thoughts.
“It is more than ‘it’s just a word’ or ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ The truth of the matter is the perpetrator’s intention is irrelevant to the realities happening around the culture,” he said.