Playing on open ice

In Sports /

By Shannon Baldwin

Pulled away from a busy New York City Italian street festival by her father, Emily Rose Galliani Pecchia was told that her older brother had come out to her parents as gay. She was outraged, refusing to even look at him for the rest of the trip. At 12 years old, she wondered, “How could he do this to us?” – a devout Catholic family.

But eventually her rage turned to fear, as she began to realize that she too was gay. While her parents attempted to be supportive of her brother, Galliani Pecchia could see their confusion and how upset they actually were about him coming out. So for the next four years she hid her sexuality, fearing her parents’ reaction as she knew what to expect.

At 16, she became fed-up with hiding from her peers and came out in her school’s newspaper, but it would be two more years before she told her parents.

“It’s easier to talk about being gay with people you don’t love.”

Galliani Pecchia says this is common for most of her gay teammates on the Ryerson women’s hockey team. With about 30 per cent of the team being gay, many of the girls feel safer talking about it with teammates than with their own families.

Monique Cornett, a second-year forward, is one of those girls. But it wasn’t just her parents’ reaction that influenced her decision to wait to come out until the summer before she started university. Growing up in a small town, with only 500 people in her high school, it was common for her to hear homophobic slurs. And because she played sports and “was kind of butch,” many of her peers had already assumed she was gay before she had even had the chance to accept it herself.

“Everyone knew I was gay before I did. But I didn’t want to prove people right,” says Cornett.

Prior to coming to Ryerson, Cornett says she was unaware of the large gay community, and simply “got lucky.” However, the level of trust and openness between her and her teammates did not always exist.

Last year the team was very young and was made up of primarily first-year players. Many of them were still used to throwing around gay jokes or remarks in the locker room. Cornett calls this “the junior team mentality” that rookies bring with them to varsity teams.

“It wasn’t surprising that the girls who did use the slurs were from small towns like mine. The only difference was that I was extra sensitive to the language while they were extra desensitized,” she says.

But assistant coach Michelle Janus quickly put a stop to it. She says that there can’t be a divide in the locker room, especially on a team with such a high percentage of gay players, because how they interact in the change room will affect how the girls play on the ice.

“They could easily have a total clusterfuck of a game over something like that,” says Janus.

First-year goaltender Brianna Tremblay says those issues in the change room are gone. But if there are younger players on the team that she’s noticed feel uncomfortable showering with the gay girls, she says they will respect their personal space and boundaries.

“We don’t jump in with girls that are uncomfortable and force them to shower beside us.” Cassandra McNichol, one of the oldest players on the team, says that she and some of the girls are so comfortable with one another now that they’re able to joke around in the shower – a much different experience than when she first started playing varsity hockey in 2008, when the mentality about being gay on the team was “don’t flaunt, don’t tell.”

For Galliani Pecchia, her biggest fear after coming out was showering with teammates, because she was afraid they would think she was checking them out.

“When I’m at hockey, I’m at work. It’s not about sex; it’s about being an athlete.” But inner-team dating does happen.

Last season, Cornett dated someone on the team. But she says “it was not the greatest thing [she’s] ever done.” As soon as they broke up, it was almost impossible to catch her breath and get much-needed space because whether it’s training, playing or partying, teammates see each other every day.

Last year, the team would always go to straight bars. But now they’ll also break off and tour Church Street. And it’s not just the gay girls going to gay bars. Many of the straight players say it’s fun to hit up the gay bars with their teammates, and since they always go to a bar that’s a mix of gay guys and girls, rather than just lesbian bars, some of the straight girls’ boyfriends have been known to tag along.

“We don’t drag them to gay bars and they don’t drag us to straight bars,” said Cornett.

Tremblay thinks having the ability to go to both gay and straight bars without judgment can also be very helpful for some of the girls who are still figuring out their sexuality.

Before she had come out, Tremblay says girls from other teams would yell out gay slurs to her on the ice and “it would really mess with her head.” But now that she’s out, she has become much more confident, so it doesn’t throw her off her game anymore if they call her a “dyke” on the ice.

“In hockey it’s expected that girls are going to be gay so it shouldn’t be surprising if some of them come out,” says Tremblay.

But second-year forward Melissa Wronzberg, who is straight, says even if a girl is gay, they don’t feel pressured to make any grandiose coming-out speech because the girls are so close that they usually already know.

“Brianna didn’t openly say [she was gay] because she never had to, we all just knew it. She was actually pretty quiet about her sexuality at first.”

However, that has changed quite drastically since joining the team. If you mention Brianna Tremblay’s name around her teammates, a chorus of “Trem-Gay” breaks out. It’s all in good fun and not all of them have gay nicknames, says Wronzberg.

“Brianna’s last name just works.”

While the girls on the hockey team are completely open about their sexuality, it isn’t so simple for others. One male varsity athlete at Ryerson wouldn’t be identified because although his entire team knows he’s gay, he has yet to tell his coach or certain members of his family.

“My grandmother and I are pretty close, but she would definitely freak out if she knew I was gay,” he says.

During high school, he hid his sexuality from his family and teammates and only told a couple of his closest friends. When he first came to Ryerson, he still wasn’t ready to come out and felt pressure to hook up with girls. But eventually he couldn’t take hiding his sexuality and came out to his closest friend on the team. It wasn’t until December of that year that he became open with the rest of his teammates.

While on a team road trip, a teammate recommended a bonding exercise to get to know each other better. They sat around and passed a hat with questions inside of it. He says that many of his teammates shared extremely personal things about themselves that he never would have expected. When it was his turn to speak he looked at his question, which read, “What has been your biggest struggle this past year?” Though he broke down crying as he spoke, the supportive reaction from his teammates was an extreme relief.

“I worried about [coming out] because the word fag is tossed around a lot in sports. The language doesn’t bother me anymore, but since I was in the closet at the time it made me scared to come out.”

He believes that since coming out, he and his teammates have become much closer. There are still a few guys on the team that he says are clearly uncomfortable changing and showering in front of him – but it doesn’t upset him. Most of the guys on the team are very comfortable around him and aren’t bothered in the slightest that he is gay.

“Some guys will joke around with me and slap my ass or do something like that.”

Yet even though coming out has strengthened his relationship with his teammates significantly, he still does not feel comfortable telling everyone that he is gay.

“I don’t want to be known as a gay athlete,” he says. “I don’t want that to become my shtick.'”

But the lesbians on the hockey team say the exact opposite; they strongly believe that it is important to be known as a gay athlete.

“I love it. I love it when someone says I’m a gay athlete because that’s who I am,” McNichol says.

Galliani Pecchia agrees with that sentiment. To her, it is important to advocate for being a gay athlete now in order to regularize it for others in the future.

“Eventually no one will care anymore because it’ll be old news and normal.”

Tremblay says that the number of gay slurs used on the ice has actually decreased because there’s a lot more awareness now that gay athletes are making themselves known.

“I accept who I am so I want people to know I’m gay and an athlete.”

Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this article. It’s rare that the words “gay” and “sports” are used in the same sentence. It’s really enlightening and thanks for putting the spotlight on the issue. As a person who identifes as a gay make athlete I can align with how the other gay athlete(s) feel about the difficulties of struggling with ones personal identity.

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