Hockey homophobia in decline among next generation

Young male players more open to LGBTQ equality despite dressing-room culture, says UAlberta researcher.

When Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw received a one-game suspension and a $5,000 fine for hurling homophobic slurs at a referee last April, commenters pointed to the incident-and the lack of openly gay NHL players-as evidence that hockey culture continues to be intrinsically homophobic and that little is being done to change that culture.

Though the culture of masculinity in hockey may be difficult to change, many young male hockey players in Canada are more open to the idea of LGBTQ equality than is commonly thought, according to Cheryl MacDonald, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services.

"Hockey players have been taught through the ages that anything but heterosexuality or heteronormativity shows weakness, so there's that expectation in the room to act a certain way," MacDonald said. "A lot of them are quite OK with the idea of homosexuality or with lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer [people]. It's just that a lot of them feel that they can't be OK with it because certain ringleaders in the dressing room put it down."

Encouragement from an enforcer

MacDonald's doctoral research focused on attitudes toward gender, homosexuality and masculinity among male elite hockey players aged 15 to 18. Prior to that, MacDonald had explored the notion of masculinity in elite hockey from a gender studies perspective. A longtime fan, she was starting to think she should move on from hockey to a new area of research when a conversation with a former Edmonton Oilers tough guy changed her mind.

"I ended up talking with Georges Laraque and I asked him what he thought was important to be studying in ice hockey, and he said homophobia," MacDonald said. "He said there were a lot of gay men in the NHL-probably at least one on every team-but that no one knew who they were, and that's why it was important to be doing this kind of work."

Free public lecture

Understandings of Gender & Sexuality and Attitudes Towards Homosexuality Among Male Major Midget AAA Ice Hockey Players in Canada

Cheryl MacDonaldThursday, Jan. 19, 5 p.m.Room 7-152 Education North Building

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MacDonald surveyed almost a hundred Major Midget AAA hockey players as well as coaches and team managers on their attitudes toward homosexuality and the idea of manliness in the sport. She found that, although they were susceptible to the kinds of cultural influences and personal experiences that are driving acceptance of LGBTQ equality at large, hockey players are accustomed to functioning in a hyper-masculine environment and act accordingly.

"I think that hockey, unlike a lot of other sports, involves a lot of compartmentalization-hockey players have highly regulated lives in terms of where they can do things and with whom they can do them and who expects what of them in those different contexts," MacDonald said. "For example, hockey players for the most part understand they can have a fist fight on the ice but they can't do that on the street because there are repercussions, so they have become really good at understanding different contexts of their lives."

She added that some players admitted to not knowing much about or understanding sexual difference and were open to the possibility of change in their attitudes.

"A lot of them also said that eventually they'd get used to it. They'd never had a gay teammate, at least not an openly gay one, but they knew that whether they liked it or not, it would eventually become normal and everyone would get along."

Just locker-room talk?

MacDonald said the entrenched masculinity and sexism of hockey culture also presented challenges to her as a female researcher. She had to rely on male contacts within the hockey community to vouch for her to get players to talk, and found some of them deemed certain kinds of public utterances more acceptable than others.

"In their interviews, they talked about how they made a lot of jokes about being gay; they also said they talked sexually about girls and women all the time. When I got to their social media, there were lots of sexist jokes about women, but there was hardly anything about homosexuality. So it was interesting that in the context of the locker room, homonegativity and sexism against women are both acceptable, but on social media, for whatever reason, they know homonegativity is off the table but sexism against women is OK."

MacDonald plans to continue her research on heterosexism and homonegativity in hockey during her time with iSMSS, and hopes that it will translate into both policy and practical applications to help build inclusive sporting communities.

"The cool thing about my work is that I can make intellectual contributions to theories and research on masculinity and sexuality in ice hockey, but then groups like You Can Play and Pride Tape can use my work to inform how to be more effective in the community," MacDonald said. "Ontario has trans-inclusive athletic policies. We need way more provinces to have those policies, and my work can actually help them decide what's important and what their policies should include."