Ask anyone, even those deemed most popular, and there will be a memory of some incident proving a sad reality: kids can be cruel. Kids can also be kind, stunningly so. But, even well-intentioned people (of all ages) often feel pressured to mock anything deemed “uncool”.
Casual homophobic slurs remain easy throw-away lines, especially in the world of athletics.
The Ottawa Citizen’s Saturday Observer recently recounted an uplifting example of trying to make things better: “A Gay Jock Takes Off the Mask“. It’s about Scott Heggart who always loved hockey, football and basketball, but felt marginalized by the homophobic cracks ingrained in sporting culture. Marginalized is putting it kindly. At times, so much unthinking hostility left him wrestling with suicidal thoughts.
Eventually, Heggart summoned the nerve to tell his parents and siblings he was gay. Together they established their family’s love was not defined by sexual orientation. This is what his dad, Randy Heggart, had to say to other parents:
“This isn’t about you,” Randy says to the camera. “This is about your child. They haven’t changed; it’s your perception of them. If you loved your child before you found out they were gay, that shouldn’t change … If you think you’re having a hard time, imagine how they felt.”
His inbox filled up with messages from teammates and classmates, every last one expressing respect and support.
One teammate wrote, “If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t have had the balls to do that.”
Some of Scott’s teammates apologized for previous slurs. A former football teammate apologized “on behalf of everybody” for making him “feel so uncomfortable.”
There were some nasty comments too, mostly from strangers. It was not a risk-free path. But there were fewer negative responses than one might expect.
Scott, now 21, still can’t make sense of why his teammates had seemed so homophobic, yet supported him unconditionally given the chance. He’s come to learn that “kids say stuff they don’t mean,” and just because they say anti-gay things it doesn’t mean that they “hate homosexuals.”
He says most coaches tolerate or even encourage an atmosphere where making fun of homosexuals, even for comic effect, is OK. He remembers certain coaches participating in the anti-gay banter. He hopes that sports leagues will adopt a policy of “zero tolerance” for the hurtful, chronic assaults against gays athletes, imagined and real.
Heggart has become a featured speaker at anti-bullying campaigns.
Why do all this so publicly? To try make things better.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much of a difference that type of campaign would have made to me when I was going through my stuff in Grade 8,” he says. “Campaigns like this will help teenagers accept themselves for who they are.”
Still, what is missing is for one professional football or hockey player to come out. But Scott, perhaps more than anyone, understands the challenge. “I hope I see it in my lifetime.”
There are real signs of change, including a hockey-themed message campaign called “If you can play, you can play“. Which asks people to take the following stand:
Locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free from homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation.
Is this a conversation coaches, players and parents are willing to tackle?