Gay female Olympic hockey players are increasingly comfortable coming out – and that’s great

Adam Proteau
Charline Labonte (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Charline Labonte (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

As someone who has regularly covered elite women’s hockey over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing snide remarks about the sport from other journalists. If I wasn’t getting an arched eyebrow from some crusty old colleague who unfairly wanted to compare the quality of hockey to men’s hockey, I heard “jokes” about how all the women who succeeded at the highest level of their chosen sport were all lesbians, butchy, abrupt and unfeminine.

Of course, I knew how idiotic all that garbage was. I knew there were straight and gay female players from all walks of life, and I knew they were as friendly and multifaceted as any other group of people. I knew how that hateful mindset said everything about the anger and confusion a head and heart must be entangled in to arrive at those baseless conclusions, and said nothing about the targets of that hate.

But what bothered me most wasn’t each individual bonehead who was compelled to quietly reveal their bigotry to me. Rather, I was troubled to think female players would have to stay in the closet for the years and decades to come as irrational loathing was passed down from one homophobic generation of backward people to another. I could see how careful players on the Canadian or American women’s national team were when discussing their sexuality and I fully understood why. When you could leave a rink or a media scrum without having to worry about the very essence of your soul being judged and challenged by people who didn’t know you, why wouldn’t you do that? Keeping your private life to yourself was the best way to keep a semblance of order in your day-to-day existence.

However, as society has moved rapidly to accept gay people and give them the full spectrum of human rights to which they’re entitled, that sea change has extended into the hockey world. And it’s absolutely wonderful to see these incredibly accomplished women of hockey speak out with pride and confidence about who they really are.

To wit: Canadian national team goaltender Charline Labonte has written an inspirational first-person story in which she describes her life, her hockey journey and her girlfriend (Canadian Olympic speedskater Anastasia Buscis). The 31-year-old, who won three Olympic gold medals in a playing career that ended after the 2014 Sochi Games, made it clear that, although she was always open with her teammates, even the dressing room culture in the women’s game – which has been understanding and accepting even as the world around it failed to do the same – had room to evolve and improve.

“Just like everywhere else our team had gays and straights, just like we had brunettes and redheads,” Labonte wrote. “Everyone on my team has known I’m gay since I can remember and I never felt degraded for it. On the contrary, my sport and my team are the two environments where I feel most comfortable. The subject of homosexuality was never taboo with us. We talk and laugh about it like everything else. I feel privileged to live and be myself in an environment like this because I know that just a few years ago this topic was never a part of the conversations in the locker room.”

Labonte isn’t the only prominent and successful female hockey player to recently reveal to the public who she is. A couple weeks ago, longtime Canadian national team teammate Jayna Hefford talked to the Vernon Morning Star about having a baby with her partner, former U.S. Olympic hockey team member Kathleen Kauth.

“(I)t’s been the best year of my life, having (baby) Isla and the challenges of being involved with doing that and playing (for the national team),” Hefford said. “But (the team was) on board from the very beginning in terms of supporting this crazy year.”

These types of heartwarming stories are what I want to show to every self-involved quarter-wit who says “who cares?” when I make a comment about sexuality in hockey or write a story about a terrific organization like the You Can Play Project.

You know who cares? These people care. These people, who’ve been repressed and marginalized and made to deal with an unnatural shame foisted on them by unenlightened ogres, they care. When anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, puts out a gay-friendly message, we’re demonstrating to those people that what was acceptable in the past when it comes to gay rights no longer is acceptable. And the results of that persistence and insistence in sharing such a message leads to people like Hefford and Labonte feeling comfortable sharing with the world what their closest friends and family have long known.

That’s who cares. That’s why it’s important.

And that’s why I’ll always encourage people to be honest and proud. If you’re gay, you don’t owe heteros like me a damned thing. You owe it to yourself to be happy. To hell with the dwindling-in-number dinosaurs; they’re destined to be laughed at in sociology books and documentaries detailing how truly awful our species can be to those who differ from the majority.

Because more and more of us are speaking out, the only shame that applies in this discussion belongs to those who still haven’t learned what the rest of us accept and embrace as a self-evident truth: it’s hard enough to be ourselves and love another human being without some reprehensible oaf’s logic-free morality and mirage of superiority acting as a needless burden on our backs.

And if you still haven’t come to terms with that, do the rest of us a favor: encase yourself in glass and FedEx yourself to a museum where we can gawk at you and mock you as you so richly deserve.