Ending homophobia in hockey starts in the locker room, Edmonton researcher says
'We need to ... talk to them about it, as opposed to telling them that they're wrong or they're ignorant'
Though attitudes toward homosexuality in hockey are changing, discrimination has not been cleansed from the locker room, concludes a new study.
"My project is based on this idea that male hockey players have to be very macho, aggressive, competitive and heterosexual," said study author Cheryl MacDonald, a newly appointed post-doctoral researcher at the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services.
"They're all expected to be very manly and prove their masculinity amongst one another. But at the same time they are open to the idea of homosexuality more than perhaps their parents' generation, and certainly more than their grandparents' generation."
MacDonald's doctoral research focused on attitudes toward gender, homosexuality and masculinity among male elite hockey players aged 15 to 18.
Over the course of several months, MacDonald surveyed nearly 100 Major Midget AAA hockey players — and their coaches and team managers — on their attitudes toward homosexuality and the idea of manliness in the sport.
She conducted the research during her time as a doctoral candidate in social and cultural analysis in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University.
I wanted to see what the players had to say about it instead of reading about it in books.- Cheryl MacDonald, study author
"I wanted to confirm that [homophobia] still exists as prominently as we seem to think, because some scholars in my field are starting to argue that homo-negativity is on the decrease," said MacDonald in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"But there is a lot of pushback against that so I wanted to see what the players had to say about it instead of reading about it in books."
MacDonald worked with a total of six teams, and spent up to two weeks with each group of players, attending games, practices and tournaments.
Machismo in the locker room had a big influence on how accepting players were of LGBTQ athletes. Players still believe a lack of masculinity denotes weakness, she said.
"It didn't matter if you were gay, as long as you could function in the team environment," MacDonald said of her interviews with players. "That meant you had to be good at hockey. You had to be able to take a joke. You have to be masculine and then they really didn't care if you were gay.
"So in other words, as long as you don't act 'gay' — the way they see gay as the stereotypical homosexuality — and you could put a puck in the net, they didn't really care."
'What they talk about when they're alone'
Though young male hockey players may not be entirely averse to the idea of homosexuality, many had reservations and immature notions about the potential of having an openly gay teammate, MacDonald said.
The biggest fear players had about the prospect of having a gay teammate was sharing the locker room with someone who had "come out."
"They were scared that if the teammate saw them naked, that he would be attracted to them," said MacDonald, who will be speaking about her research at a public lecture on campus, Thursday.
"This is the level that the players were working on. I think we need to take that seriously and talk to them about it, as opposed to telling them that they're wrong or they're ignorant."
'It's a still hypermasculine environment'
It was hard to get players to talk openly about their views. MacDonald had to rely on male friends and coaches to vouch for her.
But after spending hours at the rink, she gained their trust, and had some surprisingly frank conversations while gaining a "good sense of what they talk about when they're alone."
Through her surveys and interviews, it was clear to MacDonald there was a contrast between the players' behaviour on the ice and off.
While many would use gay slurs and discriminatory language in the locker room, most understood that their words were offensive and would be unacceptable outside the team environment.
The young men were open to change, MacDonald said. She hopes her continuing research will shed light on practical ways to make the sport more inclusive.
"Although it's a still hypermasculine environment and there are certainly aversions to homosexuality, the outlook is not that bad."
With files from Alex Zabjek