The Sunday Edition

A gay Canadian referee on why homophobia almost drove him out of professional hockey

Andrea "Dre" Barone has loved playing hockey since he was a little kid. But the sport has not always loved him back. He has been subjected to abusive homophobic comments, which first left him feeling bruised but then inspired him to fight homophobia in the locker room and on the ice.

Instead of hanging up his blades and whistle, Andrea Barone took aim at the bullies

Andrea "Dre" Barone was the first openly gay man in professional hockey (Submitted by Andrea Barone)
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Hockey has been at the centre of Andrea Barone's world since he began skating as a tiny child.

As a young man, he became a referee with the East Coast Hockey League and was public about his orientation. But when a coach who was unhappy with one of his rulings hurled abusive homophobic comments at him, he almost called it quits. Almost.

He rallied and has become a change-maker from within the sport. He spoke to The Sunday Edition guest host Kevin Sylvester about the experience. Here's part of their conversation.

How would you have characterized the culture of those locker rooms when you were a kid? 

It was never finger pointing, mainly because nobody really knew anyone that was gay. And if they did, they didn't really talk about it at the rink. So what I call casual homophobia and those slurs were the norm.

When you were starting to ask yourself the questions, how old were you? 

I started to think of guys the way you usually think of girls when I was 13 or 14. And it scared the hell out of me. I just repressed those thoughts. Being gay wasn't even an option in my mind. It wasn't like, "Oh, I'm gay. No. Hide it." I was legitimately convinced that I wasn't gay and they were just passing thoughts. And then it all came to a head in my early 20s when I came out.

Andrea Barone has been forced to deal with homophobia in his work as a referee with the ECHL (Submitted by Andrea Barone)

I wonder if consciously, or subconsciously, part of the culture that you were so involved in was preventing you from asking those questions of yourself?

Oh, undoubtedly, that's it. It's something I still grapple with today, to be honest. I don't want to say it's a form of mental abuse that you also put on yourself and, you know, I have internalized homophobia that I still deal with and I'm the first to admit it. And that all stems from my upbringing around hockey and around sports and around that whole locker room culture. 

When you started to figure out that you were gay why did you stick with hockey?

At the time I was already refereeing junior hockey in Vancouver and I was at a pretty competitive level and my sights were set on the NHL at that point. I was too far down my journey to turn around. It was my passion. Hockey has been my life. I still played recreationally for fun and refereeing was taking on a life of its own.

And when I came out to my family and friends, I binge-called everyone in one day. I still remember I was in my car in Vancouver. And even to the hockey community back when I came out at 22, if people would ever ask, "Do you have a girlfriend," I would say, "No, actually I'm gay." I would address it if it came up and I didn't have any issues at all. And that's when I realized that, OK, this is a culture problem. It's not a people problem. But the problem is people make up a culture, so that's the hurdle. 

But then why is the culture itself so structurally homophobic? 

I was recently in Australia, because I do work with a charity called You Can Play, which was started by Brian Patrick Burke. Erik Dennison, a Canadian researcher at Monash University, had these fascinating studies addressing exactly the questions that we're addressing today and that question came up very often: why is there such a disconnect? Why are people okay if you come out but then if they don't come out or they don't know someone who's gay, that language is still prevalent?

And the answer was kind of surprising, because they did some studies of those between 18 and 25 who played. 80+ per cent of these players admitted to either using or hearing homophobic language within the last two weeks. Then the same question was asked to the same people, "Do you think your locker room and your supporters would be accepting to a player who would come out?" and something like 85 per cent of them said yes. So there is a disconnect there. They're using the language, yet they're saying that the environment is accepting, so they don't realize that the language is actually damaging. 

And that's the biggest hurdle, to educate them that that language actually is extremely damaging. 

What was the incident that drove you away, that left you so demoralized as a referee in the U.S.? 

It was a playoff game. And basically the most bizarre part of this whole scenario is to this day we still don't even know what it was about. It was intense but there were no controversial calls. It was just a really big game for this team and they would have been down 3-1 in the series, which means you're basically done. You've got to win four in a row. 

Barone says one of the biggest cultural hurdles is educating the hockey community about the damaging effects of words. (Submitted by Andrea Barone)

But for the last two minutes of the game, this coach was just berating me, and we know each other, everybody knows each other. And after the game in the hallway we were walking back to the dressing room and he came storming down the locker room, just basically calling me every name in the book.

I usually just completely ignore that stuff. It's like, "OK, you're just blowing off steam." I really don't care. Until he dropped a homophobic slur. And at that point I was already publicly "out." Everybody knew it wasn't a secret anymore. 

The league dealt with it in an interesting manner. You know, my bosses were really great with me. But, unfortunately, in this instance, they didn't take the high road, and they decided to just fine the coach and not suspend him.

And the reason given to me was it's an elimination game for them and if it was during the season he'd be sitting a game.

So what did you say to them when they gave you that explanation?

I can't say I was surprised. It would be really foolish and naive of me to be surprised. I know where I stand. I know where they stand. And then there's a middle ground, which is the business side. At the end of the day, we're not fooling anybody. Professional sports is a business. And I know that very very well. 

To be honest, it happened again recently. It happened at the end of December, last season. And it was addressed very differently. The coach sat two games. It was a different coach. I think there definitely was progress made there. The message got upstairs a little bit. 

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. To hear the whole interview with Andrea Barone, click 'listen' above.

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