Pride in a pandemic: Athlete panel discusses weight of being LGBTQ+ in modern sports

Former NFL player Wade Davis, Canadian women's soccer national team keeper Erin McLeod and former Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis took part in a special CBC Sports Pride panel. The trio tackle what it means to be LGBTQ+ in sports today, also discussing the plight of other oppressed groups.

Anastasia Bucsis, Wade Davis, Erin McLeod tackle issues of marginalized orientations

Former Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, left, former NFL player Wade Davis, centre, and Canadian women's national soccer team goalkeeper Erin McLeod participated in a CBC Sports Pride panel. Together, they discussed the challenges of being LGBTQ+ in modern sport while also taking inventory of other oppressed groups. (Getty Images)

This particular weekend in Toronto is normally filled with rainbow flags and thousands of people taking to the streets in celebration of Pride.

Corporations fill their windows with messages of support. Politicians promise change for a better future. And professional sports teams change their logos on social media accounts to rainbow-coloured backdrops, enthusiastically proclaiming inclusion no matter one's sexual orientation.

The activism, at least for a few days, is hard to miss. But this year's celebrations are different. People aren't able to gather in a way they have in the past.

It's Pride Month in the midst of a pandemic, in the backdrop of weeks and weeks of social unrest in Canada and the United States calling for the end of systemic racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd.

Oppressed groups and their allies are coming together in an unparalleled way in the quiet of all those cancelled events.

"If you think you're going to talk about Pride and LGBTQ people and you didn't think you were going to talk about racism, classism, sexism, all these isms, then you really have to interrogate what you think Pride is about," Wade Davis said.

WATCH | CBC Sports panel details challenges of being LGBTQ+ in sports today:

Pride 2020: Most important one since Stonewall Riots

3 years ago
Duration 54:02
CBC Sports panellists Devin Heroux, Erin McLeod, Wade Davis and Anastasia Bucsis explain why this year's Pride demands tough conversations about the intersectionality of class, sex, race and ability.

Davis is an openly gay, Black, former NFL player living in the United States. He bravely shared his coming out story in 2012 after he retired from football.

Davis, alongside Canadian women's soccer national team keeper Erin McLeod, as well as former Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, took part in a special CBC Sports Pride panel. The group took a critical look at not only what it means to be LGBTQ+ in sports today, but inventory of all oppressed groups.

Davis says protests in the U.S. and Canada, alongside Pride, shows the intersectionality and commonality between all social injustices.

"If you're not thinking it's about all of those identities and how they come together, then my question would be are you really an ally for Pride folks or are you an ally for one type of Pride person who you have in your mind?," Davis asks.

The importance of this moment in the midst of this pandemic as people turn inward and have tough conversations around racism and homophobia can't be overstated, Bucsis says.

Canada's Anastasia Bucsis competes in the women's 500m speed-skating long track at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Bucsis says despite any success she was enjoying in her career, she couldn't truly be happy until being honest about who she is. (David Hecker/AFP via Getty Images)

"I think Pride 2020 is going to be one of the most important Prides in our 51 years since Stonewall because it is so uncomfortable and we are having these tough conversations," she said.

"We're uncomfortable with ourselves. We're not having parades and going to patios. We're looking at what we can do to be better."

There are no distractions and there is nowhere to turn from these pressing issues. McLeod, who came out publicly in 2014, echoes what Bucsis says about the importance of this year's Pride.

"I actually think it might be the most important year we've had in my life," she said. "A lot of sports aren't happening. Things are put on pause. It's a good time to look at systems."

What is the cost of hiding one's identity in sport?

Davis, McLeod and Bucsis spoke candidly about their journey through sports, sharing some of their painful experiences and how they finally came to a place of showing up fully.

The cost of hiding one's sexual orientation in sport and in life is painful. Bucsis came out publicly prior to the 2014 Olympics in direct response to Russia's controversial laws around homosexuality. It was a turbulent, but necessary, progression in her athletic career and life.

"I just got to a point where I was having success in my career, but I was unhappy because I was not living the life I was meant to live," Bucsis said. "I thought, if I win an Olympic gold medal, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter where I ended up because I was hating myself."

That hate is something Davis knows all too well. For years in NFL locker rooms he put on what he calls his "mask of masculinity," hiding who he was and protecting his secret of being gay.

Former NFL player Wade Davis, who is openly gay, talks to a reporter prior to the 2013 Chicago Gay Pride Parade. Davis came out publicly in 2012, nine years after retiring from pro football. (Scott Eisen/The Associated Press)

"The cost was loss of self. The loss of the opportunity to get to question who I was and who I wanted to be," he said.

"If I showed who I was, my level of safety would be less and less."

McLeod, who grew up in Alberta, can recall vividly how tormented she was in her early years of sports because she wasn't like the other girls – and that was a scary, lonely place.

"When I was five years old, I was so pissed because I wanted to be a boy. I looked up to Wayne Gretzky. All my sports heroes were guys," McLeod said.

Amplifying the athlete voice

All three athletes share similar experiences about how silenced they felt by the systems of sport and those who hold power within sport.

But Bucsis, Davis and McLeod all agree that's changing and that the athlete's voice in pushing for equality – in not only athletics, but all systems of society – is going to be paramount.

"What I've been thinking about is how do I use my power, my social and economic capital, to make sure I'm supporting people who are really pushing the conversation and risking their lives and freedom – to not just change the U.S., but the entire world," Davis said.

Davis says at the root of homophobia and racism and all forms of suppression is sexism.

"Sexism demands that if you're a man playing a sport, you must be heterosexual. You cannot be gay," he said.

"We really have to speak to the power of sexism and how it impacts men's and women's sport. The reason I humbly believe the root of homophobia is sexism is because if a man shows up anything close to a woman [in performance] then you're deemed gay."

WATCH | Tewksbury, Thormeyer share experience as LGBTQ+ athletes:

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One came out in 1998 as a retired athlete, the other in 2020 before an Olympics. The swimmers connect over their respective experiences.

McLeod says there is a double standard when it comes to being lesbian in women's sports and being gay in men's sports.

"I remember so many of my straight teammates saying, 'I am never going to find someone because everyone thinks I'm gay because I'm on a women's sports team,'" McLeod said.

"The pressure couldn't be more different. For me, I have no understanding what it's like on the men's side because on the women's side it's so different. It's almost like you assume everyone is gay on the women's side until you're proven otherwise."

Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod salutes the crowd after a FIFA Women's World Cup match in 2015. McLeod believes this is a vital year in the battle for social justice, saying the sports shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic allows for time to review various flawed systems. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

While that may be the case, Bucsis says there are still many pressures facing women in sport.

"In some respects it is easier for women to come out," she said.

"But is it easy for a female figure skater? No. That would be a nightmare. We're programmed to put people in boxes. Sport is a place where we police each other."

How to be an ally

More than anything, McLeod, Davis and Bucsis want to help create an atmosphere where people feel they can have tough conversations. For people wanting to be allies, however, it can be difficult to know where to start.

"The number one job of an ally is to first interrogate yourself. So before you become interested in becoming an ally for a Black person, you have to interrogate what it means to be white. Before you want to be an ally for LGBT people, what does it mean to be heterosexual?," Davis said.

"I am disinterested in people advocating for me before they've actually asked hard questions of themselves."

WATCH | Black athletes use their voice to invoke change:

Black athletes using their platform to generate change

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CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin reports on Black athletes finding their voice amid the rising racial tension.

McLeod knows it's sometimes difficult to begin a conversation around race and sexual orientation, but that it all comes down to the approach.

"I think there's so much power in saying 'I don't know' and being vulnerable," she said.

"So much of this comes down to ignorance and not knowing. You can never be in someone else's shoes, but we can do our best to understand."

And it's in that understanding Bucsis says barriers between people begin to break down.

"Of course there's a difference between ignorance and arrogance and being bigoted and racist, but if you're truly wanting to be an ally, do a little bit of research. We all have Google," Bucsis said.

"Come to it with an open heart. If someone comes to me and is struggling to have that conversation, if they have an open heart, I want to take them on that journey with me."


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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