Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Growing Up a Gay Sports Fanatic

brian burke toronto pride lgbt
Brian Burke saved my life.

At a very dark time in my life he stepped forward and opened a door for me that I thought would forever remain closed. With a simple act of loving and accepting his son, Brian Burke gave me the courage to live.

In late 2009, when Brendan Burke publicly announced he was gay, and Brian—the type of guy you would typically expect to not be very gay friendly—extended his love and support for his son, I was 23 years old and still deeply in the closet. I had told one friend I was gay a couple years earlier, but immediately retreated back into the closet, a little less alone and a little less ashamed, but still utterly miserable, scared, and growing increasingly hopeless.

In the ESPN story, when I read Brian as quoted saying, "Of course, we still love you. This won't change a thing," it was like a door was kicked open for me. If a hyper-masculine guy like Brian Burke would still love his son, then certainly my friends and family would too. A courage inside me that was so small grew a little bit that day. It slowly grew to the point that a few months later I took my first real step as myself and began telling more of my friends, and eventually my family, the truth.

The story was published at a crucial moment in my life. In the months leading up to Brendan's announcement I was feeling more alone and isolated than I had in my entire life. I was getting to a very dark place and didn't know how much more I could take. I was starting to get a little desperate.

I shouldn't have been feeling this way, of course. The friend I came out to was tremendously supportive and exceedingly sweet and caring as I bawled my eyes out, and we grew closer in that moment. But what should have been the beginning of my life turned into a major step back, in large part due to sports.

Growing up I had a very hard time reconciling my love of sports with my homosexuality. Those two things seemed at such odds. Nothing I had experienced in locker rooms or seen in the media indicated anything different. Sports were for men and gay people weren't really men, at least not the type of men that were worthy of respect. Everything bad was described as "gay" or so and so was a "fag". And those words may as well be the school motto for any high school, so there was no reprieve there. As a result, I didn't respect myself. In fact, for most of my adolescence I actively hated myself.

I had internalized all that ugly homophobia. I was so ashamed I couldn't even acknowledge out loud to myself that I was gay until I was 21.

I quit playing hockey for two years in high school because I didn't feel welcomed playing sports. The general locker room homophobia was suffocating and as I heard denigrating remarks about gay people, I took them as remarks made directly at me, personally.

I didn't feel the usual team camaraderie either. Although no one knew I was gay, I felt like I had invaded a sacred space. I was an interloper and I didn't belong. I wasn't wanted. So I quit. I quit doing what made me the happiest in the world because I didn't feel like I belonged and actively dreaded what would happen if anyone on the team found out I was gay.

This certainly isn't a unique feeling among homosexuals.

Instead I spent more time snowboarding. On the mountain it didn't matter if I was gay. I was alone and if I was gay it wouldn't bother anybody but myself. I didn't have to explain myself to teammates or coaches. I could just be at peace (but not really, because I was still in the closet and that dominated my thoughts regardless if I was snowboarding, in school, or trying to sleep).

Of course, snowboarding is not nearly as fun as hockey, and I was missing hockey badly. I began playing again at the end of high school and at university, deciding that I would just choose hockey over my sexuality and repress my latent homosexuality. As sport was so tightly entwined with my identity I honestly thought I had to choose. It certainly wasn't healthy, but at that grim point in my life I had resigned myself to a life of living in the closet and feeling miserable. I honestly couldn't see a life for myself outside of the closet. I figured the misery I knew was better than the potential misery that could arise from telling my friends and family. So, if I was going to feel that way I may as well play hockey once a week.

Of course, just because I was back to playing hockey didn't mean I felt better in any other facet of my life. I still never felt like I belonged on the team, which is an incredibly isolating feeling. And although the homophobic slurs were becoming somewhat less frequent as my teammates got older, and I thought (hoped) they weren't actually meant with malice towards gay people (because the guys on the team were genuinely good people that I really enjoyed hanging out with), I still didn't feel entirely comfortable. And my self-esteem was still pretty low.

I also began using hockey as a crutch for why I couldn't come out, thinking that nobody would want me to play on their team anymore, or that if I somehow managed to stay on the team I would be a pariah and shunned. So even though at this point I had told a friend I was gay, I generated no momentum from that moment.

That's why the work Patrick Burke is doing with You Can Play is so important. With professional hockey players and athletes from all different sports publicly announcing their support and acceptance for gay teammates—and gay people, more broadly—it lets gay athletes know they don't have to choose. They will be accepted by their teammates and there won't be a witch burning once anyone discovers one of their teammates is gay.

I sure wish You Can Play existed when I was in high school.

And for heterosexuals who might be on the fence, watching star athletes publicly support gay teammates makes the decision much easier. You don't have to prove your masculinity by calling someone else a faggot. If these star athletes—essentially the paragon of masculinity in Western culture—can accept gay teammates, friends, brothers, and sisters, there is really no reason for any other man to do otherwise. It doesn't mean you have to march in a pride parade, it just means you have to treat gay people as fellow human beings. It's pretty easy.

So why post this now? Well, with what's going on in Russia, where being yourself can mean risking your life, it didn't feel right to continue keeping my sexual orientation hidden (even if I only wasn't "out" online) when so many rights and freedoms are afforded to me because I live in Canada.

I was also emboldened by Jose Estevez, writing for Out Sports.

"Many of us came out of the closet knowing there would be consequences. We would lose family members. Lose friends. Lose jobs. Live a life of much discrimination. A life of fear. But did we remain in the closet? Did we retreat and express ourselves only in places of comfort? No. We opened that door and prepared ourselves for the hell we knew was coming.
The message is simple: Russia and the International Olympic Committee want the LGBT community to go back in the closet and hide their identities. I say screw that, we are proud of who we are and we should remain who we are."

It also feels good to share my story, and hopefully it might resonate with someone else somewhere. Maybe if I read something like this when I was younger I wouldn't have felt so alone and scared, and maybe I could have realized sooner that coming out, no matter how difficult, was the only way to live a happy, healthy life.

Oh, there is a happy ending to my story as well.

When I finally came out, at 23, it was a huge relief. My years of persistent worrying were for naught. My family and friends were truly amazing and I've grown closer with each and every one of them and feel tremendously loved. Now, I'm in a wonderful, loving long-term relationship, play hockey twice a week, and am happier than I ever have been in my entire life.

So thanks to everyone who read this. Also a big thanks to Patrick, You Can Play, and most importantly, Brian. I always hoped Brian Burke's arrival in Toronto would mean a Stanley Cup, but instead I got something even better. I got my life.


Chris Cottick said...

Great read Matt, thanks for sharing. I'm glad you decided to go back to hockey...the Ironmen wouldn't be the same without you.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Chris. I really appreciate it.

Sue Horner said...

What a beautiful, heartbreaking post. I am sure this took great courage to write and to put out for the world to see and I applaud you for it. If it was so hard for you to come out, with friends and family who already supported LGBT rights, imagine how difficult it must be for those surrounded by homophobes. Thankfully, things ARE changing, however slowly. As Brian Burke said, I look forward to the day when whether someone is gay or not isn't news.

oriharakaoru said...

Aww, this made me teary. I can definitely relate. Not so much to the playing hockey part (though I'm a serious fan), but to the growing up gay (in my case lesbian) and closeted part for sure. Everyone I've come out to has been fantastic and it always makes me feel a million times better.

p donnelly said...

Thank you for sharing this. Every story like this I read breaks my heart a little that a team could ever be a place you couldn't feel safe (I coach HS lacrosse). And makes me worry that I may have said or done something as a teammate at some point that would make a closeted teammate uncomfortable, even knowing I never used a pejorative or a slur.

Matt Horner said...

Mom, you're great. Thanks for everything.

Happy to hear your coming out was so fantastic, oriharakaoru! Thanks for the comment.

Thanks for comment as well, p. It gives me hope that someone with your attitude is coaching and has the power to make your high school a safe place for anyone to play sports.

Anonymous said...

LOVE this post. You're awesome.

My bro is gay and I hope he feels comfortable enough someday soon to be fully out and proud (many people know now but he hasn't talked to my parents about it yet).

Unknown said...

Matt, you probably do not know me and we have never met, but we are related. I think first cousins once removed. I was so touched and moved by your story. How inspiring to hear you put to words what you have lived. I can tell that you are a very strong and loving person. Of course that does not come as a surprise coming from the Horner family. All the best to you and your family. Michael Alexander

Matt Horner said...

Thanks :)

I'm sure one day your brother will get there, and a lot quicker than he probably thinks right now. Even just a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to picture what my life is right now.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Michael! Appreciate all the kind words. And yes, we Horners are a strong lot!

Geoff said...

This is truly your best post yet. I'm sorry that you had to go through all of those hard times, but I'm glad that you persevered and continue to make us all proud. You're a great man and an even better friend.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Geoff. That's really kind of you to say. You're a great friend and made coming out as easy as it could have been.

That said, I'm still partial to my Burke to the Future article, but to each their own.

Wan Ihite said...

This is both a fantastic and heart warming post, and an object lesson for all the people out there who to this day are STILL crying "PC police" when they are confronted over their casual use of slurs. Whether or not the speaker intends them these words do cause harm, sometimes terrible harm.

So thanks for writing this. Hopefully it can serve as a reminder not only of things past, but also things present.

ROY HORNER said...

matt your grandfather roy supports you and is proud in what you have done--keep up playing hockey

Matt Horner said...

Thanks for the comment, Ian White... er Wan Ihite. I honestly believe a lot of people who use anti-gay slurs casually don't intend to cause harm but, as you mentioned, the words are extremely hurtful, and I hope with a bit of education people can realize this.

And Grandpa, thank you so much for your support! That makes me so happy to hear. I'm also glad I could get you on the Internet for reasons other than sending an anti-Leafs e-mail!

Unknown said...

Matt, what an incredibly impactful and well written expose on your struggles as well as society's. It's pieces like this one that are creating the winds of change by redefining gender stereotypes, the nuclear family and what is considered the "norm". It is my hopes that your courage and that of others will create an environment in which our children (as hypothetical as they may be right now) will grow up in a world that defines people solely on what they give to others, rather than their sexual identity, race, education, wealth, and the list continues. Rather, let our children choose what their own vision of "normal" looks like, based on what leaves them feeling happy and fulfilled.

Thanks for the read & keep on inspiring!

Matt Horner said...

Thank you, Caren! What a beautiful comment, you're pretty inspiring yourself.

Matt McFarland said...


Great post. The courage you've shown here is an inspiration to us all. Bob told me about your orientation years ago and I have to say that it didn't surprise me. I wish you had told me but I know it was probably the last thing you could bring yourself to do.

To be truthful, if I was gay I would be banging down your door (pun intended!) The homosexual community is lucky to have you as part of the fold.

As I've told many of my drum students that have come out, this is the best time in recorded history to be homosexual. The acceptance is as high as its ever been.

Good on ya brutha! You make me proud! Thanks for teaching me about courage.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Matt, both for the words of encouragement and the double entendre. And if you have so many drum students coming out you should probably tone down your raw sexual magnetism!

Unknown said...

This is a beautifully written article. I, myself, am straight, but definitely not narrow. I try to make sure everyone around me knows how accepting I am, in case someone in my circle feels that they can't talk to someone for fear of not being accepted. I applaud, not only you, but the accepting people in your life. I am a huge hockey fan and I completely support You Can Play, and I would be extremely disappointed if I found out a team wasn't approving. Wishing you all the happiness in the world.

Matt Horner said...

Thank you very much, Michelle. The world needs more people like you!

Anonymous said...

So glad you're happy!
I remember using 'gay' and 'fag' all the time as a kid, without really ever thinking what the words meant. I hate to think that I was part of a culture that made people so miserable without even knowing it... Now I stick with 'f*cker', it's an equal-opportunity insult! ;)
And hey, I applaud your courage, I found it hard enough growing up hetrosexual.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, anon. I'm glad to hear you've changed your vocab because there are plenty of great equal-opportunity insults out there that are much more creative and funny!

Anonymous said...

I am a 70 year old gay man who is in the closet and probably always will be. I certainly can identify with all of your previous angst, and trust that young gay men will read your story and take action on their own situations. God bless! said...

Fantastic job of coming out. It can't be easy. But you did it, and hopefully it gives others the thought that they can also come out.

Good for you!

Rick Couchman said...

Sorry, not sure why my post came up as RickGetsFit - that's way gone away ;)

I added you to our favourite links on - I hope that's okay!

Matt Horner said...

Anon, I'm sad to hear that. I truly hope my story can be a help to someone, somewhere. Thanks for the comment.

Rick, of course you can add a link on Much appreciated!

George said...

A love for his son helps him to accept Brendan for who he is, is definitely infinite. No matter what his gender is, it will not change their relationship as father and son! Great post!

Dad said...

Just back from a hectic work trip and have the opportunity to read all the great supportful comments. As I told you earlier - always have been and always will be proud of you, keep moving forward, Matt, enjoy life and most importantly be happy about who you are, a truly outstanding young man, willing to step out to make a positive mark in this world.



Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,
great post, I'm glad things have turned out so well for you and I'm sure your courage is, at this moment, helping someone else who is wrestling with the same issues you experienced.
As a straight person your words really made me aware of how isolating the locker room culture can be, but also gives me hope that with greater awareness will come greater sensitivity and acceptance.
John Newman,

Matt Horner said...

Thanks for the comments George and John. Much appreciated.

And Dad, thank you for everything. As I said to Mom, you're pretty great.

Anonymous said...

What a great read Matt. Your courage and honesty will definitely help others with some of the same struggles they may have. Kudos to you for sharing. You've made the world a better place.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Anon :)

Forzest said...

Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work.

DafaSports said...

Realizing this post has been around two years ago. Apologize for reviving it up. I was just carried away by your story and I salute your braveness to face the world and to get out of that dark closet. I have a gay friends who've been around in triathlon for almost a decade now and that's it people's descrimination has been their strength to finish every step of their way. I wasn't disappointed with them. In fact i really admired that passionate heart they have. They're different. Some kind of attitude needed to succeed in life. Great read. Just continue on what you are passionate about and as long as you don't degrade people there's nothing wrong with that.

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