Monday, November 30, 2009

Brendan and Brian Burke: Thanks for Sharing

Why is Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, coming out as a gay man such a big deal? Well, Brian Burke is the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and we all know that ice hockey is one of the big four men’s pro sports (the other three are baseball, basketball and football) that is supposed to be so macho that they just have to be homophobic, right?

This story has gotten a lot of media coverage which is a good thing because it gives men in sports opportunities to talk about their reactions to this news and the hypothetical question that is always raised when we talk about gay men in sport: How would you feel about having a gay teammate? It is hypothetical only because no man playing a professional team sport has come out publicly yet. I believe the more athletes and coaches talk about having an out gay teammate the easier it will get for them to be comfortable actually having one. When some of these athletes respond to the big question in positive ways, the more it breaks the “rule” that, if you are a pro team sport athlete, you have to be hostile to the possibility of sharing your locker room with a gay man. I believe that the more athletes and coaches speak out positively, the easier it will be for gay athletes to make themselves known. I know there are still plenty of these big ole macho guys who are scaredy cats when it comes to the idea that the guy using the locker next to theirs might be gay, but times are slowly changing.

The most touching part of the Brendan Burke story is his father’s loving reaction. I guess it is a sign of how far we still have to go when it is a compelling news story that a father publicly affirms his love and admiration for his gay son, but there it is. We still expect macho men in sports to be homophobic. We are surprised when they aren’t. I am happy for Brendan that his father has been so publicly loving. Brian Burke commands a lot of respect in the ice hockey world and I am happy for the possibility that other macho men in sports might read about Brendan and Brian Burke and rethink their own fear and hostility about having a gay teammate or coach or family member. It’s a kind of education that can be as effective as a workshop if it invites more openness and comfort.

This story also reminded me of how terrifying it was to tell my mother that I was gay. I believe it is a fear only other gay people can understand and the reason seeing PFLAG moms and dads marching in pride marches still brings tears to my eyes. The fear of parental rejection or disappointment is a big deal, at least it was to me. I remember the mental rehearsal, the chickening out numerous times, the pounding heart and finally the blurt: “Mom, I have something to tell you.” The fear in her eyes about what I was to come following that. Then my announcement: “I’m gay.” Then her look of relief. “Oh, honey, your father and I knew this for years. We just want you to be happy.” I went out for my run that morning, stood on the front steps, smiled and took what felt like the first deep breath of my life. Nothing could stop me now. I wish the same feelings for Brendan Burke.

I know it doesn’t turn out as well for everyone. Sometimes it takes time for parents to adjust. Sometimes they never do. For most of us, coming out to our parents isn’t a public event. It happens in private and only we and they are affected. The great thing about Brendan and Brian Burke is that they have chosen to share this family event with all of us. I offer my thanks to both of them for sharing this moment and for giving the men’s sports world this opportunity to reflect on the homophobic culture that we have too long accepted as inevitable.


Kelly Garrett said...

I was so sad to read today that Brendan was killed in a car accident on Friday, 2/5. I was shocked after seeing his story highlighted in the press just a couple of months ago. I think he was able to make a big impact in his short life.

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