50 years after Stonewall, lesbian athletes make strides while gay men remain stuck at ground zero

The past does not tell us where we have been, it tells us where we are.

So where are LGBT athletes today as Pride Month 2019 kicks off, half a century after the Stonewall Riots in Gotham’s Greenwich Village?

The answer, I suppose, depends on which scorecard you use.

Certainly there has been considerable advancement in the inclusion file, both on and off the playing fields of North America and, indeed, in global frolics like the Olympic Games.

Here are some of the notations you’ll find on that particular scorecard:

Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss.

* Lesbian tennis legend Billie Jean King and longtime partner Ilana Kloss are part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ownership group.
* Out lesbian Laura Ricketts is co-owner of the Chicago Cubs.
* Golden State Warriors out gay president and chief operating officer Rick Welts was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year.
* Out lesbian Caroline Ouillette is assistant coach with Canada’s national women’s hockey team (she’s married to former Team U.S.A. captain Julie Chu and they have a daughter together).
* Out lesbians Jayna Hefford and Angela James have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
* 56 LGBT athletes competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
* 15 LGBT athletes competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
* 16 out lesbians were on rosters at the 2015 women’s World Cup of soccer.

Abby Wambach

* The leading goal-scorer in the history of women’s international soccer, Abby Wambach, is an out lesbian.
* 7 players in the 2018 Women’s National Basketball Association all-star game were out lesbians.
* Both the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League have featured transgender players—Harrison Browne and Jessica Platt—and numerous out lesbians.
* U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe became the first out lesbian to be featured in the
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
* Rapinoe and hoops star Sue Bird became the first LGBT couple to be featured in
ESPN The Magazine body issue.

Katie Sowers

* Out lesbian Katie Sowers is an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League.

That acceptance is terrific, for the LGBT collective and society as a whole.

Unfortunately, there’s a second scorecard:

* Number of out gay men in the National Hockey League:             0
* Number of out gay men in the National Football League:            0
* Number of out gay men in the National Basketball Association: 0
* Number of out gay men in Major League Baseball:                     0
* Number of out gay men in Major League Soccer:                        0

Cite another segment of society in which the bottom-line number in 2019 is the same as the bottom-line number in 1969. I can’t think of one.

Thus, the motion of life moves everything forward with the exception of the cultural phenomenon that is professional male team sports, an unbudging, frat-boy enterprise still stuck in the mud fifty years after all hell broke loose in and outside the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan.

Are there gay men among the approximately 4,300 players on current NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS rosters? Here’s an easier question: Does Donald Trump tell fibs?

Gay male athletes have always existed. It’s just that 99.999999 per cent of them remained hidden in a closet, earnestly avoiding the most taboo of talking points until the final whistle had sounded on careers spent in fear of being outed as lesser-thans.

Gillian Apps and Meghan Duggan.

Women and men with framed diplomas that indicate intellectual loft have given ponder to the curious case of the closeted male jock, and the eggheads advance numerous theories in an effort to explain the refusal to identify as gay. But, really, it isn’t a Cadbury chocolate bar mystery. It can be cataloged under the ‘fear’ file. It’s the fear of loss—loss of family/friends; loss of career; loss of income; loss of credibility; loss of status.

No male athlete wishes to be known by friend, foe or fan as a lesser-than. A Nancy boy, if you will. So he plays on, keeping his choice of romantic interests on the hush-hush.

Lesbian athletes, on the other hand, are far ahead on the social curve. They are less inclined to hide from themselves or anyone else. Elena Delle Donne and Sue Bird are not thought of as lesser-thans. Ditto Abby Wambach or Megan Rapinoe. Billie Jean King is greatly admired. The same could be said for Martina Navratilova until she recently went off on transgender athletes. Caroline Ouillette and Julie Chu proudly post pics of their daughter on Instagram. Former hockey stars Gillian Apps and Meghan Duggan do the same with their wedding photos.

When Canada’s gold medal-winning goaltender Charline Labonté came out in 2014, she provided insight to the culture of the national women’s hockey club.

“Just like everywhere else our team had gays and straights, just like we had brunettes and redheads,” she wrote in an article for the LGBT website Outsports. “Everyone on my team has known I’m gay since I can remember and I never felt degraded for it. On the contrary, my sport and my team are the two environments where I feel most comfortable. The subject of homosexuality was never taboo with us. We talk and laugh about it like everything else. I feel privileged to live and be myself in an environment like this because I know that just a few years ago this topic was never part of the conversations in the locker room.”

Lesbians in sports has become a meh issue, and it’s only when a zealot like tennis legend Margaret Court turns the air toxic with illogical, wingnut rantings about same-sex marriage destroying Easter and Christmas that people give it any consideration.

Will men ever catch up to the women? Certainly not in my lifetime.

It is a peculiar business, indeed, when the San Francisco 49ers will happily hire a lesbian to tutor pass-catchers, yet there are no gay men in the NFL to catch passes.

About defining ‘Sedin stuff’…the toughest Swedes, Hedberg and Nilsson…two Swedes, one face, but not the face of hockey in Western Canada…cheering in the Winnipeg press box…Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston and a WHA title…Damien Cox scores a boffo Twitter burn on Randy Turner…talking up a Stanley Cup parade in the Republic of Tranna…lesbians on Hometown Hockey…an ace of a moment for grandpa and grandson Nicklaus…and other things on my mind

I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Initially, a great many folks didn’t think Daniel and Henrik Sedin could pull it off.

They were too soft. Too timid. Too unsure. Too Swedish, which, for the less enlightened—like the xenophobic gasbag who occupies the bully pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada—was North American shinny code for cowardly.

Sedin twins

Indeed, after Braydon Coburn declined an opportunity to exchange knuckles with a rag-dolling Brandon Prust during a Tampa Bay Lightning-Montreal Canadiens 2015 playoff match, Don Cherry used his Coachless Corner soapbox to align the Swedes’ name with cowardice, saying, “I will never, ever, want one of my players acting like Coburn here. This is Sedin stuff.”

Well, okay, now that the twins have left the building, let’s try to define “Sedin stuff.”

Admittedly, I only observed them from a distance, but certainly the National Hockey League was better for having Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who took their final bow on Saturday night in Edmonton. They played the game as it’s meant to be played, the same way Jean Beliveau and Wayne Gretzky did. The same way Connor McDavid does, with an emphasis on finesse and flash over fists and felony. That’s “Sedin stuff.” Those who know them best, including news snoops tracking their every mirrored move through 18 years and 17 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, tell us they were better people than hockey players. Tall praise, given that the Sedins are Art Ross, Hart, Ted Lindsay and King Clancy Trophy recipients. That, too, is “Sedin stuff.”

What really should be celebrated is their strength, a commodity that is not one-size-fits all. Different athletes show it in different ways, some through brawn, others with their brain.

Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson

The two mentally toughest players I ever met and covered were the Winnipeg Jets most-celebrated Swedes, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. They arrived together in the mid-1970s to join les Jets when the World Hockey Association was, on a certain level, a lawless frontier. Animosity born of xenophobia ruled the day and mayhem ensued on the ice. Hedberg and Nilsson were bludgeoned fore and aft by the heavy, wooden weapons wielded by envious, ill-mannered foes with an unreasonable dislike for foreigners. Their battered bodies featured every color of the rainbow, but the bruising wasn’t rainbow pretty. Through it all, Hedberg and Nilsson, both a class act, said nothing of the savagery, at least not on public account. They soldiered on, unwilling to acquiesce to the bullies and thugs and the BS. These were no “chicken Swedes.” They championed a cause and became champions.

Similarly, the Sedin twins have had to put up with a lot of crap, although from a different pile.

The masculinity of Daniel and Henrik often has been brought into question by rivals whose level of humor is on par with schoolyard adolescents, broadcasters who ought to know better, and fans who no doubt are devotees of Adam Sandler’s buffoonish movies.

Dave Bolland, then of the Chicago Blackhawks, called them “sisters” who “probably sleep in a bunk bed” in a radio interview. Not to be outdone, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars took to the airwaves and suggested the Sedins’ relationship was incestuous. Former New York Islanders general manager and TV talking head Mike Milbury called them “Thelma and Louise.” Denis Potvin, a Hall of Fame defenceman working in the Florida Panthers tower of babble-on, labelled Daniel a “lowlife.” During one post-match dustup, Potvin said, “The Sedins are pointing fingers now. Normally they only use those fingers to lick the peanut butter off their bread.” (What the hell does that even mean?) Fans would arrive at the rink wearing t-shirts that read: SEDIN SISTERS 2 GIRLS NO CUP. A Finnish media outlet, Ilta-Sanomat, ran a tasteless piece that featured Sedin Sisters paper doll cutout figures with dresses and high heels. Etcetera, etcetera.

And how did the Sedins respond? By playing hockey. By beating foes the honest way. The Hedberg-Nilsson way. It’s the Swedish way. And that is “Sedin stuff.”

From the department of He Doesn’t Have A Freaking Clue, I give you Frank Seravalli. In an ode to the Sedins, the TSN senior hockey reporter describes the Swedes as “the faces of hockey in Western Canada for much of the 21st century.” Good grief. Quick, someone give the man a copy of Western Canada for Dummies. I mean, there is no known word to describe that level of ignorance. It’s as daft as saying Don Cherry is the voice of Russian hockey. Yes, that dumb. As far as I can tell, (from the experience of living 99.9 per cent of my 67-plus years in Winnipeg, Calgary and Victoria) there’s just one commonality between the rabble on the B.C. coast and the Prairie provinces—a healthy distrust of, and dislike toward, the Republic of Tranna. Otherwise, what happens in Vancouver stays in Vancouver, because few Prairie folk gave a rat’s patoot about the Sedins before they declared their intention to retire last week. They gave them a warm sendoff Saturday night in Edmonton, because that’s the way Prairie folk are, but make no mistake: The Sedins never were the face of the Oilers, Flames or Jets, and last time I looked each of those outfits is based in Western Canada.

Frank Seravalli

If you’re wondering how a TSN reporter could make such a “D’oh!” statement, be advised Seravalli is not of us. He’s an American, born in Bucks County, Pa., just north of Philadelphia, and he was schooled there and in other eastern U.S. outposts. Clearly, he didn’t major in Canadiana. Still, that’s no excuse. I mean, the City of Brotherly Love remains his home base, and I’m guessing no Philly guy, including him, would be so dense as to suggest Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins are the faces of northeastern U.S. hockey. Seravalli’s been to Western Canada. He knows the good people of Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton identify with their own players, not two guys on the La La side of the Rocky Mountains. Get with the program, man.

This is rich. In the breezy Say What?! banter between Winnipeg Free Press sports editor Steve Lyons and columnist Paul Wiecek, the former accuses Hockey Night in Canada gab guys Jim Hughson and Scott Simpson of being “homers” and waving blue-and-white Maple Leafs pom-poms when les Jets visited the Republic of Tranna last weekend. “Come on guys, try to refrain from cheering in the press box will ya?” Lyons scribbles. Yet his own guy, Wiecek, has become guilty of shameless pom-pom waving. He writes this of the Jets as they prepare to embark on the Stanley Cup crusade: “Yeah, we want the Cup. More than most, I’d venture. But what we need first is a playoff win. And then another. And another.” He’d like the Jets’ playoff run to last “hopefully weeks.” And “for once it feels like the sporting gods are working in favor of the locals instead of against us.” Us? Us? That isn’t a good look for a sports columnist. Nor for a sports editor who condemns others for cheering in the press box even as his writer does that very thing in print.

Look, I get it. Sports writers are human. Honest, some of them are. They have their favorites and it’s a more enjoyable gig when the locals are successful. I confess now that I wanted the Jets to win the final WHA title. They were a terrific bunch of guys. But the “we” and “us” and “hopefully” stuff has to be left to the rabble and blogs like Arctic Ice Hockey. Or even this blog. Mainstream scribes covering the team, on the other hand, are expected to operate from a platform of objectivity. Well aren’t they?

Rich Preston and Terry Ruskowski

Speaking of the WHA’s last act, in which the Jets delivered a championship to River City, this is what sometimes happens when people who weren’t there write history: Mike McIntyre of the Freep scribbled a lengthy piece about past Jets’ post-season activity and mentioned they received “contributions from the likes of Willy Lindstrom, Morris Lukowich and Peter Sullivan” in beating the Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Gretzkys in the spring of 1979. While true, no review of the Jets’ third WHA title can have the ring of credibility without the mention of Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston. They were the driving forces. Ruskowski, who basically played the final vs. the Gretzkys with one arm, was an emotional force and led the team with a dozen assists, while Preston, a penalty-killing demon, provided 13 points and was saluted as playoff most valuable player. McIntyre’s failure to acknowledge them is a glaring omission on what went down that spring.

I’m still liking Jets captain Blake Wheeler and his 91 points to be a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. I have, mind you, slightly revised my personal top five: Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Blake Wheeler, Taylor Hall and Sidney Crosby.

Randy Turner: Burned

Really enjoyed a fun Twitter exchange between Damien Cox of the Toronto Star/Sportsnet and Randy Turner of the Freep.

Turner: “Personally, I’m rooting for a #NHLJets-Leafs Stanley Cup final just so Toronto fans can finally get some much-needed publicity for their hockey team.”

Cox: “Plus it’ll give Winnipeggers a chance to see what the Grey Cup looks like if they come to town for the series.”

Total burn for Cox. Brilliant. Love it, and I’m from Pegtown.

Dumbest headline and article of the week was delivered by Sportsnet: “Thinking about past, and future, Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parades.” The piece is written by former Leafs general manager and Sportsnet chin-wagger Gord Stellick, a great guy who never should have been GM of the Leafs and never should have written that article.

Julie Chu, Caroline Ouellette and Liv

The best from Sportsnet came in the form of a lovely Hometown Hockey feature on same-sex couple Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette, and their baby Liv. I’d say we’re making progress when a national sports network doesn’t shy away from talking about married lesbian hockey players/coaches. It was a beautiful bit of work that dampened my eyes.

On the subject of getting teary-eyed, I thought bean counter Scott Foster playing 14 minutes of goal for the Chicago Blackhawks and shutting out the Winnipeg Jets would be the feel-good sports story of the year, but G.T. Nicklaus’s ace on No. 9 in the Masters par-3 tournament has moved to the front of my scorecard. Caddy G.T.’s ace brought grandpa Jack Nicklaus to tears. It was a magic moment.

Apparently, fighting fool Conor McGregor did something really stupid this week. In other news, dog bites man.

Wayne Gretzky

And, finally, this week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: In a Twitter exchange with Heather Marginet re the NHL Hart Trophy, Simmons displayed a shocking lack of knowledge for a national sports columnist.

Marginet: “The 79-80 Oilers finished with 69 points. Significantly worse than this (current) Oilers squad. Gretzky was the Hart.”

Simmons (being sarcastic and dismissive): “They were so bad they played 13 playoff games that year—basically announcing their arrival as a team to reckon with.”

As numerous people eagerly pointed out, Simmons was totally out to lunch. The Oilers, in fact, played just three playoff games that year, not 13. All were losses to the Philadelphia Flyers.