How the Avs fought back against homophobia this Pride month online

Content Note: This post is about homophobia and specifically the use of homophobic slurs in hockey. I intentionally did not repeat the insults in this post, but I have linked articles that do and included tweets that deal directly with homophobia.

For the past month, the Colorado Avalanche has focused on a Stanley Cup run that ultimately resulted in victory last weekend. It’s not all the organization has done, however. While players’ attention was understandably focused on the games they needed to play; The organization as a whole spent a lot of time showing their support for something else. proud month

Ice hockey isn’t always for everyone

Hockey has a complicated relationship with Pride. More specifically, it has a complicated relationship with LGBTQ+ people, whether they are players, coaches or fans. Former players report experiencing homophobic abuse in the locker rooms and on the ice, and the occasional use of slurs has been noted as a disturbing feature of hockey culture. It starts with coaches and parents shouting these insults and normalizing their use among young children who then use them as players. Gay hockey players point to using casually homophobic language, such as “that’s so gay” to refer to something negative, as a barrier preventing them from coming out.

Even among straight hockey players, there is a fear of being viewed as gay or not conforming to the image that has been constructed of what a hockey player should be. Although some NHL players use Pride tape on their sticks or gear and have spoken out against homophobia, others have suggested it could lead to increased chirping on the ice, including from their own teammates.

create change

Organizations like You Can Play want to change that. Their goal is to make hockey and other sports more welcoming and inclusive, ensuring everyone can play, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Her work is important, but I often feel that she lacks a more radical advocacy approach that might be needed to truly change the culture of this sport. From the sidelines, it can feel a little watered down as it focuses on one-off events and celebrations rather than shedding light on the deeper, less savory experiences of LGBTQ+ athletes and fans.

Individual players have also worked to transform hockey culture. Luke Prokop came out as gay in July 2021. He is the first player signed to an NHL club to come out as gay. In a sport where thousands of people have played at the NHL level over the years, no one, not even a former player, has come out before him. It is unlikely that all of these players were straight. The more realistic view is that they didn’t want to attract media attention or didn’t feel safe coming out. We’ll never know how many gay hockey players there are. The proportion of gay players in the NHL and other professional leagues cannot be assumed to be the same as in the general population because the unfriendly environment allows gay men to leave the sport when they are younger. Luke has used his own story to educate those outside of the LGBTQ+ community and support those who may not feel like they can speak openly about who they are in hockey.

Perhaps as a result of You Can Play’s work or due to pressure from some fans, NHL clubs have worked to change their image and perception of hockey as a homophobic sport. Pride nights are becoming a fairly regular part of the NHL calendar. The Colorado Avalanche held theirs in March, and fans on Twitter described it as “amazing” and thanked the organization for their support.

Where Pride Nights Fail

Despite this progress, there is still much to be done. Pride nights have been described as performative, taking money on behalf of a community that professional sports leagues ignore for the rest of the year. Brock McGillis, a former OHL and UHL goaltender who is openly gay, says teams need to be educated on issues like homophobia in sports rather than treating Pride night as an exercise that checks boxes. These nights can be ineffective for deeper cultural change within the sport if they happen as a one-off event.

There is very little research examining the long-term effects of Pride nights and other diversity events in sport. A joint study conducted by Monash University Australia and Ryerson University in Toronto found that players who attend Pride events use less homophobic language than players who do not attend. The researchers interviewed players from Australia’s elite ice hockey league, so there can be no guarantee that the results reflect the culture within the NHL. 38% of players on teams that hosted Pride events reported using homophobic language at least once in two weeks, compared to 61% of players on teams that did not host a Pride game.

While the results suggest that Pride games can have a positive impact on player behavior, homophobic language is still used by over a third of players attending these events. Self-reported data can also be unreliable, as players may not remember or even be aware of the use of the language.

When Andrew Shaw yelled homophobic slurs at an on-ice officer in 2016, it drew national attention and led to a suspension. He explained that while he knew the literal meaning of the insults he had used, he had never considered how this could be viewed as an attack on gays. It was so normal, so much a part of the culture he’d grown up in. To him, it was a casual insult used in the locker room and on the ice. Shaw offered the most sincere apology, but his story shows that using homophobic slurs is something players may not even be aware of. If asked to recall times when you used homophobic language, would you be able to? Would they be aware of the lasting impact of their words?

growth of the avalanche

The Avalanche has been called out in the past for their handling of Pride events. Her 2020 Pride Night promotion has been criticized for focusing on straight allies rather than LGBTQ+ individuals. They didn’t mention LGBTQ+ fans at all and were vague and avoided answering questions in the statement they released when asked about their marketing around the event. Intentionally or not, it appears that the Avalanche have been working to change their approach not only to Pride nights, but also to the way they speak about LGBTQ+ people and activism. This year, at their Pride night, they spoke directly about gay rights and shared messages of support from some team members on their social media.

This June, they continued to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights and even louder in support. While Colorado wasn’t the only team to cover Pride Month on social media, the approach they took was very different than many clubs. They knew people would react negatively to their posts. Instead of ignoring the negativity, they responded to it. You are not the first to use homophobic language on social media. When Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand was targeted with homophobic slurs, he made sure to point out how harmful the language was.

However, it could be the first time an NHL team has done such a thorough job of educating those who react negatively to their Pride-related posts.

“People’s lives are already mixed with sport, so that’s not an option,” they stressed after receiving a comment from someone who expressed a desire to separate their activism from sport. While this response might seem quite mild, they were persistent in their support of LGBTQ+ people throughout the month and were more responsive when needed.

They have also made a conscious effort to commission and promote art by LGBTQ+ artists, as well as raising awareness of local organizations that deserved attention during Pride month. In the space of two years, they have gone from a team focused on allies to one that has been vocal in challenging discrimination and supporting LGBTQ+ creators.

I’m not sure her intercession over the past month has been perfect, especially as I’m not sure anyone can be. Most of us work at it every day, learn and grow when we make mistakes. I believe they have done so and will continue to do so, especially as they are committed to ensuring their actions continue to reflect what they spoke about during Pride month.

While these actions may seem a little vague rather than concrete steps, they show an awareness that supporting Pride goes beyond tweeting for a month or hosting an event. It’s a protracted, dedicated attempt to change a culture that has long viewed LGBTQ+ people as inferior. Other NHL teams could learn a lot from their approach. That’s not to say that no other club is doing this work, but I rarely see teams crack down on homophobic comments so publicly.

The Avalanche cannot change hockey culture alone. But they play a role in creating the kind of change that is needed. By going beyond a single event to highlight local organizations that support LGBTQ+ people and, arguably more importantly, responding to negative comments they receive, they show that their commitment to being part of this cultural shift is real. It’s not enough to hold an event or to say that you hate homophobia. You’ve got to challenge it when you see it, especially when you’re given the kind of protection a name gives you, like the Colorado Avalanche.

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