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I came out to my best friend and roommate when I was 25 (and I’m clinging to that age for another 4 months). As a pair, we’ve been inseparable since the 8th grade. His family treated me as one of their own, giving me an immeasurable amount of advice, guidance and support through our formative years. Based on the trajectories our lives were taking, my biggest fear in coming out to him was that, once I said those words, things would be different between us. Of course, everything changed, but, thankfully, the respect and love we have for one another didn’t.
What does this all have to do with being gay in the locker room? Well, after I told him I was gay — in the parking lot at the hockey rink, following one of our games together — I began to wonder what it was going to be like coming out in a place considered safe for straight men to be unabashedly naked, vulgar, and inappropriate towards one another.
For those who’ve never played organized sports, there’s one mantra: What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room. Trust me, it’s less raunchy than it sounds. Let’s just say, when sitting on the benches in nothing more than a jock or towel, everything is subject to ridicule, conversation and laughter. Nothing is said in malice — rather, it’s a form of bonding. I make fun of your girlfriend or wife, you reciprocate. That’s just the way it is. To think that, by announcing my sexuality and potentially making everyone uncomfortable, I could take that environment of brotherhood and camaraderie and throw it in the dirt weighed heavily on my shoulders.
I don’t mean to extrapolate my personal feelings to the rest of my sporting brethren, but I can’t imagine it’s too different for other gay athletes. Playing a sport is similar to joining a fraternity — they’re a group of people you bond with, in some situations more so than your own family. That’s not something you want to lose. Michael Sam made mention that, when he publicly announced his sexuality, nothing had changed between him and his teammates after coming out to them in private. That status quo is what gave him the strength to come out publicly.
My story is similar. After the initial shock, I did my best to go into the locker room the next week like nothing was different. But it was. I had regressed into a shell, the same one everyone finds themselves in when they join a new team. I didn’t want to speak up and I stayed out of the volleys of insults and fun. It was strange.
Then we played. It was the usual foray: shots, passes, poke checks. Good fun, and trash talking, was had. A smile was on my face, at least until the game was over. Then — the single most fearful moment in any gay man’s locker room experience — the showers. At this point only a few of the guys in the room knew, but enough to make it uncomfortable. In my desperation to leave, I tried to be first in and first out. No dice. My roommate walked in, wanting to get done, changed and head to IHOP for our routine after-game-meal. And that’s when it happened.
“Bro, have you been doing squats?” It’s an inside joke, one he said every time someone from the other team walked into the bathroom in an attempt to make them feel uncomfortable. All at once I realized nothing had changed. He didn’t care — they didn’t care — if I was gay. I was still Brandon: full-time defenseman, part-time agitator of the team.
So, when people ask me what it’s like being a gay man in a locker room full of straight guys, I can honestly say that it’s no different. What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room.