By Patrick Burke
Co-founder, You Can Play project
I was told that writing something for a charity's one year anniversary is something that I'm supposed to do. As my mother, numerous ex-girlfriends, and a litany of traumatized teachers can tell you, I'm not really good at listening when someone tells me what I'm supposed to do. So I spent today with what I told other people was writer's block, but was really just me not wanting to do some crappy "year in review article."
But the anniversary is a very big deal, so people kept reaching out to check in, and I kept getting asked the same three things by media, fans, friends, and so on: What have you learned this year? What are you most proud of? What was your favorite moment? And my inability to really answer those questions finally made me want to put something on paper.
You see, I don't have specific moments that jump out at me. We've had some very cool things happen this year. All of our NHL videos. The AHL Pledge campaign. Macklemore speaking out against anti-gay language. Our partnerships with the Canadian Women's Hockey League and the America East Conference. Having major Division 1 athletic powerhouses invite young LGBT athletes to their school. Marching in Vancouver Pride with Manny Malhotra, Jason Garrison, and Fin. Really amazing, ground-breaking stuff, to be honest. But through it all, my pride isn't directed at any one specific moment. I am most proud of two ongoing facets of our work: the principles that are guiding us, and our work amplifying the voices of LGBT athletes.
I am immensely proud of the LGBT athletes I have been lucky enough to work with this year. I know my role in this fight is to be an ally to the LGBT athletic community. My way of doing that is, whenever possible, by providing them with an opportunity to share their stories. I rarely, rarely give speeches alone, preferring instead to moderate a panel of LGBT athletes. When issues arise in the sports world, we work to ensure that the LGBT viewpoints are given the appropriate weight. For example, in response to the recent controversies in the NFL, we have worked to ensure that the voices of Wade Davis and Esera Tuaolo, both gay former NFL players, are the voices publicly representing You Can Play. I fail to see how I could call myself an ally if I wasn't actually allied with anyone.
Thanks to this policy, I've been able to see LGBT athletes grow into roles that I know they never thought were possible. Jose Estevez, a gay runner from Boston College, had never done any public advocacy work before You Can Play called him to help handle the Yunel Escobar incident. Now, he is a regular speaker on our panels, is working hard for equality at BC, and the Blue Jays have personally requested he come with me to help address the players at spring training. Angela Hucles is a two-time Olympic medalist, and our Invisible Athlete Forum was the first time she had spoken publicly about her experience as an elite lesbian athlete. Now she can't wait to fly around the world to speak on our behalf and share her story. Scott Heggart describes himself as "shy". He's now spoken to two professional hockey teams about his experiences as a gay athlete, and has made a lasting impact on both of them. Cory Oskam is a transgender goalie from Vancouver who we first heard about through the Canucks organization. His openness and honesty about his transition process is truly staggering. Because he has the courage to speak up, we're able to use our resources to ensure that the voices of young transgender athletes are heard.
These are just some of the amazing athletes we've worked with this year, and seeing them grow into their voice has been truly inspiring. These are stories that might have been lost a decade ago. If we were lucky, these athletes would have been able to share their stories once or twice, to some small groups or maybe some local media. Now, they are true advocates, spreading their stories to mainstream media outlets, sports fans everywhere, and athletes of all ages and skill levels. And nothing is more effective at fighting homophobia in locker rooms than the courage of an LGBT athlete sharing his or her story. I could be the world's most compelling orator in sharing my story of being an ally, and it would never have the true, measurable impact of Scott talking quietly about his fear of losing hockey because he was gay.
Along with our partners at GO! Athletes, we will continue to work with LGBT athletes to ensure they have the resources necessary to be in a safe place personally. Once that is ensured, we will continue to work with them to help them speak up and out on what changes they want to see in the sports world. We promise to work relentlessly alongside LGBT athletes to ensure that the movement for equality in the sports world is guided by those people who are truly affected by it.
This is the type of outreach that makes lasting changes to the sports world. Like any culture, the athletic culture is incredibly resistant to outsiders attempting to change things. One of our great strengths as a group is that all of us- from myself, to my co-founders, to our advisory board, to our speakers- are members of the sports world. We are not outsiders telling athletes they're bad people. We are fellow athletes, some of whom happen to be gay, talking about ways we can improve our locker room. We connect with athletes of all skill levels, sexual orientations, and genders because we've been there ourselves. This type of work, however, is also much more painstaking.
Because of this, I am tremendously proud that we have stuck to our principles. We've avoided taking the easy route. We've passed on writing angry editorials and jumping in front of cameras every time something happens. We've kept a focus on real work, not on grabbing headlines. Were fame our end goal, we could have done a lot more to ensure that people know who were are. We have no interest in "raising awareness" at the expense of the reputations of the athletes, teams, and leagues that we work with. When the circumstances have called for us to speak out, we have done so. We have done so forcefully, clearly, and unequivocally- but always with a constructive goal in mind. There have been times where it has been incredibly tempting to make a scene, to cut a corner, to change our focus. But principles can't be things you abandon for easy gains. Otherwise they're not really principles, they're just some crap you spewed once to sound impressive. We will not abandon our principles for anything- not for notoriety, not for money, not because it will lessen the burden of doing real work.
Our focus, on a day to day basis, remains and will perpetually remain unchanged- how can we engage as many athletes as possible, as effectively as possible, to educate them on this issue? Our goal is a long-term, sustained, true change to the current athletic culture. Not quick PR stunts and whitewash jobs. We have maintained that focus throughout this year in spite of opportunities to veer away from that. We will continue to do so in the future. By working with athletes, with teams, and with leagues, the sports culture becomes ours to shape from the inside. It's a harder journey, a longer fight, a more tiring struggle. It will be worth it in the end.
So, on behalf of my co-founders Brian and Glenn, Happy Birthday to all of you who make up the You Can Play movement. To our friends, family, and supporters: Thank you. We could never have done this without you. An extra special thank you to my Mother, Father, step-mother, and my four rock star sisters for all of their love, support, patience, and encouragement. To Brendan, thank you, for everything. To the athletes who have stepped up to support us, thank you. To the colleges who have invited us to speak, invited LGBT athletes to their teams, or asked us to help guide their LGBT policies, thank you. To the LGBT athletes who have shared their stories with us, publicly or privately, thank you. To everyone who helps spread the word about the work we are doing, whether in the media or just by talking to your friends, thank you. To everyone who has made changes to their language, behaviors, or attitudes because of our work, thank you. To everyone who is excited to see what's next...we are too.