(This story was published in 2007).

By: Mark Kari

The Toronto Raptors, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto’s new pro soccer team Toronto FC) will support the gay community when they host Rainbow Hoops Night on Friday, February 23, 2007. The event is named for Rainbow Hoops, a lesbian-positive women’s recreational basketball league that is using the event as a fundraiser, a way to encourage team spirit, and a way to develop an interest in basketball among the gay community in Toronto.

“The Toronto Raptors are pleased to welcome friends and supporters of the Rainbow Hoops women’s basketball league to our February 23 game against the Indiana Pacers,” said Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. And while not the first NBA team to publicly welcome a gay group (the Philadelphia 76ers hosted a Gay Community Night in 2004), the Raptors say they are happy to help Rainbow Hoops achieve their goal of purchasing a new portable electronic scoreboard.

“I am thrilled that the Raptors are supporting our community,” says Nel Gomes, a member of the Rainbow Hoops league, which plays its games at a Toronto community centre. “We don’t have a WNBA team in Toronto, and often women’s sports are not given the same amount of media exposure that men’s professional teams are. It’s a real treat to see the Raptors showcasing the importance of basketball among women, as well.”

“I’m excited to be working with the Raptors on gay day,” said Heather Mackenzie, co-owner of popular neighbourhood restaurant Big Mamma’s Boy and sponsor of the women’s basketball league. “I love them even more. Also, I respect them for allowing us this opportunity to be a part of the Raptors for a day. Gay days bring out new people to showcase the sport. I know after the Blue Jays Pride game, a couple of women thanked me and said they had no idea baseball was so exciting. So it is good for our community as well as the team.”

Toronto’s pro sports teams support community

In a country where gay marriage is legal, the news that the Toronto Raptors will be hosting a gay community group is not all that surprising. Toronto’s pro sports teams have put on a gay-friendly face in recent years, shocking a few people and pleasing many.

In 2004, the Toronto Blue Jays were the first pro sports team in Canada to host a Pride Night game. The Jays have hosted Pride Night for three straight years, donating over $3,000 in that period to the Toronto Pride Committee and Team Toronto (an umbrella group for local gay sports leagues).

Toronto’s most venerable and beloved team, the Maple Leafs, made headlines in 2006 when it was revealed that they had authorized use of the official team name, jersey and logo for a movie about a gay former hockey player. Even the film’s star, Canadian actor Tom Cavanaugh (TV’s Ed and Love Monkey), was thrown for a loop. He told the Toronto Star, “I never in a million years thought when we finally went to shooting we’d be donning Leaf sweaters. I thought it’d be that thing where it’s the Toronto Razorbacks or whatever.”

Of course, not everyone was happy. Hockey commentator Don Cherry told the Star, “I know (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman wanted a kinder, gentler league, but this is too much.”

According to the New York Times, the NHL and Toronto Maple Leafs are “the first major pro league and team known to lend its logos to a movie with a homosexual theme.” In an article titled “Hard-Nosed League Delivers A Clear Message of Acceptance,” they quote Dave Kopay, the gay former NFL running back on the NHL’s decision: “Unbelievable. I guess progressive is the new buzzword, but I’d say this is a breakthrough against the stigma that still exists in sports.”

Although the film, Breakfast with Scot (based on the 1999 novel by Michael Downing about a gay couple who unexpectedly become parents to a flamboyant 11 year old boy named Scot), won’t be released until late 2007, anti-gay activists have already begun their attack on the NHL. But the league will not be swayed. “Certain individuals are missing the point,” said NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur to the New York Times. “From our standpoint, this is about a modern family helping to raise a young boy. There was no intention for this to be a political statement, but having said that, we’re not going to back down.”

Gay days for the straight guy?

Although this is the first gay day for the Raptors, gay and lesbian sports fans in Toronto have been supporting Toronto Blue Jays Pride Night for the past three years. While gay days are clearly important to the LGBT community, some, like Ken Bleyer, an American now living in Canada, suggest that “it’s the straight community that needs them.”

Pat Barry, a participant in the gay sports leagues in Toronto, concurs. “Straight people are sitting next to us in the stadiums, arenas and sports bars every day and don’t even realize it. Gay days let them know we are here.”

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