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One Athlete's Story

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(This story was published in 2005).

By Eric Anderson

Reprinted by Permission from SUNY Press

Like many young Canadians, Aaron, who now plays for the National Hockey League (NHL), grew up in a culture obsessed with ice hockey.

“I don’t know a lot about hockey,” I confessed at the beginning of the interview.

“You are American,” he laughed, “and you’re from California. But if you’re from Canada you just can’t escape it,” he tells me during our telephone interview from the lobby of a hotel.

“I grew up in a town which was all about hockey, and my dad played hockey professionally, so I really don’t remember a time when I couldn’t skate.”

He informs me that he has seen about a dozen players in gay bars over the years. “One time, I ran into another player from my own team.”

Aaron’s early socialization (and natural talent) enabled him to excel at hockey as a youth. Hockey was Aaron’s first love; boys became his second.

While most of the athletes I interviewed knew that they were gay before puberty, Aaron was different. He didn’t figure out that he was gay until his early teens. It bothered him not because he liked guys but because he felt so alone in liking guys. “I couldn’t go online to talk about it; there was no Internet back then, so . . . I told my priest. He encouraged me not to act on it, and to keep it silent. So I did.”

In college the fear of exploring his sexuality began to erode, so while on a full scholarship to an American university, and with his first fake ID in hand, he was determined to find out where the gay district was. “I was successful. I found not one but two guys to go home with that night.”

He visited the gay district more frequently over the next few years, but because this time frame coincided with his ascendancy as a hockey player, he increasingly grew afraid of being recognized in gay clubs. His worry remained as he navigated the hierarchy of clubs and leagues before eventually skating for an NHL team. He has skated here for several years, even winning a Stanley Cup title.

As a hockey player, Aaron represents a paradox in relation to orthodox masculinity. He has survived the serious bodily risk that comes with this violent sport, but he fears another kind of damage—the loss of respect if he were to come out. “If people found out I was gay, it would ruin everything,” he tells me. He was initially leery to give me this interview and revealed only parts of his identity to me at a time in order to build trust. He has more practical fears too. He fears coming out would cause him to lose ice time or to become “the bastard of the company unit.”

“I’m not afraid of being selected out for punishment, my team would beat ass if anyone tried to mess with me, but I just don’t think it would help my playing.” He continued, I really love what I do. I’m like a racehorse on the track, eager to run. I want to skate. I want to play; it hurts me not to. I’m one of the luckiest guys, to be able to do what I want and get paid way too much for it, and I’m afraid that coming out would spoil that. I just wish people didn’t care so much.”

Aaron struggles to lead some semblance of a normal romantic and social life away from the prying eyes of his teammates. He has a boyfriend of several years, gay friends, and he permits himself to visit gay clubs when he is on the road—which is often. On rare occasions, he even runs into other professional hockey players when visiting gay establishments.

“You know, hockey players have this sort of look to them. It just screams, ‘I’m a hockey player’, so when I go to the bars, I dress like a professional and tell people I work with computers.” Still, on the few occasions when another professional hockey player enters the bar, he grows distressed. “It’s like, holy shit. You can spot them from a mile away, and its just like, oh my god, what am I going to do?”

Most of the time the other player is equally willing to avoid discussing the situation. “A few times the guy has just said like, ‘Aaron Barnes, huh?’ Then I’ll say, ‘We will talk about this later.’ But I never do.”

He informs me that he has seen about a dozen players in gay bars over the years. “One time, I ran into another player from my own team.”

Despite being “absolutely terrified,” he played the encounter off without candor. “What are you doing here?” his teammate asked. “Just checking the place out,” he responded. “Me too,” his teammate quipped. They have yet to talk about their encounter.

Managing a closeted gay identity is tricky for Aaron. Hockey necessitates that most all of his free time be spent with the team.

“Even if you think that someone might be cool with it, you don’t necessarily want to tell them because you might be shipped to another team, and you don’t want them to have something to use against you.”

In order to pass as heterosexual, Aaron’s public acts are in strict accord with masculine ideals. He conforms to the norms of masculinity exhibited in the sport, including having sex with women, because he is afraid of being perceived out of step with the masculine expectations of the sport. While he often feels he would like to disclose his sexuality to his teammates, he fears losing the competitive edge in acquiring ice time.

When I inquired as to the degree of homophobia in the NHL, Aaron informed me, “You know there was a lot of it in the lower ranks, especially in high school and college. But in the NHL we are professionals, and guys really aren’t all that homophobic.”

He recounted a story about taking a long bus trip with his team after the Massachusetts State Supreme Court came out with their ruling that the state could not stop same-sex marriage in late 2003:

“We were on the bus not too long ago, and someone was talking about the Massachusetts marriage thing, and there were a few older guys that were closed-minded, and saying it was wrong. They were comparing it to marrying goats. I got pissed and said, ‘I really don’t think marrying goats was the next logical step. You know, think about it,’ I said.”

I asked him if others took his position. “A few players stood up and told them to settle down. Most were trying to sleep, and these guys were just annoying them.”

Aaron also reports that the use of homophobic language is surprisingly low. “I don’t really hear fag in the locker room. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard it at all. A lot of us just won’t stand for that kind of stuff.”

The secret he withholds from his teammates is a weighty matter. In our telephone interview (conducted from his cell phone in his hotel room) he stops several times or unrepentantly changes the subject in order to cast off suspicion as to the nature of his long conversation from his teammates who barge in and out.

While Aaron truly loves the game he plays, like most of the closeted collegiate and professional athletes in my study, he finds the notion of team, and the time it takes to do all that is required of being part of a team, constraining.

“You just can’t escape the guys,” he tells me. “I mean, they will just walk into your hotel room, and they always want to go out drinking with you,” so it’s hard to have much privacy. “One time I had my boyfriend visiting me in the hotel room, and the coach knocked on my door and wanted to talk. So my boyfriend went and hid in the bathroom while the coach talked to me for an hour and a half.”

Where heterosexual athletes can incorporate their girlfriends or wives into certain team functions, Aaron has none of those freedoms. He sneaks guys into his hotel room when on the road (he is in an open relationship), and he cannot talk to his boyfriend at will. Although he has taken a few more risks as he has gotten older (he is an established and well-known player), including telling three of his teammates, he feels constrained from coming out any further.

“I think about coming out to my team all the time. I think, ‘Maybe today will be the day,’ then it’s not. I’d really like to. On the other hand I’m so used to being the way I am.”