There was a rumor going around a Southern Professional Hockey League locker room at the end of last season: one of the refs was gay. Then it became, that particular ref is gay. Had this happened four years ago, I would have been crying in a corner hyperventilating.
Not because somebody knew I was gay but because I would have had to deal with the fact that I actually was gay. When the word got around to me, I didn’t care. More surprisingly, neither did the players. In fact, I didn’t even know until I bumped into a few players after the season. We were all talking and it came up. I asked out of sheer curiosity if the whole team knew. Most of them did and no one really cared.
I immediately remembered a moment earlier that year when one of their players came up to me and asked me something. I answered and he said, "Oh, OK, man, but that’s a ga… I mean, a stupid rule." That was interesting, I remember thinking to myself. It was the moment I noticed real change in action. It’s one thing to have athletes make videos about acceptance and putting an end to homophobia, but it rarely transpires to the game, where it really matters. When someone’s called a fag or any other unoriginal slur on the ice or field, it falls under the category of "part of the game" or "the heat of the moment." This was different. I’ll talk to a player about slurs if I hear one, and they usually apologize when they’re called out on it. But a player correcting himself? Regardless of the whether or not he knew I was gay, that was real progress.
Everyone who has ever come out knows that the first step is to come out to yourself. For me that has been an ongoing process of self torment borne deep within my mind. Through suffering from PTSD from a school shooting to wrestling with major depression for the better part of nine years over my own identity and living a double life, I never thought I’d come out on the other side of it.
'I want to be an NHL referee'
I grew up in Montreal playing hockey. My dad had me on skates when I was a year-and-half old, although I think it was more standing then skating. I started playing when I was 3. The game has always been a big part of my life. I played competitively until I was 19 when I decided to turn my focus on officiating. I had been reffing since I was 14 and instantly fell in love with it. I remember my first game and thinking this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be an NHL referee. From that moment onward I would study the game from every possible angle. Why was that called or not called? What would a coach do in this scenario? What was the player trying to do on that play? I realized early on that all of the great referees in the NHL understood the game better than most, and I wanted to be great. Most kids grew up idolizing players, I grew up idolizing referees — what a nerd.
The hurricane hit Sept. 13, 2006. The day that triggered an avalanche of feelings that I would face for the better part of eight years. I was sitting in my school cafeteria when someone walked in and began spraying the room with gunshots 20 feet away from me. I was 17. I was extremely fortunate to not be hit, but a girl sitting near me was. I proceeded to crawl across the room to hide behind a wall. The worst part came on the way out of the school, when I stepped over the girl, who had died.
The shooting opened up a flood of emotions that forced me to deal with much more than just PTSD but my own identity. I started college and those gay thoughts I expelled so well in high school came back and weren’t going anywhere this time. It was eating at me day after day and I refused to address it. I kept making excuses, I kept hiding, pushing myself further and further into the closet. I had dug myself a seemingly inescapable hole. I felt as if my life was going nowhere, I wasn’t doing well in school, hockey was stagnant and I hadn’t even kissed someone of the sex I was attracted to.
I finally had no choice but to come out — the emotional pain was too great to bear any longer. On Sept. 3, 2011, at 22, I started a new life in Vancouver. I decided that a fresh start was the perfect opportunity to come out. One day while I was driving (I still remember exactly where I was and the date, Nov. 2, 2011) I binged called about 10 of my friends and just told them I was gay. Most of them were surprised but they had known me most of my life and they really didn’t care. I’ll never forget my friend Andrew’s reaction: "That’s awesome man. OK, so now we gotta get you a boyfriend!" That was one of those things that just sticks with you.
A few days later I told both my older brothers (my middle brother also came out last year). Neither of them cared and were fully supportive. I told my mom went I went home for Christmas. She was surprised but I think she was also relieved. She knew something was bothering me for years. I had distanced myself from both my parents and when I was around I was a ghost.
My only regret was that I didn’t tell my dad myself. I wasn’t emotionally ready for it and I postponed it in my mind until the next time I would go back home. My mom ended up telling him because she just couldn’t keep it from him. He, like the rest of my family, was fully accepting. On the Sunday of Pride weekend in Montreal this summer, I was going to the gym and my grandfather who lives next door to my parents asked if I was going to the parade. That was such an amazing moment, my 83 year old grandfather being so open and accepting; my grandmother is also one of my biggest fans.
'A desolate mind is a sick mind'
What was unexpected was falling into a deeper depression in Vancouver. I just couldn’t seem to accept myself even though everyone around me, including other referees, were so supportive. I felt like I had to live a double life. I kept my straight hockey life and my gay social life separate, though I felt like I belonged in neither. I hit rock bottom and it was ugly.
Photo by Nate McIntyre.
A desolate mind is a sick mind and I have never felt so much pain in my life. The emotional pain I had drawn onto myself was scary. I was terrified and felt so alone. The hardest thing I ever had to do was open up about my depression, but my saving grace was music. Listening to music, playing drums and piano soothed my soul. Something inexplicable happens when you listen to music. You fall under its spell and you feel it reverberate through your aching bones. It’s the voice that makes you feel what you can’t explain and it’s the thing you want to hear that no one can put into words. It’s the unguarded tears that start flowing unexpectedly that comfort you in a way nothing else can. Opening up got me out of my depression, music got me through it.
In the worst times I felt like a hypocrite and coward. To help me cope with my guilt of not being able to accept myself I began to speak at high schools in Vancouver about LGBT inclusion in sports, against bullying, and to open up about mental illness. I felt like a coward because I couldn’t seem to practice what I was preaching. I was trying to fight the battle for everyone else but myself. I even made a coming out YouTube video (when I watch it now I barely recognize myself). It’s almost as if when I was speaking at schools I was really speaking to myself, trying to convince myself that it was OK for me to gay. There wasn’t one defining poetic moment where it all came together, I just ate away at my own internalized homophobia over time until I finally accepted that it was also OK for me to be gay.
Being able to accept myself has built my confidence. After I spoke at one school I got this incredibly powerful email back from a student who was struggling.
"The last few weeks have been really rough for me. After a suicide attempt, I decided to tell my mom about my depression and she was so accepting that I felt I had to be honest. I came out to my mom and dad, and I can honestly say it was the hardest thing I've ever done. Their reactions surprised me, and they were a lot more accepting then I expected them to be. I find it impossible to believe that not even a week ago I tried to take my own life over this.
"I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the courage to come out.
"Thank you so much."
The fact that I could help this one student avoid that path makes my whole journey worth it. I want to tell people that there’s nothing wrong with who you are and that you are most definitely not alone in your battle. There’s much work to be done but the foundation has no doubt been laid. It’s not about being gay or being straight, it’s about just being a good and decent human being.
Acceptance in hockey
My hockey season just started and I’ll be working a split schedule between the East Coast Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League which is AA and A minor pro hockey respectively. Most NHL referees have worked up through the ECHL and then on to the AHL, which is the stepping stone to the NHL. As soon as I got hired I told my bosses that I was gay. I figured since I was so open about it they would eventually find out one way or another and I had rather they hear it from me.
The fact they are all fully supportive and have no issues with me writing this story makes me even more confident about the future. The amount of support I’ve received has only reinforced the idea that being yourself is the only way out. And it may be scary and seem impossible but there is light at the end of the tunnel. And as John Steinbeck writes in East of Eden, " If you’re not afraid, then you could never learn anything about courage."
Photo by Nate McIntyre.
I’m living in Nashville until the end of the season but a referee’s life is mostly on the road. In any given month we can drive up to 5,000 miles a month, or 8,000 KM if you’re like me and that first number means nothing to you. That’s in addition to any flying we may do. We like to make sure every building gets their fair shake at yelling a new ref. We are the fairness police, after all. On any given day we’ll either be driving to a city, usually from another game, or waking up in a different hotel on a game day. The main difference between a ref and player is that our team changes on a nightly basis. Besides training camp in September, I’ll rarely see the same guys in a season, or if I do it may be a few months apart.
The best night’s are the one’s where we get in and out of the building without getting noticed. Having to make judgement calls every night, someone will always inevitably disagree with you, but as officials we have to trust our own instincts and experience and hope for no controversy. I say hope, because on a close play or gray area, even if the official makes the right call or the most correct call when interpretation is involved, there will be controversy. That’s why we do everything we do off the ice, to minimize possible controversy.
Everything from rule knowledge to fitness to understanding the game, it’s all in the goal of getting the call right on the ice as often as possible. If you can minimize any doubt, you will be a successful official. That means working your butt off to be in the best possible position to make the call. It means knowing the intricacies of the rule book and why certain rules are in place. It means understanding the game within the game. That also means checking your ego at the door, because sometimes you will be wrong.
Changing the culture
The culture of the game, and of sports in general, is a work in progress. The part I love is everything I just mentioned, which happens on the ice, in the building you’re working that night. The only time I feel alone or out of place is outside of the game, within the culture. As much progress that has been made, the sports world is still unfamiliar territory for the LGBTQ community. It’s an interesting thing. LGBTQ movements have made incredible steps in the sports world and to their credit most people have been overwhelmingly accepting. There has been so much focus on how any athlete or jock can be gay and breaking down the gay stereotype. So much to the point that, in my opinion, it has excluded athletes, coaches, and fans who may be more effeminate and, for lack of a better expression, stereotypically gay.
At the root of it is the notion that to be a part of the sport world you have to be a certain type of person. The progress has included gay people who may still fit that persona but doesn’t leave much room for anyone who may actually be different, look different or act differently. Countless times I’ve heard people around me say that they have no problem with gay guys, it’s just the one’s who are feminine and "change their voice" who bother them. That mentality leads those people to gravitate away from sports at a young age and not giving them an opportunity to fall in love with a sport the way I did. That’s what creates this divide in culture and fosters both kinds of stereotypes.
Photo by Nate McIntyre.
Living and traveling quite a bit in the U.S. South this season, I have been somewhat surprised as to the acceptance I’ve received so far. Although not everyone knows, the people who do don’t seem to mind, especially all of the other refs I’ve spoken to who know. My roommate this season is totally cool with it and we joke about it all the time. In his words, "My girlfriend is gonna love you!" I really can’t complain on that front — it just seems unfair that the overall response wouldn’t be as unanimous for a more effeminate gay guy. The fact that out of the five major pro sports in North America, hockey is the only sport where no player (active or retired) has yet to come out speaks louder than words. We all know they’re there, but no one has come forward yet. I wanted to share my story because, even though I’m a referee, I want any young gay closeted hockey player to have some hope.
Throughout high school I knew somewhere deep down that I was gay, or at least that I was living with some hindrance. The hindrance wasn’t being gay but being closeted. I wasn’t struggling with it much until I was 21 when it confronted me head on. The truth is even though I didn’t feel like I was struggling, the damage of being closeted for so long later became omnipresent. Feelings aren’t chronological — something that happens today may only affect you months or years down the line.
Throughout high school I felt there was a missing piece. I didn’t know what it was but I knew there was something holding me back. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. Looking back at my teenage self the possibility of being gay was so obvious, but I didn’t even entertain the idea. I had all the answers to the wrong questions. Beyond hockey, I want to show the LGBTQ community that you can belong anywhere you want to belong and just be yourself. I don’t want anyone to feel as alone and depressed as I did.
Andrea Barone, 26, is a professional hockey referee with the Southern Professional Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League. He is a native of Montreal. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Story edited by Jim Buzinski.