Kendra Fisher, a former elite ice hockey goalie for Canada and current inline hockey player, opened up about her sexual orientation in a public forum for the first time at the Canadian Olympic Committee's #OneTeam round table last week, saying with a pause and conviction: "I am a gay athlete."
While she has never spoken about her sexual orientation to the media, and it is not mentioned on her Web site, Fisher said she has never hidden her sexual orientation from anyone who has asked. She has also shared news from and about her wife on social media:
Yet it's been her mental illness that has drawn her public focus. Fisher was diagnosed with mental illness - severe anxiety disorder - the day she qualified for Team Canada years ago. While she pulled away from the Team invitation so she could cope with the mental illness, she also found that sport was her safe harbor, a place on the ice where she was able to focus singularly on the job in front of her.
"Sports saved my life. Sports literally saved my life. I was at a point in dealing with mental illness that I didn't have the ability to function anymore. I had gotten so sick that I couldn't go to school. I had to quit my job. I had isolated myself. I was at Team Canada camp one day and the next day I was a shell of myself. Sport was my safe place. That was pretty much the only thing I forced myself to continue with."
In recent years Fisher has focused her activism and public work on helping others understand and cope with mental illness. That singular focus has pulled her away from drawing attention to herself as an LGBT athlete. For someone who found sports as an escape, falling into activism in sports was of no interest. Working on mental health issues called to her more powerfully.
"I didn't start playing hockey so I could be an advocate, I started playing hockey because I loved the game. And at the point where I could have these conversations at high levels in the sport, I needed to have these conversations."
There have been other reasons for Fisher's lack of formal public acknowledgement of her sexual orientation. Since coming out in her private life, and particularly in sports, she has been embraced by friends and family. Teammates knew Fisher was gay, but she said she was never shunned by any of them. That made her think the sports world was further along in acceptance that it is, and that it simply wasn't important for her to be part of the broader conversation about LGBT issues. It's not that she didn't want to rock the boat, she didn't even realize there was any need for rocking.
"There's this assumption that it's not necessary for women in sports in particular to come out publicly. It's failing to understand the importance of having the conversation and being in that place. I came through in a generation when the transition of being gay was just supposed to happen quietly. I started a relationship with a woman and it just wasn't talked about. Only in having conversations with people have I realized the need for me to talk about this."
Fisher echoed something that was a recurring theme throughout the day of conversations at the #OneTeam round table. Many lesbians felt pressure to not be gay - or at least not share it publicly - because of the stereotypes of female athletes. Olympic rowing gold medalist Marnie McBean said she had heard from kids growing up that she was a lesbian, even before she had come to understand her own sexual orientation. That made McBean less interested in coming out publicly, something she did in 2013.
That same sentiment was resounded by Fisher, who takes issue with the stereotypes thrust on women who simply wear suits or cut their hair short or play sports. Her brother had told her she was gay before she ever knew - consequently, he was the last family member to whom she came out.
"We don't like there to be that attitude, 'well of course she's gay, she's a hockey player.' It's all of those stereotypes that you fight against because we all have a sense of self. We don't want to be grouped into this stereotypical expectation of a female hockey player."
Recently Fisher's perspective has changed. As conversation in the Canadian sports world has revolved more and more around LGBT issues, including last year's Winter Olympics in Russia, Fisher has become increasingly aware of the need to be visible as an LGBT elite athlete and improve education on the underlying issues.
"There are so many youth who don't feel like sports is a safe environment, and sexuality does play a role. To allow sport to be what it can be, it has to be a safe environment. I've always been told to be part of the solution when there's a problem. And part of that is the responsibility to share in the conversation."
Fisher shared in the conversation powerfully this week at the #OneTeam round table. While she will continue to be a powerful voice in tackling mental health issues, look for her to lend her voice more to LGBT sports issues in the very near future.
You can follow Kendra Fisher on Twitter @Kendra_Fisher30 or on her Facebook page. You can also read Fisher's columns on mental illness at the Huffington Post. The Mark S. Bonham Center, Egale and You Can Play also co-presented the #OneTeam round table with the Canadian Olympic Committee.