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For gay hockey player, locker room felt like a prison

Benjamin Fredell was playing in an elite youth league, but years of homophobia in the sport and self-hatred led him to quit to find happiness.

Benjamin Fredell played goalie for elite youth hockey teams in Washington and California before giving up the sport.
Photo courtesy of the author

The following article discusses self-harm. If you’d like more information or help with this subject, we’ve included that information at the end.

I remember back in middle school when I thought I had depression. I think I figured that no one in my Seattle suburb would understand me. Maybe I still don’t.

There was this girl who would always try to hug me. Sometimes her long, baggy sweater would roll down when she raised her arms for a hug, revealing arms full of cuts like deep waves in a dark ocean.

I still feel the hole where my heart dropped when I saw it. That was my introduction to self-harm, coinciding with the same years I started to really get into hockey and the subsequent deterioration of my mental health.

I am now struggling to identify with the community that I am a part of despite the inclusivity of its nature. I spent a very large portion of my life in Kent, Washington, being told what my sexuality was, and which one was the “right” one.

I remember the first time someone called me “gay” in elementary school with a negative connotation. I remember it felt like I was being singled out, that it felt like I was being called “gay” more than any of my peers at the time, so I started to harden.

I remember one day I came home and asked my brother, “How do I make these people stop calling me that? What do I say to them?” And he looked at me coolly and said, “Just say, ‘Yeah, I’m gay, so what?’”

But no, Max! I can’t say that because that’s bad, remember? I was so adamantly against being gay that I started to hurt myself the second I started to feel attraction for another boy, but that was way after elementary school and right around the time I started playing hockey.

It wasn’t the hockey community that introduced me to homophobia, but rather it was the environment that helped reinforce themes that built and toughened my self-hatred.

I had never experienced the word “faggot” being said so many times before entering a youth hockey locker room. I don’t want to say it was everyone and I don’t even want to say that it wasn’t me, because at times it definitely was. I think that the fairest thing to say is that it was occurring. And I was so engrossed in the sport that I overlooked the side effects of normalizing these forms of aggression. I even started to overlook what it would mean to hide who I really was.

Freshman year in high school it was harder to hide from even myself. I think deep down I always knew who I really was. I think deep down I really prayed that I wasn’t who I knew I might be.

High school was an unnecessarily difficult fever dream of an existence, where reality was jumping from one major moment to the next. My team practiced in Renton, which was quite the drive for me at the time.

In my freshman year my team won Tier II nationals in Charlotte, N.C. I played goalie and winning that title was where things really started rolling. I was being told that playing elite-level hockey was something I could really do and somewhere in my brain I thought that was a good idea.

I loved the sport. I loved the feeling of the ice and being fully immersed in the magic of the game. I loved coming up clutch in overtime for my team or making a glove save that my teammates would talk about in the locker room after the game. The ice is where I excelled. It was off the ice where things started to get really bad.

As high school progressed and I started to understand more about my sexuality the locker room became a real source of tension for me. The place that initially felt like home started to feel like a handmade prison.

I felt trapped because I thought that playing hockey was the only thing I was good at. I somehow managed to get an invitation to a rookie camp at my local Western Hockey League team. I managed to make the local Tier I teams — the premier amateur youth league — and for some reason that meant something to me. That was important.

I was going up to Canada every weekend and going on flights and staying in hotels. I was spending six days a week with my teammate, whom I considered friends. The friends I started to feel would honestly hate who I really was.

I built a facade. I was playing my part. That’s what I thought a good teammate would do. That part that I was playing started to reach into every aspect of my life. I was an asshole at times. I was a shitty student who started to skip school because I didn’t “give a fuck.” School is not what mattered now.

Benjamin Fredell loved playing hockey but not the environment it spawned.

My brother Max and I went on a walk recently, and he asked me if I ever say anything that I actually mean, pointing out the effects of my “hockey career” all too present in my current state. Yeah, I do, I told Max. I am so fucking scared of what people think of me that I would rather just pretend to be someone else in order to fit in. I am a product of my experience, but I am also a product of how I chose to react to those experiences.

There is an alternate me. One who learns from the things I tell him when I go back in a time machine and tell myself what I have gone through and he will have this moment of clarity where he sees the forest for the trees and comes out to the entire world in one fell swoop. And he will be happy.

I spent so long saying that I wasn’t a part of the LGBT community, and detesting it, that it feels false to even say that I am a part of it now. How wrong would it feel to go to a Pride parade when I am still struggling with even feeling proud about who I am?

I remember one day in particular. I was with a girl. A nice girl. We had this big date going and I brought her back to my house to watch a movie. Next thing you know we were making out and she was on top of me, the basement lights cold on our skin. I remember feeling so embarrassed that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get it up.

I remember sitting there in the dark of my room staring at the walls while she tried to comfort me. While she tried to ask me if it was her fault or something she had done. I looked at her and told her that, no, she was great. And then I said that “I just really hope this doesn’t mean...” as my voice trailed off into a quivering mess, and her watering eyes showing understanding.

I didn’t want to be gay. I hated myself for even the thought of it. I tried so many times with so many girls. I played my part. I had girlfriends. I had homecoming dates and prom dates and the boys would ask how it went and I’d tell them crazy sex stories and they’d laugh and I’d crawl back into my shell, safe, for the time being.

Junior year in high school is when everything came crashing down. I had a girlfriend and I hated myself. We broke up and I hated myself. I started skipping school more frequently and sat in my car during lunch and I fucking hated myself. I felt alone. I felt like there was no one who would understand.

It wasn’t that I was unpopular with my teammates. I was seen as weird, definitely, but I was still one of the boys. It was an isolating world in which I lived. The hockey community I was a part of continued to express its hatred for the LGBTQ community.

One time, at a season-ending party at a teammate’s house, one of the guys went so far as to say that transgender people should kill themselves, speaking specifically about a girl who went to the same school that I went to at the time.

I wonder sometimes why I didn’t speak up against this. Maybe because I was scared or weak. Or maybe because I had heard it all too much that it wasn’t a surprise anymore to hear something so extreme, that I was so disconnected from homosexuality that I started to be OK with the outlandish vocal violence towards it.

Eventually, I started to hate the way I felt and thought that maybe there was something I could do about it. I thought back to middle school, which caused me to start harming myself. Little by little. It felt better that way. It was a kind of pain that I understood. A manly, physical pain. I’d show up to school with bruises on my face and say it was from hockey. I’d show up to hockey and say it was from last practice.

It was the perfect cycle and perfect excuse. I remember one time, when the school kept calling home about my habit of skipping class. My dad sat me down in the living room and looked at me, totally frustrated. He had yelled at me so much that he didn’t know what it would take to fix the situation. He would say “don’t skip anymore,” I would agree and then I would skip.

The solution came when I got the option to go to California to play hockey for an elite youth team in Los Angeles. I thought that this would be my fresh start, and if it didn’t work out, I’d just kill myself. Admittedly, California wasn’t that bad. The guys were way less homophobic than the ones back home in Washington.

I was doing online school and spending most of my time at the rink and with my host family. Sometimes I would go to football games with a teammate and some of his friends. But it didn’t take long for loneliness to kick in, and those same old feelings of self-hatred come back. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter where you go if you don’t change yourself.

The team I played for was a AAA U18 team in Los Angeles, the LA Jr. Kings 18 and under. I found myself as the only out-of-state player, and a strange out-of-state player at that. Halfway through the first part of the season I wasn’t doing any online school and it was a problem. My host dad would try and help, as did my real dad via constant texts and calls. None of it mattered. I was already far gone by that point.

There was one thing, one singular event that saved me. Someone very close to me tried to take their own life and ended up in a hospital for a while. I was told a week after it happened, when my dad called. As he told me I started to feel my phone gain weight in my hand. It felt like all of time had stopped just for that one moment. I was alone in the house in California, trying to breathe and respond to my dad who was asking if I was OK.

Two weeks later I built up enough courage to tell my dad that I needed help. And that I needed to go home. I called my coach that day to tell him that I quit. After an already shaky season he asked if it was something that he did and I said no. And I remember him saying that it was hard to hear because I “could have been something.” Which will be something that will always echo in my head when I regret my decision to quit the sport altogether.

I told my host family that night and my dad flew in the next day and we left. I also announced my decision to quit on Instagram in May 2019, writing, “C ya hckey Been fun.”

The following months consisted of some very long and awkward talks in a small room with my new therapist about which I liked more, a penis or vagina, and the realization that maybe my mental health issues manifested from the toxicity of my penis having counterparts.

After months of fixing my online school grades and reaching some form of normality back home I decided that I should come out to some of my friends, because what I really needed was some form of acceptance. Which is exactly what I did, one at a time, with a 100% success rate.

Today, I am a year clean from hockey and am starting to feel somewhat more optimistic about life. I even started dating the trans girl I mentioned earlier, the one my teammate at the time said should kill herself.

Benjamin Fredell is a freshman at the University of Washington Tacoma.

I’m still just a scared kid, but at least now I exist in a realm where I feel safe to be myself.

I think there is a part of me hoping that some of my former teammates who were the most homophobic see this article, maybe read the name of the author, see how long it is and then move on. Another part of me hopes they read the whole thing, maybe even twice, especially the ones who really thought they knew me, because then I could tell them that it’s not all their fault. And we could go from there.

To someone on the outside this whole story might seem dramatic. But that’s what hockey is — it’s all dramatics. It’s a sport. It’s a bunch of guys with the entirety of their being embedded into a game. And in the end, that’s all it is, a game.

If a time machine were built, I would go back and tell myself that it’s just a game, despite all that everyone in the hockey community will tell you. It’s not worth ruining your mental health over. And you are not alone. And if someone asks if you are gay, just look at them coolly and say, “Yeah, so what?”

Benjamin Howard Fredell, 19, is a freshman at the University of Washington Tacoma and is deciding on a major. He played hockey as a goalie for Sno-King Hockey Association in Washington state and for the LA Jr. Kings in El Segundo, California. He can be reached on Instagram @benjaminfredell.jpg or via email (bhfredell@gmail.com)

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

If you are considering suicide, LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming people can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.

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