Sports were the reason that I never let that question in my head get explored as I was growing up, but in the end, sports were the thing that gave me all the support to finally come out.
Hockey is a tough sport and the people who play the game must be tough. This was very clear in the locker room especially in high school in Orange, Connecticut, and in college. In the fall of my junior year of high school I started to realize I was attracted to boys as well as girls. I did not have a clue as to what this meant or how to figure it out but once hockey season started, I quickly realized that it just did not seem like an option.
There was rarely a day where gay slurs were not used in the locker room and it reinforced the perception in my head that if you were not straight and going after girls you were not a hockey player.
This was about the same time where my hockey officiating career began to flourish, and I started to officiate tennis as I needed a summer job. What became obvious was it did not matter the sport — the same attitude about being gay existed. In the hockey referee room at the higher levels, the slurs and comments were thrown around freely and in the tennis umpires’ area the rumor mill of which umpires were gay were part of the normal conversation.
It was very clear that if you want to be successful as a referee you need to keep your feelings a secret and go live a straight life. For the next 20 years, I kept that secret and never said a word to a soul. I was living what appeared to be the “American Dream.” I had a wife and two kids and the house with the white picket fence.
I had a pretty incredible officiating run in both hockey and tennis during those years, I became the youngest chair umpire in U.S. Open history at 18 and worked Wimbledon and the Australian Open as well as many professional tournaments around the world before being named World TeamTennis’ Director of Officiating in 2005. In hockey, I refereed more than 400 games at the NCAA Division I level for 11 years, was selected to five NCAA Division I women’s Frozen Four’s, worked two national championship games and was selected to the men’s NCAA national tournament twice.
As the years moved on, it was becoming clearer in my head that I was gay. I slipped into a depression and my marriage was falling apart. My escape was officiating college hockey games on Friday and Saturday nights from October to March.
In October 2017, I was working a game about three hours from home and it was the first time in my career that I did not even want to be on the ice to referee the game. I knew something major was wrong as being on the ice was my happy place and now I did not even want to be there.
For the next several months I tried to figure out why I was so unhappy. I was not willing to look myself in the mirror and admit what it really was. I settled on the fact that it was because I wanted to be home with my family and needed to stop refereeing college hockey. It was the right story for people to believe.
I had achieved all the goals I had in hockey and there was nothing left to do on the ice. The season ended in March and I capped it off with a selection to the league championships and the Men’s national tournament. I announced at the league championships that I was retiring from the ice in December. What I did not admit at the same time was that I knew my marriage was over because I could not keep up the secret. But I also did not know what to do next.
That all changed when I was flying to Chicago for World TeamTennis and I watched the movie “Love Simon.” If you don’t know the movie, it is about a closeted gay high school senior who is exposed by a fellow classmate. When I watched the movie so many emotions came out of me and I finally knew what I needed to do.
The first person I spoke with was my mom and it took a while in the conversation to gain the courage to tell her I was gay. After the words came out, I started bawling as the emotion and secrecy that I had been hiding for 20 years was finally out there. The weight had been lifted and for the first time in a long time I felt happy. The next few days were telling my immediate family, but in the back of my mind I knew my final college hockey season was only a few weeks away.
I was in the car driving to Cornell with two of my closest officiating partners, Ryan and Tom, and about 45 minutes into the drive I turned to them and said I had to tell them something. Ryan had a smart ass comment like usual and I just said it, “I’m gay.” Ryan’s response was perfect: “Oh really, that’s nice, where we having chicken parm for lunch?”
That line showed me the thing I had feared the most in hockey was just in my head. That support from my officiating family gave me the support I needed to get through my divorce and start discovering what my head and heart had told me for a while.
Usually when there is news or gossip in officiating, it spreads like wildfire. Yet, no one talked about me being gay because it was not news or gossip to them, it was just me. As I was completing my farewell tour from ECAC Hockey, I was back in my happy place, on the ice and just having fun because that big secret I was so afraid to tell anyone wasn’t a secret anymore.
The phone calls and texts that I got from people around the League and in the hockey officiating community were always supportive. The icing on the cake which showed me my sexuality never mattered was in June 2019 when I was appointed as the women’s Director of Officiating for ECAC Hockey.
Looking back, I let fear grip me for 20 years because of a perception that I had in my head. I will never say I’d go back in time and change anything as I have two amazing kids, but I hope that someone will read this and realize you cannot let fear stop you from being yourself, as in the end, it is the only way to find true happiness.
Bryan Hicks is the Director of Officiating and Operations for World TeamTennis and the Director of Officiating for women’s ECAC hockey. He resides in New Jersey with his boyfriend, David, and two children, Layton and Kaylee. You can connect with him via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on instagram (@bryan_hicks34)
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.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.