Editor’s Note: Tyler’s full name has been withheld at his request. Outsports has confirmed his identity.

“Judging by the sticker on the back of your helmet, whistles aren’t the only thing you like to blow!”

The 12U hockey coach yelling at me from the bench during a tournament I was officiating was referring to a small pride sticker I put on my helmet after seeing one on the helmet of my favorite official, Dre Barone, an out gay AHL (at the time ECHL) official.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced homophobia in hockey – That happened well before in the locker room during my playing days. But this was the first time I had experienced it so blatantly as an official.

Looking back, I should have given him a penalty. Kicked him out. Something. But instead I was so shocked I finished the game and headed to the locker room to share my experience, expecting support or, at the very least, some advice.

When I told the group of my fellow officials in the locker room, including the assignor, about what I was told, what I got in response was anything but support.

“Well, you’re just asking for trouble with that sticker,” the assignor said.

Everyone else in the room nodded in agreement, some laughing. I went back to what I thought was a sanctuary – our locker room. Instead I was met with victim-blaming.

I never did skate for that organization again after that weekend.

I don’t wear that sticker on my helmet to announce to the world who I am. I have it on there for representation. For that player, coach, official or spectator who sees it and can feel at the very least that they can be who they are – and still be a part of the game they love.

This is evidenced by other officials commending the sticker, some coaches praising it, and some players even coming up to me and telling me how much they appreciate the sticker. I’m just glad it is having a positive impact.

According to gay hockey referee Tyler, this helmet sticker upset a lot of people. So scary!

However, hate and homophobia are still there in the game. While USA Hockey has updated rules to include harsher penalties for homophobic and racist language before, during, and after games, it is still there. And usually it is hard to punish because it’s not outright slurs, but subtle language and actions.

Things I’ve heard directed at me in and around the rink, including by officials:

  • “Stickers and agendas like that should stay out of hockey.”
  • “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t change in the same locker room as you.”
  • “I’m sure the right lady in the stands would fix you.”
  • “Hey ref, you’re supposed to blow the whistle, not suck it!”

While there are ways to report players, officials and coaches, parents largely go unchecked. I have been called the f-slur more times than I can count from parents behind the glass, and if I can identify them and kick them out, I’m usually the one that gets the boos.

More recently, a 12-year-old player was making homophobic comments to me from the bench while I skated by, and after the third time I gave the bench a penalty.

“You’re being soft because you’re gay,” the coach told me.

When that same player received another penalty from me (at the time I didn’t realize that it was the same player), I got another homophobic tirade from the coach.

“You’re targeting him because you’re gay and he made those comments,” the coach said.

The official I was working with heard what happened, and immediately after the game talked to me and gave me supporting advice. A day later, I received a text message from my scheduler – telling me he heard what had happened and that he has my back, and supports who I am. That meant a lot.

While the same cannot be said about every official I have worked with, I am glad I have had most officials in my corner.

Hockey has made strides in terms of working on some of its culture problems, but I think homophobia is still an issue that needs a lot of attention. The game should be open to all, and everyone who loves the game should have a chance to get on the ice and play, officiate and coach.

Associations can do their part by making sure there are clear rules against homophobic, racist and discriminatory actions and comments, and by following through on punishment of those who break those rules. As a player, coach, or fan, people should remember that being part of the game is making sure that everyone feels welcome to participate.

Hockey helped me through hard times, but I don’t want to be someone I am not, just to be a part of the game.

Whenever I encounter homophobia in hockey, I am reminded that I love the game, and I want to give back, but sometimes it feels like the game doesn’t love me back.