Equality in sports: Starting with our youth

Jehna Devraj (Equality in sports: starting with our youth)

From coast to coast, Canadians are united through common governance, values, interests. One of these interests, though deemed cliché by some, is hockey. Hockey, like any sport, provides a medium for community bonding, exercise, and friendship. Beyond this, hockey also serves to build teamwork and leadership skills in youth. In this respect, the experiences that youth experience in sport often have a profound effect on the course of their lives.

In my community, getting your first pair of skates and taking skating lessons was almost a rite of passage: I got my first pair of skates around the age of three. My first skating lessons were probably some of the most exciting experiences of my childhood. I knew from that age that I loved sports, but I also knew that there was something different about me. I had short hair, and wore boys’ clothes — there were no other girls who looked like me. As quickly as I had received my first pair of pink-lined recreational skates, I had traded them in for a pair of Bauer boys’ hockey skates.

When it was finally time to join a team, I was lucky enough to live in an area with an all-girls league. At this time, I was about seven; my favorite subject was math, but sports were my real passion. I was, echoing Rachel Maddow’s self-description, “a cross between a jock and an antisocial girl.” In this way, I believed joining a real hockey team would let me out of my shell and give me a place to make new friends; however, I was in for a wakeup call. For the first few practices, most of my teammates thought I was a boy. Sure, I had dealt with this before while out with my mom, but never on such a personal level. Did they really think I was a boy? This caused me much anxiety, especially since I was extremely shy already.

In an effort to quell my anxiety and make me more comfortable in the dressing room, my mom volunteered to be a den mom for my team. The role of the den mom is to help kids in the dressing room and watch out for bullying and other harmful activities. Before she could perform this duty, however, she had to take a course called Respect in Sport, which is mandated by BC Hockey for all coaches and sport leaders. The program covers topics such as dealing with and identifying abuse, neglect, harassment, and bullying in sport. At the time, I felt like this was an excellent requirement that would guarantee that any incidents would be recognized dealt with swiftly. I held this belief in mind until last season.

Although den moms are required at all age groups of league hockey, it seems like the game changes from lighthearted competition to full-on rivalry. Accordingly, the dressing room environment becomes more hostile — coaches are tougher, and there is conversation and even hitting between players of opposing teams. This is where den moms, in my opinion, are essential. Instead, I found that the language and behavior got worse, without repercussions in most cases. Anti-gay slurs were tossed about the dressing room, and players were insulted for their identities. The true spirit of the game was lost in the dressing room after losses, and sometimes even after wins.

After a particularly disheartening loss in an international tournament, my team was shattered; we had been slaughtered in a 6-1 defeat. What occurred in the dressing room after the game was much worse than any loss I had experienced. As I walked into the dressing room, eager to go home, I heard a myriad of slurs against a player on the other team. My fellow teammates were calling her a dyke, a he-she, and a man. They shouted questions about her sex and gender, and to my surprise, the den moms agreed to get the coaches to investigate. The player, after all, had scored most of the goals in the game. I was horrified; I remembered making eye-contact with this player on the ice. I had never seen anyone who presented their gender in a way similar to me play hockey before. She was sportsmanlike and no different from any of the other girls, not counting the way she presented her gender.

When the coaches entered the room, players and moms continued to call out their concerns about whether “this boy” was allowed to play. I was in disbelief that the den moms and coaches let this go on, let alone participate in it. I am very visibly queer, but at that moment, it occurred to me that it had never occurred to them. See, I always assume that people see me and think either gay or guy. As the coaches left to inquire with the referees, I quickly packed up my gear and headed to my car. I was outraged that such an incident could occur. I felt empathy for the player, who would surely face a very awkward conversation with a coach or a referee. On the way home, I was angered that this type of situation could eventuate in a country like Canada, where anyone can marry whomever they like and LGBTQ people are protected by anti-discrimination laws in all areas. Vancouver, too, is known for its vibrantly diverse community.

At the next practice, I was informed that “the he-she was actually a girl.” The betrayal I felt was shadowed by a sense that I should have expected no less. My mom, after hearing of the incident, told me that teenage girls will pick any difference and use it to demean another individual. I understood this, but it didn’t soothe my resentment. I felt some guilt for not standing up for her after the game; I ran out of there like a chicken. My only relief from this was the realization that I had no allies in that environment, and to me, it was not a safe space to be vocal.

The experience gave me insight into the broader experience of LGBTQ people in sports. Since I had never been exposed to such obnoxious discrimination, I didn’t know why coming out is practically never done in professional sports, let alone recreational. I learned that my teammates had no idea that I was queer. This brought a sense of taboo to me. I certainly didn’t want to come out to my team because I don’t feel like it’s necessary. Did they come out as straight? No. There’s been no shortage of hints though — I make it a point to choose clothing that reflects my views on equality. In the end, the most valuable message I took away from my hockey experience was that equality in sports has to start from an early level. Training for coaches and den moms should include increased sensitivity toward LGBTQ issues. Since each of our individual actions and the actions of others shape our lives and experiences, the focus must be shifted to youth. After all, youth are the future, meaning they are the bearers of change.

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Jehna Devraj is a 16-year-old student in Vancouver, Canada. She prides herself in being a wonk and an aficionado of American politics. Jehna seeks to tackle non-binary gender discrimination, and work towards growing respect and tolerance for LGBTQ youth. Often bored with high school life, you can find her taking courses online or in the summer at Harvard and Cambridge. Besides studying, she is an avid sport shooter, hockey player, and anchor of the #Maddow tag on Twitter (@jehnius).

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