Athletes confront homophobia

Gay athletes share their experiences at forum in Burnaby

Scott Heggart first figured out he was interested in boys when he was about 12 or 13, but the Ottawa native, and all-round high school jock, kept it to himself and lived in denial.

"Immediately, I rejected it. In hockey, and really in all sports, . there's a lot of homophobia that goes on. Subconsciously hearing that from teammates and hearing that at school as well, I was overcome with fear I would be rejected," he said. "I basically spent the next year of my life in a mental hell I created for myself, . mentally punishing myself for thoughts and feelings I couldn't control."

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That first year, he did not tell anyone about his sexual orientation.

"I essentially tried to turn myself straight. At the end of that year, when I realized it wasn't going to work, it was basically rock bottom for me," he said.

Heggart took a knife into the bathroom and thought about hurting himself.

"I put myself in a very dangerous place," he said.

He eventually came out to his sister, who handled it well.

"She made it very clear right away that she was perfectly fine with that," Heggart said. His sister told their parents, who were also supportive, and then the rest of the family was told.

From that point on, things only got better for Heggart, now a 20-year-old university student.

In Grade 11, Heggart decided to come out to everyone else by joining Facebook and listing himself as "in a relationship" with another young man.

"And then I added people, and I waited," he said.

The next few days were stressful, he said, and it took people a while to realize he was gay. Soon after, he got a text from a teammate.

"I heard the news. I am proud of you," it said.

Then the Facebook messages started flooding in from classmates and teammates, all of them expressing support.

While Heggart's coming out experience could have been worse, the homophobic locker-room culture of sports is something he'll be speaking about at a Thursday event in Burnaby, with You Can Play, a non-profit group that promotes respect and safety for all athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The talk is on homophobia in sports and features athletes' coming-out stories.

"When people use homophobic language, it's more a sign of a bad habit than a reflection that they are homophobic," Heggart said. "I think that is true of sports culture today. . Really, it's a whole bunch of guys saying words because it's been the culture they grew up with. They don't realize the kind of effect these words can have."

Heggart recalls teammates going on rants before games, targeting players from the opposing team, and it was always homophobic.

"It can be pretty bad at times," he said.

Openly gay professional sports figures are few and far between, often emerging from the closet only after they've left sports.

"There hasn't been a current professional athlete from the big four (hockey, basketball, baseball and football) that has come out while playing," he said.

Heggart's talk, co-hosted by the Burnaby Teachers' Association and the local school board, is on Thursday, March 28, at 7 p.m. at the Michael J. Fox

Theatre, at 7373 MacPherson Ave.

The talk is free, and the general public is welcome to attend. Marco Iannuzzi, a B.C. Lions wide receiver, will facilitate the panel, and Heggart will be joined by Olympic gold medallist Angela Hucles.

Heggart's plan is to share a bit of his story and tell the audience how homophobia affected him and his enjoyment of sports.

"To make a difference, all we have to do really is eliminate five to 10 words from our vocabulary, and we're 90 per cent there," he said.

"You Can Play doesn't aim to change the locker room atmosphere. There's always going be jarring, and there's always going to be dissing and things like that. . (But,) it doesn't have to be homophobic or racist or anything like that. If words we as a society use intimidate and make people vulnerable . then we need curb that language. It's harmful."

Heggart also wants other gay kids to know they are not alone.

"The world is an enormous, enormous place, and you are absolutely not alone in what you are going through," he said. "When you move on from high school, you realize how big the world is."

For more information on You Can Play, go to you

jmoreau@burnabynow. com

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