As someone who usually likes to keep his private life exactly that, the last few months have taken a bit of getting used to for professional ice hockey player Zach Sullivan.
The Manchester Storm defenceman publicly announced that he was bisexual in the middle of the Elite Ice Hockey League’s Pride Weekend in January, becoming the first British player to come out and sparking headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Even when Sullivan posted on his Instagram account earlier this month calling it the best day of his life, there was a new wave of interest in him and his story.
The message that Sullivan is so passionate about sharing has made his hate of interviews a thing of the past, but if you could rewind six months and tell him about the reach he could have for being his authentic self, there is no way he would have believed you.
“Obviously it went viral in January, which I wasn’t really expecting, then I put a post on Instagram a couple of weeks ago, and it all blew up again,” Sullivan said.
“I’ve been getting a lot of followers again, so it was kind of surprising to see that it still had that much traction to be honest.
“Nobody had done it in the UK before, but the Wednesday before Pride Weekend a lot of the fans were getting behind it and were really excited. I kind of decided to go public then, even though I probably wasn’t ready.
“It was probably the best time to do it – because of the support I hoped that the reaction would be more positive. I honestly didn’t know whether it was going to be ignored, or be like it has. In my wildest dreams, I don’t think I could have imagined it would get this much traction. Because it hadn’t happened before, there was nothing to go off, so I wasn’t sure whether it would be ignored, or whether it would get a positive response or a negative response. It has been pretty amazing.
“The only, not really negative, but flippant comments have been ‘why is this news? Why do I need to hear about it?’, which I completely understand.
“Athlete Ally contacted me to become an ambassador for them, and they asked me what I saw the situation being for LGBT+ athletes in 10 years, and I said the ideal scenario is that you don’t need ambassadors, it’s just accepted – that it’s not big news when someone comes out, because no one cares. Not because no one cares in a bad way, but because no one cares, you can just be you.
“I think that was the big thing that a lot of people didn’t realise, how far behind sport is compared to the rest of the world. Obviously there are still places in the world where LGBT+ people are discriminated against, and I obviously think that’s wrong, but sport is still a long way behind accepting LGBT+ athletes. Maybe not even accepting, but understanding the difference. I think it has shown with those kind of responses I got, they weren’t necessarily antiquated but they didn’t know the extent of what some LGBT+ athletes have to go through.
“I had a lot of messages that were heartbreaking, because they were saying ‘I played hockey when I was younger, but I felt like I had to quit because I was scared because I was bisexual’. It’s heartbreaking to see, because they can’t do what they love, they can’t pursue their passion. That shouldn’t be the case just because they love different people to other people. I felt that vindicated how important the message was to get out there, even if some people didn’t understand why it was big news.”
Part of the reason Sullivan is so determined to be open and honest about his sexuality now is that it was something he had struggled with for a long time.
Sullivan has played in the EIHL since 2014, making over 300 league appearances in that time, but it was only last November that he really embraced his identity and brought more than a decade of self-doubt and denial to a close. From the outside, that might make his public statement just two months later seem rushed, but the British international and former Glasgow Clan man knew it was time to put an end to his inner turmoil when it spilled into his performances on the ice.
And knowing first hand what it is like to be affected so much by his sexuality, he is trying to do what he can to reassure others that it is possible to come out the other side stronger.
“I don’t think I was completely ready,” the 25-year-old admitted.
“I don’t think anyone really is, you build it up in your head for so long and you build up what you think the reaction is going to be. It’s hugely never what you build it up to be, but you’re still terrified of it. I’ve been saying I’ve known for nine years, but I’ve been thinking about it since I was 12 or 13, so that’s really 12 or 13 years I’ve known.
“You play hockey, you play professional sport for a limited time, and it’s a small part of your life. It’s 15 or 20 years if you’re lucky, and I understand that I have a slightly raised platform to other people. You play for 15 years, then you’re forgotten and the next generation comes through. I thought if I could use my time with a raised platform, with a raised social media platform, to put out an important message then it was worth coming out of my comfort zone to do.
“It sounds bad, but I used the Pride Weekend to propel the message to the people that I thought needed to hear it most. In my view, it had a much better chance of reaching the people going through the same situation, and that’s only ever been the goal – to try and help other people going through the same situation. It’s not about my own publicity, or my followers, or anything like that. It’s trying to help people who were going through the same situation. I know a lot of LGBT+ people struggle with mental health issues, I have myself, so just seeing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel I hope really helps a lot of people.
“I can’t speak for everyone that goes through the same situation as me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people go through a spell where they deny it, they think it’s wrong and all these other feelings.
“It was definitely difficult to accept myself. Me and my housemates watched the Aaron Hernandez documentary on Netflix. He was an NFL footballer who was bisexual as well, he was hiding it from his teammates and his family and his friends for so long that he eventually snapped and got arrested for a triple murder. While I don’t think if I had snapped I would have gone to those extremes, it was something very relatable.
“If you don’t come to terms with your inner demons, eventually they will take over. I was getting to a point where it was affecting my performance on the ice, and that was very strange for me because ice hockey had always been my release. It was always the moment in my life where I could forget about everything else, but it was creeping into my game.
“I was turning up to matches not completely focused, so I recognised I needed to confront it and accept who I was. My dad has also suffered with mental health, and he’s a completely different person to who he was before as well. I think I related to the incidents that my dad and Aaron Hernandez had been in, and I didn’t want to end up in the same situation.
“I had an incredibly bad game against Nottingham on the Wednesday, to the point where my coach talked to me about it the next day at training, and I made the decision there and then that this is who I am. Denying it for any longer wasn’t going to help me.
“I had spoken to my best friend in Glasgow, and I think I just needed someone to tell me that there was nothing wrong with it. Him being able to tell me that, and hearing it from someone who I care about so much, that made me comfortable with myself and think ‘yeah, there is nothing wrong with it’. There’s nothing wrong, nothing weird, it’s just who I am.”
Sullivan says he is lucky to have found acceptance from his friends and family. In fact, a common response when he came out to his loved ones was ‘I know’, which he puts down to their intelligence and intuition.
However, he knows that not everyone is as fortunate, and that such a positive response is even rarer to find in the sporting world. Progress is being made, but there are still all too many red flags.
“When I first had those feelings for other men, it was at a time in society where LGBT+ people weren’t really accepted,” Sullivan explained.
“15 years ago, 10 years ago, there weren’t gay prides, it wasn’t celebrated. It was a taboo subject, it was seen as wrong by many people. Gay marriage was legalised by David Cameron in the conservative government, that’s in my voting lifetime. To be a 12-year-old boy, or a 16-year-old teenager going through these feelings, and seeing the social climate of not being very accepting of different people, I didn’t want to be a social outcast.
“A lot of people had to go through that at the time, but LGBT+ rights have come a very long way in the last 10 years, and I don’t think society was at a point where they accepted it. Sport has always been not far, but a little bit behind society. To have come out as a 12-year-old playing ice hockey, kids take the mick out of each other for all kinds of different things, and I don’t think I would have been able to deal with that at the time. I don’t think I was in a very strong mental situation. My best friend passed away when I was 16, and another one of my close friends passed away a year after, so it was a very troubled time in my head. I don’t think I was ready to deal with my sexuality, so I just suppressed it.
“Just to back up sport being behind society in a lot of ways, there were a lot of racial incidents during Serie A in football in Italy this year. Racism is still around in society, and it shouldn’t be, but it still is. It’s a fact of life. There have been black rights movements around a lot longer than there have been LGBT+ movements, and we’re still struggling to get to a place where you’re accepted for the colour of your skin, which is completely insane.
“To get to a point where this relatively new thing has come up with LGBT+ rights, it’s still a long way behind. I remember going on a stag do in Krakow in Poland, and it happened to be the Pride Weekend there. It was wonderful, they were having such a great time. We were walking from a bar or something back to the hotel, and there were police lining the parade. I asked one of the officers why they were out there, why do you need police, and they said it was to protect the LGBT+ people because so many people would go and physically and verbally assault them.
“It just shows that although the UK is very forward thinking in equality, some parts of the world – not even parts of the world you would think of – it’s still a long way behind in terms of equality, thinking and liberalism.
“I think until it’s not a big deal, it’s not going to change. Morgan Freeman, when he talked about racism and was asked how do you stop it, his response was always stop talking about it. Although it contradicts everything I’m doing, that’s my feeling about it. Until people stop making a big deal about it and stop talking about it, it will always be a big deal. Although it’s contradictory, I think the only way that sports and life will get to a point where it’s accepted is for people to stop talking about it and stop making a big deal about it.”
The on-going pandemic brought an early end to the EIHL season in March, scuppering any hopes Sullivan and the Storm had of fighting their way through the end-of-season play-offs.
One of Sullivan’s main challenges while isolating is not having the support of teammates and head coach Ryan Finnerty who have helped him through every step of his coming out journey. He told his teammates what he was planning the day before posting on Twitter in January, to be met with a standing ovation in the dressing room, and Sullivan says he could not have done it without their support.
But while waiting for definite news on when next season can begin, as well as roster announcements, he can rely on his Xbox and his favourite TV shows for entertainment – and from one of those programmes, there is even a seed of inspiration for Sullivan’s 2020 so far.
“There’s a quote that has always stayed with me from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is from Raymond Holt – sorry for the spoilers – when Rosa Diaz comes out as bi, he says ‘every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place’, “ he recalled.
“That has always stuck with me. For such a comedy, it’s such a heartfelt line. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.
“I’m not calling anyone out, I’m just hoping to maybe help someone else on their journey and feel more comfortable and confident within themselves. By all means, if you feel ready to be yourself publicly, then that is obviously fantastic.
“It took me 11 years, probably longer, to get to where I am in very supportive circumstances. I understand how lucky and fortunate I was to have that around me. It’s the one privilege in life that we get, this is our journey, no one else’s. It needs to be taken in your own time, and it doesn’t matter how long that takes. If it’s a month, or 20 years, it’s your journey, do what makes you comfortable.”