Whenever Olympic Games come around, sports that struggle to get much attention are suddenly thrust into a new spotlight, opening up the chance that the next generation will be inspired to take them up
That was certainly the case for Jay Forster watching the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 from afar. Ice hockey is now his life, both as a player recreationally and reporting on the sport, but his passion really began after watching the women’s gold medal game between Canada and the USA.
Identifying as a woman at the time, Forster’s eyes were opened to the possibility that he could actually take part himself, and he quickly set about finding a way on to the ice. He learned how to skate, and registered for the introductory Clarke and Co training camp before reaching out to local clubs.
At first, it was supposed to be a one off experience – something to try – but the welcoming atmosphere and the freedom Forster felt skating around the rink kept him coming back.
“Hockey gets a reputation as a brutal sport, but I’ve never known people like I’ve met in hockey – you really are part of a team,” he explained.
“Even as a goalie, you feel a little bit separated from the team at times, but everyone I’ve played with has been really great. It really is like a family, I love all my teammates and I miss them.
“I turned up, I wasn’t very good, but immediately people were good with me. It’s such a niche sport over here, people get excited if someone else wants to learn.
“Everyone was like ‘it’s so great that we’ve got another player’, giving me tips about shifting my weight like this, or leaning while turning like that. Usually we’ve got 20 minutes at the start of training to warm up, and I had guys who would do a bit of skating, but then they would come over and work with me on learning to stop properly, or shooting.
“That’s what hockey is, for me anyway. When you boil it down, it’s not really about the sport, it’s about bringing people in. You get excited when other people care too.
“There’s just not another sport in the world like it. When you get out on the ice it’s a completely different animal to any other sport I’ve tried.
“Something about the skating makes it a really soothing game to watch, and something about that resonated with me.
“People who aren’t into hockey always ask if I’ve ever been in a fight, every time. It drives me crazy because the sport is so much more than that. At my level, if you fight at a game you get suspended for three games. There’s zero tolerance.
“I don’t see a lot of that, definitely not regularly. The teams I work for fight a little bit more, but when the game is being played and there’s no fighting or anything like that, it’s a really circular game.
“The skating is incredible, and if I’m having a bad week or whatever, stepping out on the ice makes the static in my brain go a little bit quieter, so it’s nice.”
Forster has written before himself about the process of coming out in hockey. He had played for women’s and men’s teams before publicly affirming his identity, but had left the women’s team as it felt “disingenuous” and was affecting Forster’s mental health.
Clicking publish on the Facebook post that announced he was trans was a nervy moment, but the news was received well. By the time Forster returned to his laptop and phone a few hours later he found he had been inundated with supportive messages from a host of people including teammates, current and former professional players and even some within ice hockey’s governing body.
The apprehension and subsequent relief were very real, and though that may seem like an obvious thing to point out what the 28-year-old was not expecting was to become something of a resource by default for those around him on trans issues.
“Every time I think about what I thought would happen, versus what actually happened, it is really incredibly that they were basically like ‘this is still Jay, this is still our goalie’,” Forster recalled.
“They defend me on the ice, and they defend me off the ice as well, so it’s great. I didn’t think they would say I couldn’t play for them anymore, but I thought it might get to a point where it was so innately uncomfortable for me to be there that it would end up pushing me out, and it was the exact opposite.
“I’ve had guys come up to me saying that they and their wife read all the comments on my post and cried. A lot of the guys on my team are teachers, so I’ve had them come up to me and say they talked about me in class because the concept of trans people came up.
“I have always been of the opinion that queer people don’t owe straight, cis people anything. Google is free, you know? You can Google whatever you want, and you shouldn’t come to ask queer people or trans people stupid questions.
“For me personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing, and thinking about how I fit into society as a whole and how to make my life easier. I’ve always been very clear that I want to be a resource for the people that want to learn, but if people are going to come and ask stupid or invasive questions, they’re welcome to do it but I’m going to tell them that.
“One of the guys I met at camp is an A&E nurse, and he messaged me out of the blue to say he had a question. They had a trans guy come in to A&E, and they needed to do ultrasounds to make sure that there was no chance they were pregnant. Obviously that’s a really touchy thing for trans guys, so he said this is how they handled it, but what could they do next time to make it easier?
“That’s the kind of thing where I’m like, ok, if I can be a resource to someone so that they don’t say the wrong thing to someone else then I will. Going back to the teachers, one of them said there were a couple of kids in their class that were starting to question their gender identity.
“I’m 28, I’m a big boy. You can ask me stupid questions – I’ll tell you they’re stupid, but ask me them instead of these teenagers who are still trying to figure it out. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, I know what they’re going through, so if you have issues come to me with them, don’t go to them.
“I don’t necessarily want to be everyone’s Google, but if I can be a resource and make things easier for other young kids who are going through what I went through, then I’m happy to do that.”
That idea of wanting to help make things easier for the next generation is a common thread among LGBT+ sportspeople who share their stories.
It is also why Forster is similarly vocal about equality and diversity issues on social media, although it was not necessarily a decision he consciously made.
“I forget that people read my Twitter sometimes, I just get mad online and people will retweet it,” he admitted.
“It wasn’t ever a conscious choice to be proactive I don’t think, it was more that I had opinions and I was going to yell about them online, because what else is Twitter for?
“There’s not a lot of us out there. We’re getting to a point where there are more and more queer hockey players, but I don’t see a lot of trans guys in hockey and I don’t see a lot of trans guys in sport in general.
“Brock McGillis always says be the person you needed when you were a kid. So if my talking about being trans in hockey helps some 15-year-old realise that maybe they are different, what do they do about that, then it’s important to me to make sure the next generation has someone to look up to – even if I am just some idiot that yells about hockey on Twitter.
“I’m not famous, I’m not the best athlete in the world, I am just some idiot that puts on skates twice a week and does his best, but if someone out there sees what I’m doing and thinks that they can’t play hockey because they’re trans, I’m here to say that is categorically untrue. If I can do it, so can everyone else.
“If someone sees hatred, then that’s going to affect them. If someone sees someone like me being out and proud, and happy to be trans, that will affect them too.
“Brock always says in interviews that he loves being a gay man. He loves the culture, he loves that part of him. It took him a long time to get there but he loves that – and he always makes sure he says it, because he’s surprised at how many closeted kids have never heard someone say they love being gay.
“It’s always treated as ‘I was born this way’, or ‘I learned to accept myself’, but they have never heard someone say they love being a gay man.
“If someone sees me being out and happy about it – I love the trans community, I love being a trans man, it’s important to my identity in a cultural way as well as in a societal way – so if someone is questioning or is like me, 18 years old and assuming that they’re never going to be able to transition because it’s not worth it, it absolutely, 100% is worth it.
“If they need me to be out here on my soapbox, banging two pan lids together saying I love being trans, I can do that. It’s a really easy thing for me to say, because it’s true, and it’s a really important thing for some people to hear.”
It was not a simple process for Forster to get to the point he was shouting about loving being trans, and confusion reigned in his head for years.
Again, that is not uncommon for people who identify with any part of the LGBT+ acronym, but as more people come out and share their stories hopefully that will change in the future.
Ice hockey in the UK is doing it’s part to help that progress be made, with the Elite Ice Hockey League holding it’s first Pride Weekend in January 2020 – which would go on to garner headlines around the world when Manchester Storm’s Zach Sullivan became the first professional player in the country to come out as bisexual.
That weekend, every team in the league wore a specially designed Pride kit and had Pride merchandise on offer for spectators – and naturally Sullivan was the star of the show.
As far as Forster is concerned, the importance of the EIHL’s efforts cannot be understated.
“Over here, I think it changed everything,” he insisted.
“I’ve spoken to Zach many times, he’s great, and you can see the change it has made in him. He came out on the Sunday morning, and I spoke to him on the Wednesday about it. Clearly, then, he was still dealing with stuff, but then I talked to him a year later and it was just incredible.
“Looking at the guy then compared to the guy now, I think it changed his life, and I think it changed the lives of LGBT+ hockey fans here in the UK. They realised the league supports us. The EIHL has had a history of not great relationships with LGBT+ people, but I was lucky enough to go to the Storm game, their PR guy reached out and told me to come along and do the man of the match thing at the end, and to just enjoy the weekend – it was incredible.
“I’ve been to Pride games in the NHL, and they are functionally meaningless, but going to that game and seeing everyone wearing rainbow, and seeing the entire place stand up when Zach Sullivan’s name was read out as part of the starting line up, it was really important to me personally as a queer hockey fan.
“That was the first time I had stepped into a hockey game and felt truly accepted because of my sexuality or my gender identity, not in spite of it.
“If I felt like that as someone who is fairly opinionated and secure in who they are, what does that mean to 15, 16 or 17-year-olds who are just now dealing with the idea that maybe they have to choose between hockey and their sexuality? That is a thing many, many kids have done, and most of the time hockey doesn’t win. Gay kids just stop playing, because it’s not worth it.
“From talking to Zach most recently this year, it’s obviously hard to say how things have changed because six weeks after that the season shut down, but he had been playing in his hometown just before the EIHL picked up again with this mini-tournament they’re doing, I don’t think it has changed visibly, but he’s still the same guy to a lot of people.
“The EIHL specifically has changed for the better, because I think people have realised that you can’t go about using slurs as banter. Zach’s talked about it a lot – continue to heckle him, but there are things that are off limits, and I think teams are starting to realise that. I don’t think there’s a specific thing to point at to say things have changed, but they have.
“It’s a shame that we couldn’t have done Pride Weekend again this year, but hopefully next year when people are allowed to go outside again and get back to hockey games, I want it to be even bigger. I want to see more rainbows, I want to see more of a celebration of us as a community. For me, the Pride Weekend was a catalyst in realising that this sport has a place for me in it.”
The same kinds of progressive moves have not been made on the other side of the Atlantic, however, much to the Flintshire Phantoms goalie’s frustration.
“There is still a long way to go before the NHL is a truly LGBT+ friendly organisation to work in,” Forster said.
“The EIHL have already checked off a lot of things on the list that I would consider to be the bare minimum. They have Pride games, they have supported their queer fans and their one openly queer player. It’s very much a case of keeping that growing.
“One thing I will say is there’s not a lot of disciplinary action against players making discriminatory comments. Before the season shut down, Zach talked about one incident when he was playing in the corner against one guy, and the guy called him something homophobic. He told the refs, and nothing happened. The player wasn’t disciplined, the team wasn’t disciplined, so there are strides to be made there.
“They could also support local LGBT+ charities or organisations, and I think the EIHL would do well to partner with the women’s game, because the ratio of LGBT+ people is so high in the women’s game.
“In terms of the NHL, they could literally just stop partnering with homophobic organisations. That would be great. It’s hard to say what they need to do better, because it’s basically everything, but that would be a good start.
“I could go on about it for forever, but to try and keep it short – at every conceivable point the NHL has had the chance to step over a bar that is literally on the ground, they have found a way to trip over it – or in some cases they have dug a tunnel underneath it.
“They hold Pride games saying they support their LGBT+ fans, and then literally hold a Chick-Fil-A promotion at the game, and they have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to conversion therapy.
“It’s capitalism, but it drives me crazy – there are hundreds of other fast food places they could partner with that do not support conversion therapy or fund anti-LGBT+ charities.”