Major sports have an immense power to anyone who follows them.
As we saw last year during the pandemic, football can provide an escape from everyday worries. For all the vitriol that can be seen from “fans” on social media, taking the knee before matches has helped spark conversation around racial inequality and we have seen the likes of Graeme Souness and Lianne Sanderson promote messages of inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ community.
It’s not just in football this happens. In cricket multiple video packages have been put together during England test series on the effects of racism, with Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent speaking particularly well on the matter.
While those are examples of sport using its platform to spread positive, if at times tough to hear, messages towards social progress, that power can work the opposite way too.
The National Hockey League came in for criticism in June for kicking off Pride Month with a social media post promoting the work of allies. The frustration that came with that sparked Brock McGillis into action, and #HockeyPride was born.
“A lot of people were really upset, and rightfully so,” McGillis said.
“It felt like straight people celebrating straight people for Pride, which is essentially straight pride. At that point, I was a little disheartened but not surprised.
“I was seeing everyone be so despondent, I just thought ‘well I’ll do it’, and I tweeted out saying if you wanted to be interviewed, I will interview you and I will share it on my socials. I anticipated doing a few interviews, maybe something small, very grassroots, but before I knew it I think I did over 120 interviews in three weeks.
“Some people thought hockey is great, it’s inclusive and they feel good, and there’s no judgement. It’s like okay, that’s where they’re at, and other people were like ‘we need to burn this whole thing down’ and that’s where they are at.
“It was fascinating to see the different responses, and then how people changed after watching them all. I got DMs from some people saying ‘wait, I’m starting to realise that this, this and this goes on in this sport and there’s not really a space for me’, and that was pretty cool because now they’re critically analysing culture. Now they’re getting to see where it’s at, and actually look at it. Also, they got to see other people like themselves.
“It ended up being one of the most exhausting projects I’ve ever taken on, and one of the most fulfilling projects I have ever taken on.
“I honestly didn’t expect it to resonate with people so much, because a lot of the stuff that was being said are things that I’ve been saying for years. I didn’t anticipate anyone shifting their viewpoint, or critically analysing, but I think when I say it it’s like ‘yeah, that’s Brock’s experience’.
“When you see hundreds of people saying it, you start thinking that maybe there’s something to it and maybe you need to re-evaluate how you look at things. We had people who haven’t necessarily been in those locker rooms, and they’re feeling it just sitting in the stands or watching at home, or just being a part of hockey Twitter. Then you’re like ‘wait, this is impacting everyone, not just the gay guy in the locker room’. This is impacting the entire community.”
Part of what has made #HockeyPride so impactful is that sheer volume of contributions coming in.
For years now McGillis has been something of a lone voice for LGBTQIA+ visibility in hockey, and that is something he has been acutely aware of.
Now, with over 100 new voices adding to the conversation, the 37-year-old has become just as passionate about helping to give others a platform as his own individual work.
“It’s so exciting, because for the longest time I have felt very alone in the work that I do – especially in hockey,” he admitted.
“To have not just my thoughts, but visible queerness amplified is great. Not everyone in the community is going to share the same views, and that’s alright. It takes all of us, and it takes different ways of getting there, multiple different ways of pushing for shifts.
“There are so many times I want to quit what I do in hockey. I get to points where I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall, but having that many people be willing to share their experiences and knowing there are more is reinvigorating.
“We had to cut off the interviews at a certain point just because I had to get back to real life, and I had volunteer people working on this, but I would wager that if we wanted to do this again next year, we would have even more.
“To me, it’s critical to do stuff like this. Now that I’ve done it, I want to do it again, because that movement leads to people feeling empowered and inspired, and that’s when we will see massive shifts.
“One person is lovely, but when you have waves of them that continue over and over again, the culture is going to have no choice but to shift and become inclusive because we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.
“This project has fuelled my passion. It’s very challenging to try and shift hockey culture, so weekly I thought about quitting. I had people ask if I left, who? That was always what pulled me back in over and over.
“Having this, and seeing this, it’s all worth it because there are more of us. There are people out there who didn’t take part that came out to me afterwards who are hockey fans, or part of hockey culture. To know that it’s having that type of impact is amazing. I’ve always had those people come out to me and come to me for support, but this was different because it wasn’t just me talking and sharing my story. I didn’t share a thing.
“Being able to amplify other voices, that ultimately helped even more people. That was better, more impactful for me, so it has reinvigorated me and re-inspired me and I am not going to stop.”
It is sometimes easy to forget when there are so few LGBTQIA+ role models in a particular sport that it takes a toll on the athlete themselves.
McGillis would not do the advocacy work he does if he wasn’t passionate about it, and the outpouring of messages he gets from other people who have been struggling – exemplified once again with the number of people who took part in #HockeyPride – always serves as a reminder of the importance of his role.
“When I came out, I talked about my own life in a way that is incredibly serious – I’m sharing all of my traumas I’ve ever had on a regular basis, so if I don’t find fun and joy in everything I do it would be too dark to do,” McGillis reasoned.
“Before, I had some experiences where my hockey association found out I was gay and blackballed me. I also had a friend who was fronting a very large LGBTQ+ organisation and ended up on an ISIS hit list. In that same year, Pulse happened, and I thought I had to use my voice to do something, but I still didn’t anticipate all of this.
“I had gone to a charity event with one of my friends who we found out was on an ISIS hit list, and he was fronting the event and was told to go but he asked me not to go with him. We had undercover officers on us the entire night, and we went there thinking we were going to die.
“After that, it changed my perspective on everything and I said ‘now I need to come out’. I reached out to a friend of mine who is a journalist, and I started writing an article coming out. I thought it was the least I could do to lend my voice.
“I thought maybe I would help a few people, but mostly I would empower myself – nobody would be able to use my sexuality against me. I was kind of doing it for my friend, I was kind of doing it for Pulse, I was kind of doing it for everyone, including myself.
“I thought maybe a few people would read it. That day, I received over 10,000 messages from people all over the world. It was nuts, they didn’t stop, and I was getting messages after messages – I mean I still get them – and requests for media and then requests to speak. When I started speaking, that’s when I knew that this is what I’m meant to do and this is where I’m impacting people.
“I started off at schools, and I would have kids coming up to me afterwards on social media who were struggling. The more I spoke, the more people would come to me, and it was like ‘ok, this is real’. That’s when I knew I was doing the right thing, that’s when I knew I was doing what needed to be done.
“It was so surreal, and now it’s just my entire life so I don’t even realise that it’s pretty crazy people come to me and confide their traumas or their secrets in me, or ask me for help and support. It’s an honour and a privilege to have people willing to trust me with so much. Being able to work with them and find them support in their areas, to be at their shoulder and share tools that have helped me, I’m pretty blessed and grateful.”
As well as having an impact on recreational and young hockey players, McGillis was invited to work with NHL outfit Toronto Maple Leafs.
While that may suggest that progress is finally being made at the highest level of the sport, McGillis is not so sure that one meeting at a club he has prior connections with is a sign of greater change.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of potential change, however I would say that this off-season has been the worst in terms of PR and social issues that the NHL has ever had, or at least in a very long time,” he explained.
“I have a hard time saying that we’re on the cusp of change because one team worked with me – a team where I knew the president and I have known the general manager since he was 15.
“I think we’re a long way away from true change, but there are signs of hope. I have a glimmer of belief that we will get things done at that level, so I haven’t closed the door fully yet but I struggle with Pride nights and I struggle with performative actions when they haven’t done anything tangible to shift the culture.
“I need to see more, and I need to understand where they are trying to go with things. I struggle when I see they’re celebrating allies for Pride Month. It’s just tone deaf, and I want more from them or nothing at all.
“I would honestly prefer to see zero. Rip up Hockey is for Everyone, get rid of Pride nights and do nothing, and then we could see the culture for where it’s at. I think these nights in a lot of instances give the illusion of inclusion, and then they are weaponised by those who aren’t inclusive to say ‘look what we do’. To me, that actually sets the community back.
“A lot of people don’t have any comprehension of what Pride is, what it’s about and how it started. Until there is inclusion within the sport, Pride isn’t celebratory. Pride is a fight and a protest for rights, for inclusion. We don’t have that in most sports. Sports are still not a safe space for queer youth, men’s team sports specifically.
“Yes, I know we’ve had Carl Nassib and Luke Prokop come out, but they came out in spite of the culture and not because of it. I’ve made that very clear, I’ve told the NHL that, so to me we need to get it to a point where it is inclusive, where people are welcome, where the language has shifted in locker rooms so that it’s not heterosexist. We had an issue last year where Kevin Durant went on a homophobic tirade to a media member and wasn’t even suspended.
“Those waves of people, the more we can get involved the better. To take it a step further, there are players, coaches and management in the NHL with queer relatives and we need them to speak up, not just the allies who are going to put rainbows on themselves in the rink for a night.
“That’s not enough. It’s 10 years away, do that when the sport is inclusive and the sport is safe. Do that when kids aren’t coming to me saying they are going to kill themselves because of what they hear in hockey culture. Until then, push to make it safe.”
Those kids are the reason that McGillis always makes sure to emphasise how much he loves being a gay man. It is a simple statement to make perhaps, but the potential impact it could have on others is not lost on him.
“In every interview I give, at some point I try and say that I love being a gay man because I really do!” McGillis stressed.
“I see the world through a different lens than a straight person. I love queer culture, I love the people within the queer world, I love the resilience, the strength to overcome. There’s so much about queerness that I love, and I think that’s why we’re so great at so many things because we see the world differently. We’re not in this box, we can be anything and everything.
“I think sometimes oppression fuels creativity and fuels passion. I absolutely love being a gay man, and I try and say it everywhere because most kids have never heard that. Most people have never heard that.
“I hate the term acceptance. I absolutely loathe it, I refuse to say it, because to me acceptance is hierarchy. It creates a hierarchy where gaining acceptance means that a person has to accept me, and for a person to have to accept me means they’re above me.
“We’re all equal. No straight person is above me, and I’m not above any straight people. We’re all human beings, so I hate that word and I refuse to say it, I think queer people should stop saying it. I’ll use words like inclusion just because I don’t know what else there is to use to put in there, but I refuse to use acceptance and I’m tired of hearing that narrative.
“Stop looking at it as if they are above us, stop looking at it as if we need their acceptance because now you’re searching outside yourself for that. The only person that can accept you is you, and when you accept yourself and learn to love yourself, you’re not going to give a fuck about what anyone else thinks of you. It took me a long time to realise that, but it is so critical.”
While McGillis tries to provide inspiration for others, when he turned interviewer for #HockeyPride it gave him the opportunity to sit under the learning tree himself.
“I used to be so dismissive of Pride nights, and I still somewhat am but I think they can also help people,” he reflected.
“Here’s where I struggle – I think it gives people a moment where they feel accepted, and to me it’s like if they learn that they don’t need crumbs, that they deserve it all and not just that moment of acceptance, they probably won’t like Pride nights – but I’ve learned that different people are in different spaces and I can’t dismiss where they’re at.
“Instead I can celebrate where they’re at and be happy that they’re there, and try and learn with them to continue to evolve. Some people will just be content to stay there, and that’s okay too. Not everyone has to share my views, and I think through all this I’ve realised I don’t have to be liked by everyone.
“That’s another form of acceptance, I used to be distraught if queer people heard my interviews and ripped on me for something I’ve said. It would have been something minor like mentioning RuPaul’s Drag Race, and they would tell me how horrible it is and ask how I could like that.
“In my mind, I’m like 13 drag queens just got real careers instead of making $75 a booking. Queer art is being celebrated, so I’m all for that. Is it perfect? No, nothing is, but I am going to celebrate those queer artists.
“I’ve learned through all this that I don’t have to be in the same space as everyone else, and I can’t expect everyone to be where I’m at, but I can continue to push and uplift and I can continue to celebrate them while critically analysing where they’re at and why, which will help me with what I do.
“From there I can continue to recognise that I don’t need love and support and admiration from people, I just need to be me and do it for the right reasons and because I think it’s right. As long as I’m doing what I think is right, that’s all that matters.”