Friday, November 27, 2009

Why Canadian Queer History is Important

I should probably start off with a caveat: I’m gay and I did my Bachelor of Arts in History. In fact while at McGill, I was actually president of the History Students Association, which in fact made me the King of History (Reign of Terror: 2004-2005). So obviously my views on the subject at hand are about as partisan as a Sarah Palin book signing. You betcha!

Of late my favourite thing to do on the interweb is to peruse the comment section of news websites. Comment pages are my own personal narcotic, about as toxic as crack cocaine and just as addictive. And for the comment junkie anything controversial is like scoring a major drug hit.

One of the most controversial topics in the blogosphere this week was's profile of Brendan Burke. Brendan is the son of Brian Burke, current General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is also gay and a former high-school hockey athlete. In his ESPN profile Burke recounted his decision to come out of the closet and tell his father, "Mr. Testosterone", that he was gay. Brendan also discussed his decision to stop playing competitive hockey, tied to his fear of his teammates discovering his secret. Brendan’s story has, at this point, elicited over 250 comments on alone, hundreds more on the Globe and Mail, National Post and Toronto Star websites. The response, as these things go, has been fairly typical. In one corner you have supporters, “I'm a straight Christian and I applaud Brendan for what he did. The kids got guts,” and on the other side you have your standard, if not juvenile, and borderline homophobic comments, “I have a couple gay friends [some of my best friends are black] and I am not a homophobe. That being said, what the hell is the point of this article? This article belongs in a lifestyle magazine, but not ESPN".

However, the most common question was some variant on the following: “So, why is this even a story? The kid is gay. So what?”

Here’s what: the majority of the population, will never have to tell someone that they’re gay. The majority of the population will grow up, become sexually active and enjoy messing around with the opposite gender never. (And in the United States – the majority of the population can also get married without interference from the state legislature). The reality, is that unless you’ve laid in bed wondering why you don’t like girls the way that you “should” and whether your parents, friends and or teammates will still love you if you tell them your big secret, it is hard to fully appreciate or understand why “coming out” is a) important b) notable and c) a game-changer. No matter how far we’ve come in our search for LGBTQ equality, there is still a stigma associated with homosexuality. We, as a society, still see things in a hetero-normative capacity. Subsequent to Brendan’s coming out the Globe and Mail actually posed the question: “Is the NHL ready for a homosexual player?” The fact that we can still have an intellectual debate on this topic, and the hoopla surrounding the ESPN article on Brendan, signifies the fact that this stigma still exists.

Brendan’s story is noteworthy because of his association with professional sports, an industry that is rarely associated with homosexuality. While we may be ready to accept certain types of gays, i.e. we’re ok with sanitized gay men รก la Will and Grace, or we’re somewhat ok with sexualized gays like the randy men on Queer as Folk (we’ll just slap an NC-17 rating on them). But real-life gays who do real-life things… society is seemingly just not really ready for that. While we expect and enjoy our gay hairdressers, when it comes to sports, the puck stops at the jock strap.

Brendan’s story is also a milestone in the continuing evolution of Canada’s queer history. As with any modern historical movement, the evolution of queer rights has yet to fully find its place within the overarching themes of modern Canadian history. Regardless, the queer rights movement in Canada is remarkable because of its rapid march towards acceptance. In 1961 gay men were classified as "sexual psychopaths” and it was only in 1969 when Canada’s buggery and sodomy laws were repealed. By 1994 gay men and women were allowed to be active and out members of Canada’s military. And in 2005 LGBT couples across the country were legally allowed to marry. Amongst this rapid pace of change however, the true breadth and scope of the queer rights movement can easily be lost, especially amongst people in who are in their twenties. While modern queer history is still in its infancy; in the interim, however, stories like Brendan Burke’s have the capacity to remind all Canadians, and especially the gay community, where we’ve come from and where we still have to go.

In response to his son’s profile Brian Burke was quoted as saying: "I hope the day comes, and soon, when this is not a story." Well I hope that coming out will always be a story; however, I also hope that one-day soon it will be people’s reactions, which will be the non-story.