Brock McGillis lived and breathed hockey.
The former professional goalie battled between the pipes in the Ontario Hockey League, the United States and Europe, making it far beyond the dreams of many other Canadian athletes.
He was popular and well-liked, and presenting as a straight man.
McGillis called himself a “hyper-masculine hockey bro,” but said behind that persona he was struggling.
“I’d go home at night and hate myself. I’d want to die.”
McGillis came out to his family when he was 26 years old, but it wasn’t until he was 33, when he revealed his secret to everyone else.
He was the first male pro hockey player to openly come out as gay.
McGillis is now a coach and mentor to young players and fierce advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. He uses his voice and his personal story to tackle homophobia in locker rooms.
To McGillis, language is everything.
When speaking to sports teams and students in schools, he asks a pointed question:
“Who here has used homophobic language or uses homophobic language?”
McGillis said initially everyone is apprehensive, but when he puts up his own hand, before long the rest of the hands go up.
That shared experience puts his face to the hurt of homophobic slurs. McGillis said he believes young people are less inclined to be homophobic but the language hasn’t evolved as quickly as their thoughts and beliefs.
“If we can humanize that side in these settings, in these locker rooms,” said McGillis, “then they go, ‘Wait, that hurts my aunt, that hurts my uncle, that hurts my cousin.'”
McGillis said junior hockey players are often “worshipped” by their peers and even some adults. He stressed the young players have major influence with their actions and words.
He gave an example. While running a hockey camp in Sudbury, Ont., McGillis said one of the younger players called the training “gay.”
An older player immediately spoke up, telling him, “We don’t say that here. Give me 50 push-ups.”
“If we can evolve the way hockey players talk, especially at that major junior level where they’re accessible,” McGillis said, “they have massive influence.
“Connor McDavid is Brad Pitt, like he’s not accessible to everybody, where these major junior players are.
“They need to recognize the importance of their words because it’s then used in society.”
Those words can be passed down by parents. Not speaking up, said McGillis, is just as bad.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, I don’t do that.’ Silence is deafening. It’s a form of language and if we’re not standing up and being anti-homophobia, we’re complicit to it,” he said.
“Hockey parents have hockey babies who then grow up and play hockey.”
McGillis said those hockey parents know what is going on in locker rooms.
“They know, they have to know, they came from it and it hasn’t really changed,” said the former player.
“We need them to stand up and say, ‘We don’t tolerate this.’
“I think we need parents to normalize queerness, normalize LGBTQ+ and let kids know at a young age that it’s OK — that you’re a part of this community and we love you.”
Kristopher Wells, a human rights advocate, associate professor and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University, said the conversation with children should start young.
Wells said too often kids hear about LGBTQ issues in a negative way, whether it was a school yard slur, hate crimes or a rainbow flag pulled down from someone’s house.
“The best thing we can do is talk about this with your family around your kitchen table,” Wells said. “Just making it part of your everyday conversation an ordinary one, rather than an extraordinary one.”
Wells said often kids repeat the language used around them and it’s up to caregivers and educators to tell young people why certain words are not OK.
Many of those words are still being used in schools today.
Wells pointed to a recent study that looked at LGBTQ issues in schools and 64 per cent of the students said they still hear homophobic comments daily or weekly.
“In some ways, that’s actually pretty shocking,” said Wells, “but in other ways, it also shows if we’re not actively talking about these issues and not teaching about LGBTQ issues in schools, how do we expect behaviours to change?”
Changing that behaviour, said Wells, means addressing homophobic slurs when you hear them. He said the number one thing you can do, is “interrupt.”
“It’s not about being a bystander.
“We often say silence makes you complicit and this isn’t just for youth but for the adults. If you’re not interrupting when you hear this language, then what message are you sending to your children?”
McGillis also wants parents and their kids to know that owning up to something you said can go a long way. He said another young player slipped and used the word “fag” and was immediately embarrassed and ashamed.
“His jaw dropped and he turned beat red and he said, ‘Brock. I’m so sorry.'”
McGillis said that sincerity and apology is a step forward.
“That’s a phenomenal step to evolving culture and society and yourself.”
For parents scared to speak out and take a stand in locker rooms, worried it could jeopardize their child’s hockey career, McGillis wants them to think about the impact on far more players.
“First and foremost, the odds of a child making it in sport to a professional level is so slim. But how many people are going to be hurt along the way with that type of language and behaviour is significantly more.”