Homophobia in Sports: Angela James’ Story

Trash talk and competitiveness are two components deeply ingrained in the culture of sport. It’s an industry in which athletic ability is not the only factor affecting inclusivity among teammates and the support of fans. While society in general has become more LGBT-friendly, the sports industry has been slow to follow suit. Sexuality should be a nonissue, but veteran and up-and-coming athletes are increasingly reluctant to open up about their sexuality, fearing that their place on the team may become vulnerable if they do.

Standout women’s hockey player, Angela James, went through these same uncertainties growing up in North York. Like most individuals entering their teens, Angela grew more aware of her sexuality day by day, realizing she was more attracted to girls than guys in her circle of friends. But as Angela’s status in the realm of women’s hockey gained force, she decided her personal life was best kept private.

It’s important to remember that women’s hockey in the late 1980s and early 1990s was in a tenuous state, and the notion of a women’s hockey championship was just beginning  to gain momentum after the incredible display of talent at the first international women’s hockey tournament in 1987. Angela’s drive and speed on the ice already marked her as an obvious target for rival players. With hopes of representing Team Canada on the horizon, Angela wanted to be recognized for her skill and competitive spirit alone.

As detailed in the biography, Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey, when Angela met her life partner, Ange, and invited friends and family to join them for a commitment ceremony in May 1996, the sentiment was hard to swallow for some, including Angela’s sister, Kym:

“Kym didn’t bring my niece or nephew to the ceremony,” says Angela. “She thought they shouldn’t be exposed to that. Now, I think in hindsight, she probably kicks herself for being that way. But that was her view, so we had to respect it at that time.”

This landmark moment in Angela’s life took place five years before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada. However, to this day, athletes continue to feel the sting of homophobia in sports. In response to this form of discrimination, initiatives have developed that  promote respect and equality for all players regardless of sexual orientation. The You Can Play project is one such organization,  part of a growing movement aimed at ensuring a level playing field in sports. PSAs including the video featured below are gradually rolling out during hockey games, and feature an abundance of prominent NHL players reiterating the You Can Play sentiment of equal opportunity. You Can Play is not only making it easier for people to talk about the issue, it’s also presenting young LGBT players with great role models.

Discrimination against the LGBT community in sports is increasingly being addressed as a human rights issue. Recently, British activists declared that nations with antigay laws should be barred from attending the Olympic games. The Guardian recently showed support for the very same cause with an article calling for action from the International Olympics Committee, in time for the London Olympics that kick off within less than a week. Writer Mark Stephens cites a list of historical examples in which countries were banned from the Olympics because of human rights violations, arguing that nations which criminalize homosexuality should be handled with equal severity.

Check back for more previews from the highly anticipated biography on Angela James’ hockey legacy, hitting shelves August 25th.

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