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Home Sport The power of words and the weight homophobic slurs carry: Heroux

The power of words and the weight homophobic slurs carry: Heroux

Those words are seared into my mind.

I can remember so vividly being in my mid-teens growing up in Saskatoon and being so acutely aware of homophobic slurs – I’d hear them while playing hockey. In the locker room. In the stands. They seemed to be everywhere I turned.

That word Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman used during Wednesday’s game.

I’d play them on loop in my mind. They were devastating to hear because they reinforced that my being gay, even though I wasn’t out at the time, was going to mean that I was less-than, incompetent and that I didn’t belong in the sports world.

I can accept that some of the people using these terms didn’t realize how deeply-impacting their cavalier use of these slurs could be.

Let me be clear, those words have the ability to change lives.

I quit hockey because of it. The anxiety of being in that toxic environment was too much to endure. I also vowed, probably when I was 16 or 17 years old, nobody close to me would know what seemed to feel like my dirty secret – especially because of the way people talked about what being gay in the sports world meant.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux reports on suspension of Thom Brennaman:

Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman has been suspended after he used a homophobic slur on air during a game Wednesday. 2:04

There were dark and searching days.

In December 2007, not too long after coming out to my family and friends, I penned a column in the University of Saskatchewan newspaper, The Sheaf. I was the sports editor at the time and felt it important then to use my platform to share my story. I wrote about hiding my sexuality, putting a mask on every day and that I was gay and the school newspaper’s sports editor.

I knew then and know now how important representation is – I didn’t have that in my life growing up in Saskatchewan.

The responses were varied, some supportive and some full of hate. It was the beginning of fully understanding the work I do and the weight my words carry – something I continue to hold close every day I write and speak as a reporter for CBC Sports.

‘I needed to armour up’

Those words, which I still hear with alarming frequency during media scrums and in the press boxes and at sporting venues today, don’t pack the same punch as when I was younger in my career.

Back then, I can remember preparing to go out on assignment to a hockey or curling rink, football stadium, basketball court and feeling as though I needed to armour up for what I might hear and experience.

I felt I had to make sure I wasn’t too gay and that I did everything I could to fit in with the sports reporting guard. Surely they couldn’t find out I am gay, is what I thought. And when I did hear those homophobic slurs while on the job, I would immediately shrink – I would be transported back to being that young, insecure kid who just wanted to fit in.

There have been great strides in sports around diversity and inclusion. You Can Play, an organization that has worked tirelessly in this area, has educated thousands of athletes, coaches and staff members on LGBTQ+ issues for a decade.

WATCH | Heroux, athlete panel discuss challenges of being LGBTQ+ in sports:

CBC Sports panellists Devin Heroux, Erin McLeod, Wade Davis and Anastasia Bucsis explain why this year’s Pride demands tough conversations about the intersectionality of class, sex, race and ability. 54:01

The results of their work, without overstating the significance, are life-saving.

“I always think of that 12, 13, 14 year old kid who’s hearing this and somehow thinks that he or she is less-than and not accepted in sports because [of] what you hear from athletes or broadcasters,” president of the organization, Brian Kitts said.

“I think the worst thing for kids is to hear this and walk away from sports when they could have been something great.”

I was that kid and did walk away. Who knows how different my journey could have been, something I often think about.

That’s what this is all about.

There are thousands of young LGBTQ+ athletes across Canada right now wondering if there’s a place for them in sports. And when they hear homophobic slurs on the ice and pitch and court and field, it reinforces their insecurities about what it means to be gay today and wanting to excel in athletics.

“I think the important thing that’s at stake is the ability to influence a kid’s life either in a positive way or a negative way,” Kitts said.

“If you have a chance to tell a kid that he or she can be a great athlete and contribute to a team, why wouldn’t you take that chance instead of using language that potentially makes somebody feel bad and makes them walk away from their sport?”

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