I was raised in a middle class family in Northwest Indiana by a steel mill worker and for most of my childhood, a stay-at-home mom.
I had no gay role models. I was from a town where homophobia was far more common than tolerance and LGBT visibility. All the people raising me often unknowingly had adopted a fundamental and blindly bigoted approach on how a family is built that I contribute to no visible presence of a functioning, constructive and most importantly, healthy gay community. I’ve been told that necessity is the mother of invention. Without the need to consider diversity, that singular mentality in my region went seriously unchallenged.
As a boy, and somewhat still into adulthood I have had a tendency to gravitate towards masculinity, both in my personal character and in what I’ve found sexually attractive. I grew up with a general interest in sports, but found that my sexuality left me at odds and usually made me uncomfortable around my male peers. I started to withdraw. I became excluded. And with no resources available to turn to, I was left with my own naive observations that were socially stigmatizing. I started to unconsciously replace my erosion of self-esteem with shame, not cognizant of it happening.
That shame, and the secrets I used to hide it, let the opinions of others gain more influence over me than my own. When this happened, my need to be accepted left me looking for solutions to my feelings in unhealthy places. The internet was just beginning to gain popularity and online chat rooms quickly became the only social escape I could find. Those rooms matched against my narrow teenage sensibilities were a toxic combination loaded with malicious attacks on my confidence. When you can see and talk to someone there is an accountability that gets lost online, and people can very quickly be reduced to a crude list of meaningless measurements that essentially tell them they don’t always measure up. In my state, the internet was a forum where anonymity fostered unhealthy compassionless assaults on my character from others who were just as unknowingly desperate as myself.
But was there an alternative to this?
I lost the ability to value or even recognize my individuality and personal goals when I first realized I was gay. The idea of coming out was terrifying. Everything I had been taught now seemed challenged and I didn’t have the right tools for defending myself. The shame I felt was often overwhelming. Somewhere inside, my intuition insisted I was a good person—as good as everyone else. I just couldn’t convince my head to agree with my gut. The lessons life had already told me were saying that if I was honest and followed my feelings, and my heart then I should feel like a second-class citizen. I couldn’t accept this, and my answer to that was a shallow solution that left me using terms like “straight acting” in an effort to avoid adopting the social stigma that was attached to the word gay. I was doing everything I could to try to present myself with as a stereotypical “guy” and the cost was destroying my self-esteem in the process.
I’ve been told that the root of promiscuity is shame. It hasn’t taken much to identify the connection. People are sexual beings, and as if being gay alone wasn’t enough to recognize how emotion doesn’t listen to reason, when your sexuality collides against a conflicting social system, the result can be pretty damaging. As long as I wasn’t able to understand how my inability to recognize this deeply internal conflict influenced my personal behavior, I was left wading through anonymity and mentally shallow relationships to search for affection.
In the fall of 2002, while living in New York City, I stumbled across someone who told me about a gay hockey team in the city and immediately my interest was piqued. The concept seemed like a bit of an oxymoron, but hope that this kind of dichotomy was real made me plug “new york gay hockey” into a search engine. When the New York City Gay Hockey Association website first loaded on my computer I remember clicking on all the pages with a level of excitement that ignored patience. I couldn’t believe this truly existed, and was full of the kind community that cemented how my need for a family was so much greater than my self-imposed isolation. Impulsively, I joined.
Few endeavors in my life have been able to match the amount of emotional growing I did while playing with the NYCGHA. I began making gay friends, and was finally able to relax my own social barriers enough to experience an LGBT group that before any labels could be applied were just people playing hockey. I also noticed, for the first time a real sense of pride coming from the community and extended family I now felt a part of. My life had been changed, significantly, for the better.
What Gay Hockey Means to Me:
There are three fundamentals that I believe gay hockey offers me, personally. Community. Identity. …and Confidence. The first happened so fast that it was sometimes difficult to recognize. I noticed myself often forgetting that I was around other gay people. Even the word gay began losing the stigma that haunted me whenever I had to speak it. I was beginning to make friends who knew openly that I was gay and it didn’t affect their opinion of me. I was part of a group of people with diverse perspectives that could offer intimate insight into what it’s like and how to reach the kind of self-acceptance necessary for living both out and proud.
The second gift I got from my association with the hockey league was a sense of identity. I found a key that opened a defining door to who I am. I often will refer to gay hockey as a ‘bridge’ sport. For me, it was an outlet that offered a safe crossing from the strict definitions I used in male gender roles to the relaxed variations that I’ve now come to accept as being as natural as eating and sleeping. There was something behind the reputation of the sport of ice hockey that incrementally allowed me not to feel like my personal philosophies were being compromised by exploring a queer adaptation of what I saw as a traditionally masculine arena. Unknowingly, this league became a right-of-passage that added a layer to who I am.
Finally, it’s greatly contributed to restoring my confidence. After feeling excluded from sports like ice hockey as a boy, with joining the league came a feeling of reclaiming my right to be able to play, reclaiming an assertion that nothing would degrade me to living with second-class status. The game created opportunities for contributing to a team and a chance to learn skills and a sport that kept me moving and active. It made me feel productive and each week, after I would step off the ice I would notice myself already wishing I didn’t have to wait another full week before I got the chance to play again.
Now, again ice hockey is giving me a chance to build confidence in another capacity as I have crossed over into a mentoring role. I’m able to find personal value in teaching the sport to the next round of peers who are ready to learn, and very appreciative to be in the position where the skills I’ve collected are able to be put to use. I look forward with an unparalleled anticipation to the start of the MGHA and welcome anyone ready to join us with both enthusiasm and support.
This essay is by Patrick Farabaugh, the Founder of the Madison Gay Hockey Association. It is being published here as a testimonial to the value of groups like the MGHA and not meant to be considered for the scholarship