Thank you again for sharing your experience with the MGHA and what gay hockey means to you – you mean the world to us!
And congratulations to Randi Hagen – your essay will be published in Our Lives Madison!
Thank you again for sharing your experience with the MGHA and what gay hockey means to you – you mean the world to us!
And congratulations to Randi Hagen – your essay will be published in Our Lives Madison!
I’ve been with the league for several years, and I’ve had the option to write a “What Gay Hockey Means to Me” essay a few times now. Each time, I declined – this community means the world to me, but I didn’t have a story that fit into a nicely packaged narrative. I am thoroughly hooked on hockey now and play in two leagues (thanks to the MGHA), and I served on the board for two years as a way to give back to the community that has given so much to me… but it still wasn’t quite enough to coax a story out of me. I didn’t have any life-altering experiences that were worth writing about – that is, until this last season.
I joined the MGHA several years ago. It wasn’t very dramatic, but it was actually an act of desperation. I had no queer community. I had lived in Madison for upwards of 10 years and I knew virtually no one like me. I looked in all of the circles I walked in – namely school, work, and gaming. I was still in the process of questioning my gender when I tried to find like-minded groups in college, but I didn’t feel “queer enough”, or that I fit in. I had no luck at work – there was a fledgling queer community, but the power dynamics of the workplace made it uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t rely on it for support. The gaming community was out of the question – I am sure there were queers there, but I didn’t click well enough with the group as a whole to find anybody.
At one of the LGBTQIA+ meetings at work, Andrew Cox mentioned the MGHA. I was not athletic, and I was not into sports or hockey, but I needed a community. I was desperate. So I went to the website and filled out an application.
I didn’t get in.
That is to say, my application got lost. Or something. Nobody reached out to me, and by the time I followed up with Andrew (who pointed me to the right people), it was too late. The league was full, and they didn’t have space for me. Shit. I mean, I wasn’t heartbroken – “this is not the queer community you’re looking for” had become sort of a recurring theme by this point, so I figured I just needed to look elsewhere.
Fast forward a year, and little had changed. My quest was still underway, and I’d made no progress. On a Friday in late June of 2015, I had an email from Patrick Farabaugh. “Are you still interested?”
Well, I haven’t had any luck elsewhere, so sure, why not, I’m still interested. Let’s do this. How scary can it be? Turns out, REALLY SCARY. Do you have an anti-competitive streak a mile wide, a deep aversion to being aggressive, a crippling fear of being read as masculine, and haven’t exercised in years? When you do, team sports are utterly terrifying. A month before the season started, I nearly quit the MGHA. What had I gotten myself into?? I needed a community, but did I really need it this badly? What if I didn’t get along with anybody, or I was awful at it, or if it was like all team sports I had tried in the past and I would end up going home crying each night?
Spoiler alert: I didn’t quit. But I very nearly did. I convinced myself that I should try it for a little bit, and that I could bail if it turned out to be awful. And, further spoiler alert: it wasn’t awful. In fact, it was wonderful. The league was a place where community came first and hockey came second. I met so many wonderful, amazing, loving human beings. I couldn’t fathom how there were so many fantastic humans living in Madison right under my nose. It was unbelievable.
Over the course of the next few years, I fell in love with the league. Each year, I was placed on a new team which allowed me to make friends with a whole new group of humans. My circle of friends grew, and the people who are closest to me in my life right now are people I met through playing hockey. I joined the board as a way to give back. I have a lot of skills that come in handy when running a hockey league, apparently. I was helping make the MGHA a better place.
As things with hockey continued to get better, things in the rest of my life continued to get worse. It was a litany of disasters with no end in sight. It culminated with the death of my son in March of 2018. I was absolutely devastated. There’s no way to sugarcoat it – Einar’s death broke me. My grief led me to some very dark places, and as a result, at the beginning of this last season, I left my wife. I put some clothes in my backpack, hopped on my motorcycle, and rode off into the wind.
The MGHA was wonderful, but I didn’t have a story that was worth writing an essay about. Until now.
I couch-surfed for a month-and-a-half. At times it was 7pm at night and I didn’t know where I was going to be sleeping that night. I rode my motorcycle through the sun and through the rain. And when I crashed on couches, exhausted, with wet motorcycle gear, it was largely with people from the MGHA. I had built this community for several years, and when I needed them the most, the people in this league Showed Up for me. They fed me, held me, kept me safe, and listened to me cry. They took me out dancing for my birthday and defended my honor when it was impugned. They had long conversations with me about what healthy relationships look like and what you need to do to build and maintain them. They talked with me on the phone as I sat on sidewalks in Madison, sobbing and broken. The people in this league stood by me as everything in my life fell apart.
After I settled into my own apartment and my mental health started to stabilize, I realized that my choice three years prior to join the MGHA – and my choice not to quit before it started – had been life-altering. Without the emotional support my friends in the league gave me, I may have never realized I was unhappy in my marriage. The MGHA gave me the structure and support to build up the courage I needed to completely upend my life and leave a relationship that wasn’t working for me. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I didn’t have to do it alone. This league is my chosen family, and they were there for me.
In the aftermath of my breakup, as the season began progressing last fall, I already knew – I was going to write an essay this year. I finally had something worth saying.
My first season playing ice hockey has had so many other firsts built into it. The Madison Gay Hockey Association is truly the first group I’ve been a part of that states explicitly: ask, appreciate, and learn from each other. From my first day in a room of excited, nervous new players, I heard, “don’t make assumptions.” Don’t assume what people know, how fast they are, what they like or what they don’t, what they want to be called, or whether or not they’re hurt. The MGHA is the first space I’ve been in where getting to know new people doesn’t require coming out through long-winded definitions or explanations, and where any configuration or structure or type of relationship is just that: a relationship. The MGHA was the first place where I’ve really been out about dating another woman, the first group where I’ve really felt valued as a beginner at a new sport, and the first time I’ve seen such tangible progress from week to week among players with such a wide range of experiences and skills. In every interaction, on the ice and off, on the hard days and the good ones, there is a genuine invitation to come as you are.
One of my favorite things about gay hockey isn’t actually on the ice at all, but in the stands. The amount of love and support from people who notice and appreciate each other’s improvement and wellbeing is unlike anything I have ever experienced. People I had never had a conversation with before would tell me how well my team played or how much my game had improved since the previous week. The stands are full of people who are eager to make each other feel welcome, ready at a moment’s notice to explain the game to hockey-illiterate friends or confused partners, and excited to support both their teammates and their competitors. I love the willingness to share stories, questions, compliments, and beers while watching the games, and love seeing those same familiar faces tucked underneath helmets and mouth guards on the ice.
Gay hockey, for me, means celebrating each other’s success. It means patience and progress, falling down (a lot), and getting stronger. It also means, it turns out, that I finally feel like an athlete.
The 2018-2019 season was my first season with MGHA (hey Nightfuries!) but I already feel like I’ve been in the league so much longer.
I met Claire Busse through work. We got talking about sports and she told me about playing hockey. She convinced me to sign up. I was waitlisted until the next season. Then, I got the email that I had a spot if I wanted it. Initially I was going in to hockey thinking it was going to be a great way to stay active in the rugby off season. But before I took the ice for the first time I was sidelined by an injury. I wasn’t even able to even put my skates on. On top of the injury I was dealing with some pretty heavy personal issues. I sincerely considered dropping out of the league. I’m so glad I didn’t. I was immediately welcomed by my teammates on team reveal night. I really thought that writing this essay was going to be easy. It’s hard to put it in to words…MGHA has become the part of my family I didn’t know I was missing, that I didn’t know I needed. My teammates and captains made me feel safe and welcomed when that wasn’t how I was feeling walking in to Hartmeyer. I never questioned if I was being accepted for being exactly who I am by any of them. If you can’t tell I’m not the best at cohesive writing. #scatterbrained Remember that time I forgot my breezers, ran home, then proceeded to scored my first (and only I might add) goal? Patrick keeps saying he’s gonna hide them so I score more. It’s little stories like this that make MGHA home for me.
What does gay hockey mean to me? Family. Safety. Friends.
My identity to the world and who I was didn’t feel congruent because I lived most of my life in an environment where even if people “knew” you still didn’t talk about it. I felt a lot of shame about who I was; even though I was was accepting of everyone else, I did not accept myself. I felt like I lived in two different worlds, I wasn’t out around most people and then when I was around my friends who knew I could be myself.
I have played with the MGHA league for 3 seasons now and the league has been a huge part of helping me have confidence to be myself. MGHA is a hockey league where your teammates cheer to encourage you when you have the puck, even if everyone knows you hardly know how to skate and you can hardly hear the cheering over your own thoughts trying to remember everything you learned about skating with the puck! That encouragement made me want to keep playing and never give up.
For the first time, I found a safe place I could be myself. Unlike the rest of the world, MGHA is a place where you sincerely don’t have to fit in to any box to fit in. And other than the form you fill out when you sign up for MGHA (which they use to improve the recruiting process) no one ever asks you what box(es) you fit in to. I’ve done a lot of growing along the way, I no longer feel shame for who I am. As cheesy as it sounds, I found myself and a lot of really awesome friends through the MGHA!
My parents were the hardest to come out to, and it didn’t go well, but it was almost a non-issue for me that they didn’t really understand what it meant that I was gay (“No, like… I’m sexually attracted to men…..”). I kind of expected it, given their educated-but-not-empathetic view of many other things. The bigger issues with them and others in my family and life has been the lack of empathy and understanding relating to my other deviations from their expectations: my disinterest in children, a job that pays as much as possible, my own car and home, and my anomalous values that I hold above those. These issues still plague our relationship and make it an earnest struggle to feel respected and loved. But there are those unrefined or inextricable parts of me that are good, bad, different, odd, refreshing, or unsavory for polite company, and yet my MGHA family loves me as I am, sometimes because of and sometimes despite.
And it’s not just that we’re a smattering of more progressive, young and young-at-heart individuals. Plenty of my progressive and young peers have constricted world views and assign value to me based on my choices and lack of choices that they would have made. The MGHA is more than just open-minded. I think it comes from the layers and layers of acceptance that build on each other. We begin with knowing we fit and fill all the beautiful parts of queer (and allies), and we accept each other. And then there’s also varying levels of hockey ability, including people like me who came in as a wobbly-ass baby giraffe just hoping to not break bones on falls one through four hundred, and we accept each other. And we come from various backgrounds and currentgrounds and futuregrounds, and we accept each other. And the more we differ, the more we accept each other, and that acceptance is built on and reinforces such a solid foundation that people are comfortable being earnest, complete, fierce embodiments of themselves. You read about it in tons of these essays – how people only felt comfortable with something about themselves or about sharing it within this league, or maybe starting with this league – and it’s one of the most amazing things that this league can help so many people come to accept themselves, to help them realize they deserve to accept themselves and be accepted by others too.
I’m a very cynical person, and I struggle with seeing the good and not drowning in the bad, but the MGHA has given me acceptance and love and support and, annoyingly, an example of something I can’t be cynical about. The MGHA means, to me, acceptance. I guess hockey’s pretty neat, too.
Let’s start a bit with my background. I grew up in southwest Pennsylvania in a rural town where people love their guns and everything that isn’t good is, well, ‘gay’. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people, but there are also some very closed-minded folks who have never ventured outside of their little bubble. I moved to Madison in 2011 and when I moved here, I had my own little bubble around me, too. I didn’t know much about gay culture and I surely didn’t know any trans folks or even know gender-queer was a thing. Like the commenters on a bad Facebook post, I thought the genitalia you had defined you. I was naive and uneducated about gender identity and sexual orientation.
As for me, I didn’t really know I was gay until a few years ago. It took a good friend to get me to really think about things and connect the dots. When I did, it was quite a relief. I honestly can say that it felt like a weight had lifted. I know it sounds cliché, but I remember feeling it. I had known about the MGHA and decided to sign up.
Unlike so many who write these essays, hockey wasn’t new to me. I started playing as a senior in high school. I worked at an ice arena for six years, too, during high school and college. I had played adult league and was playing with a local group here in Madison. I had experience. I wasn’t the best player, but I could certainly hold my own. I came into the league not knowing what to expect from a gay hockey league.
My first team was incredibly welcoming. I was still trying to get my bearings in this unique inclusive league. It was a different experience for sure, but I quickly realized that success in this league wasn’t measured in goals or wins, but instead it was measured in how well you play with others, your encouragement of the team, and even interactions with the other team. I learned that the MGHA aligns well with my demeanor and style of play. I decided to stick around and even signed up to be on the board for my second and third years in the league.
One of my favorite aspects of this league is the inclusive play. I love the encouragement and the idea that everybody deserves to play. If a lesser-skilled player gets the puck, we let them hold onto it for a little while to get more comfortable. If somebody accidentally knocks somebody down, we ask them if they’re alright and sometimes even help them up. For me, this is huge. Some advanced players may come into the league and struggle with the concept of not taking the puck end-to-end and I admit that I certainly have moments where I want to do just that. For me, though, part of the challenge and fun of this league is improving my other skills while helping hone the skills of the other players. The MGHA lets me work on my leadership abilities while letting me help and encourage those who have less experience. It lets me offer pointers. It gives me the opportunity to instill confidence in people who, due to a plethora of reasons, don’t have that confidence. A little bit of confidence goes a long way, sometimes.
If you remember, I brought a bubble with me from southwestern PA. That bubble shielded me from people who were different. For me, gay hockey taught me that there’s a whole lot more to this world than what’s inside that little bubble. Before I joined the league, I hadn’t really known anyone who was trans or gender-queer. I think I was honestly a little uncomfortable. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know anything about it. It was just foreign to me and foreign things can be scary. I write this showing vulnerability and hoping that this doesn’t make me a bad person. This league, though, has introduced me to a whole new world (go ahead, sing the song from Aladdin… I’ll wait). I know that I’m a much more accepting and open person because of this league. I also know that I’m always learning. I know that if I don’t understand something, I can ask. This league has given me a space to grow and has helped me expand my worldview.
Most of the time, these essays tell the tales of people who haven’t felt welcome in organized sports or haven’t been comfortable in team settings because of who they are and the love and acceptance they find in the MGHA. I love that this league fosters those moments. It fills my heart to have so many people share success stories of feeling welcomed and loved when they play with our group. My story is a bit different, but the outcome is similar. Gay hockey has given me a place to help the people I just mentioned. It’s given me a way to give back and foster confidence and inclusion. At the same time, it’s given me a place to learn how to be more inclusive. I’m sure I still have a bubble. I think we all do. What I do know, however, is that my little bubble that I brought with me from southwestern PA is now a much bigger bubble thanks to the MGHA and the people in the league.
At 30, I did not anticipate learning an entirely new sport. I had some confidence in my ability to stay upright on skates thanks to years of rollerblading, but I had no idea what the fundamentals of hockey were and I, of course, was anxiety- filled by the idea of learning all the hockey skills all at once. Oh, my goodness, with my gear on, I could barely function much less use a stick to poke a puck around on ICE! But then, I attended my first meeting and my anxiety levels dropped significantly. Everyone was incredibly friendly and inclusive. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to play on a league where all folx were welcome; no matter where they fell on the gender or sexuality spectrums, if they had 20 years of hockey experience or never put on a pair of skates. In that first meeting, they made it clear what the MGHA was about and how important it is to honor pronouns and shed assumptions. Let me be clear, I have been a part of several organizations in my life, athletics included, and I have never met an organization so open and willing to help out its new players and support everyone from various backgrounds.
Finally, I had something to look forward to on Sundays during the winter! I knew a handful of people when I joined the league and now I can say that I am incredibly blessed to add dozens more to the list. I had the privilege of not only being a mentor to a wonderful hockey new-comer this past season, but I also got to try my hand at being a co-captain at the 2018 MGHA Classics. I have to admit, I was incredibly shocked that I was even asked to fill either one of these roles. I have rarely been comfortable in leadership roles and I usually fill the spot of “supportive teammate.” However, the confidence that the Board Members instilled in me by asking me to mentor and lead has empowered me to apply for membership and to get more involved in the league; ready, happy, and willing to give back all that they have given to me!
I am so excited to have found my niche and core group of amazing friends and chosen family. I don’t know what I would do without the support of all of you. At every opportunity, I try to spread the word about the MGHA and incorporate the core values and inclusivity in my other social and work endeavors. Overall, I have grown as a person and I continue to learn how to improve my hockey skills, build up my self-esteem and overall worth by giving back to the league. I am looking forward to what the next adventure with the MGHA might be!
Thankfully, I returned to Madison and joined assorted fun pick-up groups over the years. Hockey was fun once more, I avoided leagues, and decided that a life goal should be to play hockey, in some capacity, until I’m 70.
MGHA needed another goalie, and multiple friends recommended that I ask to join. I had enough friends and hockey contemporaries in the league and playing in the Classic that I suspected it would be my kind of hockey fun, and I was accepted for the ‘17-18 season. On the hockey side of things, it was more than I could have hoped for. The whole league is set up to be one giant collection of league-mates first, teammates second. It was extremely beginner-friendly, so I could be useful in helping noobs (I’ve experienced beginner-friendly groups turn more advanced, and that always comes with a sense of loss), just as I was helped. Games were quite intense for me, but the pressure was just internal – it was OK for me to laugh at my own mistakes, and it was wonderful to have like-minded teammates looking to extract fun from hockey. Hockey-wise, MGHA was already a great fit for me. Would recommend, could end story here.
What I did not expect is how much more MGHA would be on an interpersonal level. It’s difficult to put into words, but there’s an inherent closeness to the group that took me by surprise, caught me up in it, and humbled me to be accepted. One day, in casual conversation, a couple of out stories were shared. That’s when it struck me. Straight folk don’t tend to hear such experiences unless it’s someone close or extroverted. I immediately felt a stronger friendship for having been shared with, but it also illustrated the divide to me. These are major life moments, so why wouldn’t I have heard more from other friends and family over the years? That’s when I began to appreciate the “where you can be yourself” facet of the MGHA way, and started to comprehend how much more meaningful it can be, beyond just a great place to play hockey.
Frankly, it bothers me that the world needs more acceptance and suppresses anyone from being themselves. Society should be better. But that’s the world we live in. If I can learn and grow personally, and share my positive experiences to improve this situation a bit, I’ll leave the world a tad better for my kids, who will hopefully continue that attitude.
So, I revise a previous life goal. I would like to play hockey, in some capacity, with the MGHA until I’m 70.
But by middle of the season things started to change. I’d be on the bench watching James or Bob or whoever was on the ice playing right wing and think to myself, would they just please get the fuck off the ice already, so I can go out and take my turn?
The big switch came from learning a whole bunch of new things, including
1. boatloads of practical information about hockey
2. It’s really OK to take the puck, even if I’m not going to do anything smart with it when I get it.
3. To play well and have fun, I need to focus on what I do when the puck comes to my part of the rink. I don’t need to care about winning and losing.
I learned these lessons after weeks of nice, supportive, encouraging talk on the bench and in the locker room. The MGHA isn’t joking when they say you need to be a nice person to play. So, thank you to my teammates and the MGHA for showing me that competitive sports can be fun.
Go Blunicorns! Sparkle hard!