Zach Strong – 2006-2007 Essay

“What Gay Hockey Means to Me” by Zach Strong

Little did I know, when I walked through the doors I was going to be doing a whole lot more than playing some hockey. I was playing Gay Hockey. Gay hockey is not a winter sport with a sexual orientation. Identities are fluid and multi-faceted. Sometimes more so than we can contemplate. Fluid and multi-faceted like me, like Gay Hockey. At some point, I’m sure the MGHA might have looked like any other recreational sports team. It did to me. It is a social outlet and something to do with all those boring Sunday nights. Only in retrospect can I see how clearly it means so much more for so many people. One of them being me.

I grew up, constantly, moving through out “Chicagoland”. The images that portrayed my community, by the mainstream, and role models in my community were both equally discouraging growing up. The images subliminally molding my brain taught me to look up to athletes and thugs and stereotypes because they were the only ones coming out of neighborhoods like mine and becoming icons. I remember RuPaul, Prince, Michael Jordan, and a whole lot of rappers who usually got shot. Impoverished queer black men, the first face of HIV/AIDS.

I was drawn to athletics and possessed natural talent. Playing stick-ball in ‘the yard’ or football in ‘the field’ was everyone’s escape from our reality. The reality that most of us wouldn’t live to see 21, almost none us would make it to a university, and chances were we would end up living in those same conditions all our lives. Mothers and Fathers cheered on sons while daughters chatted or played in the near by playground. Amongst them was a different mother. She wasn’t shouting “Yeah Adam! Go Tim! Nice play Julio!” She screamed “Alright Alicia!”

My mother refers to those days of my early athleticism when we talk about my identity now. “You were the only ‘girl’ who walked up to a bunch of teenage boys and started playing tackle football. I always knew you were special. You were always a boy.”

There is a certain time when the girls don’t play with the boys anymore in athletics, usually some time around middle school. When kids stop signing up for summer recreational teams and have to start thinking about Varsity. For me it was a little different. It was when I moved from ‘the yard’ and ‘the field’ to Baraboo, Wisconsin. I was in my second semester of 7th grade. In the beginning I hated the change from city to small town, but I got used to it. By 8th grade my softball coaches were telling the high school Varsity coaches to get ready for their new clean up hitter. Being a middle line backer on the all-boys football team had me on the front page. After a few practices word quickly spread I wasn’t a ‘girl’ just trying to get attention, I came to play ball. I gained an enormous amount of respect from my pupils early on. And it turns out 8th grade boys and girls found the manifestation of my ambiguous gender quite attractive. I almost always had a boyfriend to hold hands in the halls with and pay for the movies. I also had frequent sleepovers at my girlfriends’ house so we could ‘practice’ making-out all night.

That trend continued through high school. Organized athletics became more and more a way of life than an extra curricular activity. I remained non-sexually active unless it was a kiss during spin the bottle or a slumber-party. And I often heard a “DYKE!” walking to class. But unlike most people’s high school experience, I could yell “Hell yeah! Did your girlfriend finally tell you what we did?” And got a smile and a high five from students I passed in the hall. Unlike so many other queer kids’ experiences, being a high school athletic authority really did make a difference in the way I was treated by everyone in town.

Things began to change when I went to college. I was getting involved with student organizations to learn things and explore myself. I joined the Black Student Unity (BSU) because I had a rough 5 years in Baraboo with little diversity and people of color to relate to. And I missed community and family. I joined the university’s gay and straight alliance (GSA) because I never actually had any ‘out’ friends before and I wanted to have language to describe my feelings. I joined the women’s club hockey team because “ice time” had always been my time and I wasn’t allowed on the university’s male team. It wasn’t long before the GSA had me exploring queer identities and queer theory. I was fascinated with gender studies in my classes. I felt finding an identity that fit me might never happen but learned about fluidity and queerness. I found great comfort in this and began using male pro-nouns and challenging how people saw me and saw my identity. I ran for the executive team of BSU and represented students in the senate. I couldn’t get enough ethnic and racial studies classes.

Something still was not complete. I had found some wonderful groups. I met great people and learned a lot. The only problem being, I found 3 wonderful groups to accept separate parts of who I was. BSU students were ignorant to my queer identity. The GSA was the antithesis of being proactive about recruiting and welcoming QPOC people and QPOC issues. The hockey girls didn’t want anything to do with either one of these groups. I don’t recall a single person from one group being friends with a person in another group. Any exception I can recall would only be if a person was a member of two groups. For example a best friend of mine who was in the GSA and BSU with me. We both experienced this predicament. Each part of my identity is not separate; they are interlocking and intertwined with everything I am. It was like being torn into pieces.

I transferred to a school in Madison in hopes that being in a city rather than a town would give me more opportunity and options for finding a community I could call home. For a year, I found very little of what I hoped for. I found a few more people like me who were searching for exactly what I was. We stuck close together and created our own support and community.

I wanted more, and found very little. But along with a few friends I found something else my first year in Madison. I found out that the biggest “party school” town in the country lived up to its reputation. I found a friend in a keg, or a bottle, or a bomb shot. I found the LGBTQ people the only place I knew how, at the bar. My friends and I could find reasons to drink any day. To celebrate, or to recuperate, or to retreat. “Lets get wasted!” All before I was 21 I found alcohol to be more of a routine than a social tradition.

October of 2006, I was talking to an old high school classmate I ran into here in Madison, we had become friends. While talking sports one night she mentioned a friend of hers learned about a gay hockey team in Madison. “I play hockey”, I explained I had been too busy partying the winter before to even look for a team. She said “Some guy named Patrick from New York City started it.” And that was all I needed to know. Patrick and I had already met in French class 2 semesters before. He was down one path, obviously to succeed, and excelled in French class. I clearly headed down another path, usually from class into a glass, and failed French class. We met once, the second time I met him he would change my path with Gay Hockey.

There was no way to tell what I was getting myself into. “What is Gay Hockey?” I thought. I walked through the double set of double doors. I could already smell the stench of hockey equipment. The reek of feet, mold, and week old sweat was never so refreshing. It’s like the smell of your house, your family’s house, or maybe the house you grew up in. No matter how long you’ve been gone, it might look different and feel very, very different, but it will always smell like home. I got my practice jersey and matching teal socks from the fellows in the lobby and made my way to the locker rooms. “Locker room 1, 2, 3, and 4. There are no genders for these doors.” I hesitated to ask someone where I should go. Taking only a moment to realize I probably couldn’t choose even if they were gender assigned. I stuck with the doors numbers. I went inside, sat down, and tried to remember “huh, what goes on first again?” The door swung open, in came bright eyes and a brilliant smile announcing “Hi, I’m Sarah!”

Shortly, people flooded the locker room. Introductions were exchanged while we changed. The room was filled with excitement and bubbly personalities. But I didn’t understand. So far “Gay Hockey” had given me more nervousness than excitement and the only thing bubbling was my gut. I stared into my bag and didn’t casually converse with anyone.

We hit the ice, practiced hard, and when we were done we retired back to 1, 2, 3, and 4. I changed as fast as I could without looking hurried. I was so shy and nervous. Giving a nod and a “see ya” I scurried from the locker room through the double set of double doors and into my car. There was no way to tell what I was getting myself into. After that first night I sat in my car, still not able to grasp the meaning or the purpose. “What is Gay Hockey?” I thought.

For me, Gay Hockey-the Madison Gay Hockey Association- is the most unexpected creature I have ever experienced. I have found a place where my many facets of identity are actually welcomed parts of my athleticism. I have found a group that is aware and loving of my cultural and ethnic identities. MGHA gave me the opportunity to meet the first QPOC athletes and teammates I have ever met. And now they are my friends, my family.

It is also a place where my friends can come and see me play hockey and feel comfortable cheering loud in the crowd. My family can see me play hockey in a place where we are all welcome.

We are challenging all institutions of gender when we play together. The beliefs in stereotypes about queer athletes of all genders are being crushed by Gay Hockey’s very existence. For the first time I really looked at myself and saw who I was. I don’t know that without experiencing a community that gives me this safe place to grow would I have seen this day. I am beginning understand myself in such beautiful clarity. I am seeing farther than before, especially when it comes to gender identity. We are always growing, discovering, and evolving-I am just glad I found the perfect place to do it.

I look in the mirror see a positive work in progress that I can be proud of. But most importantly, I see the role model I have searched for my whole life. In this day in age the mainstream does not represent but a selected few of privileged people. Because of Gay Hockey, I am privileged to represent something much larger than myself for so many people. Everyone is this league is now a role model to people in our community, our state, our country, and even the world.

Because of Gay Hockey, I have a healthy community and an amazing foundation of people who I can grow with. This new road was unexpected. I have the confidence and the support to succeed in all my endeavors. I challenged my own understanding and beliefs about being a queer athlete and can now believe in myself. That is what Gay Hockey is to me.