November 25, 2009
John Buccigross's ESPN.com column on Brendan Burke -- who came out as a gay man to his father, Toronto Maple Leafs President Brian Burke, two years ago -- has been the talk of the hockey world in the last 24 hours.
(ESPN.com labeled his coming out as an "admission" on the top of Buccigross's story, which is about as faintly damning a term as can be applied to someone coming out to their parents.)
Not only has this been buzz-worthy because it reignites one of the hottest of hot-button issues in professional sports (homosexuals in the locker room), but because it instantly transformed Burke, that steadfast promoter of truculence and testosterone, into a de facto gay icon. Brendan Burke has become hockey's Mary Cheney of the moment, though both child and parent are treating this public outing with much less political parsing than Dick Cheney did in an election year.
Burke believes there will be those who won't embrace the family love inherent in his acceptance of his son's orientation or of Brendan's decision to go public with his sexuality. Burke remembered that when he was in California in November to vote in the U.S. presidential election - he voted for Barack Obama - he was aggressively confronted by anti-gay activists protesting a same-sex marriage proposition on the California ballot.
"I told them to (expletive) get lost," said Burke, who also voted for the proposition. "But over the next two weeks, yeah, I expect to get some hate mail over today's story. There is going to be a backlash. All I care about is if Brendan is prepared for it. It takes jam to do what he's done."
What has he done, exactly? Has Brendan Burke helped drag professional hockey from its close-minded, closeted traditions regarding gay players with his story? Or is this just a personal choice and a compelling narrative without political impact? (To that end, we recommend Big League Screw's "it's a personal choice" essay on gay athletes coming out.)
To help answer those questions, we reached out to Justin Bourne, the former minor league player-turned-columnist whose piece on gay slurs in hockey for USA Today is actually the reason the world now knows Brian Burke has a gay son. (Follow Bourne on Twitter here.)
The following Q&A is an attempt to clarify what this news means and if, in the end, it's actually newsworthy.
Q. How did you initially stumble upon the story of Brendan Burke and how did it end up on ESPN?
BOURNE: After my USA Today column on gay slurs, Brendan wrote me a personal email -- he appreciated the article, and told me his story. I thought it was great (and actually, I assumed it was common knowledge), and asked permission to share it with my readers. He had to clear that with big Burke, and his employer, Miami of Ohio University's Enrico Blasi.
Once I got the go-ahead from everyone, I tweeted that the story would be coming. Not sure what happened from there, but I ended up getting an email from Brendan saying he had the opportunity to take the story to more eyes through ESPN's John Buccigross, and that John asked him to ask me not to write my piece until he could. Eventually, John wrote me himself.
Of course, this story is much more valuable if people actually read it, and I know my blog gets maybe kinda slightly possibly just perchance less daily traffic than ESPN. So I respectfully waited for the story to come out.
He's been out for two years; why hadn't this story been written before, do you think?
No idea. I'm gonna guess media people just didn't know? I don't think it speaks to anything bigger than that, like "growth of acceptance" or something. No idea.
What do you find most compelling about his story?
That Brendan is gay?
Okay, no, it's that it's Brian Burke's son. It's the stark contrast in his personality to the perceived personality of a gay male, and how Brian hasn't so much as flinched about the whole thing.
It's like in "Billy Madison" when Sandler convinces the kids it's cool to pee your pants - when someone like Brian Burke, a perceived alpha male, says "it's all good, you gotta problem with it?", you halfway expect all the lessers in line to go "no sir, I've always been okay with it too."
I've heard complaints about this lacking "news value," both from people who are offended by the notion that coming out is an "admission" (as ESPN's headline on the Web page termed it) and that it's not exactly someone with a direct relationship with the NHL. Your thoughts?
Lacking "news value"? You don't have to like the piece, or Brendan's story, or the concept of the story -- it's just an interesting piece on an interesting NHL-tied family. A columnist isn't limited to writing about scores. Look at Rick Reilly -- as much as that guy has started mailing it in the last few years, he writes about the people in sports, not the sports themselves. And, he's been fairly successful at it, I've heard.
Arguing about the value of the story misses the point -- just enjoy a neat story about a hockey family living through something that our culture makes matter, when in reality, they're a healthy, happy, family (the best response to the article might be "so what?" Not long after corresponding with Brendan, I almost lost my brother at age 29. That's the stuff that actually matters. As Burke mentioned - who by the way counts as a "direct relationship to the NHL -- it'll be great when this isn't a story).
Your question reminds me of something I've learned along the way -- part of the problem with speaking in defense of gay rights as a straight man (though please note, I understand where they're coming from on this) -- it's suuuper touchy. For a guy ripped right out of the dressing rooms of professional hockey (i.e. me), you end up feeling petrified of making the situation worse, or seeming to be insensitive, strictly because you don't know.
I know now that the word is "acknowledge," not "admit," because they've done nothing wrong. And that "sexual preference" is offensive because it's not a choice -- use "orientation."
One facet of this that made me uncomfortable is the assumption of what being a gay man means intrinsically. By that I mean: Brian Burke is known for brutal, physical hockey, and hey, he has a gay son. Doesn't the story live or die on the stereotypical "femininity" associated with gay men, juxtaposed with Burke's reputation and that of hockey?
Yeah, you nailed it. But that's what makes this story so valuable.
A guy (Brian) who blatantly frightens people and seems to have the Grinch's heart in the "before" picture is okay with having a gay son, seemingly without hesitation. About 40-50 years ago, guys a "manly" as Brian Burke are the exact reason gay men were uncomfortable coming out. The culture towards them was vicious and hateful -- I think this shows that things are changing, acceptance is possible.
If you're a gay player today, and Brian freaking Burke is cool with it, how much farther does that go than if some polite, out-of-the-spotlight guy is the one "marching arm in arm" with his son on this? I say a whole bunch.
Finally, there wasn't a lot in the piece about gays in the NHL, which you and I agree is the only discussion/disclosure that's going to shift the paradigm here. Were you surprised by that, and does this ESPN piece perhaps make it easier for us to get to that point?
Hmm, not sure I do agree, actually.
I think an openly gay player in any professional sport could help advance the discussion, and further, an openly gay player at even the lower levels helps. This isn't going to happen overnight, like, "hurray, the NHL approves of gays today!"
This is a process, and anyone rooting for the rights of people to just be themselves should understand that every little piece of progress helps right now, and this is one.
Like some bad high school counselor, all I'm saying is, the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.