Wilde City Press is celebrating Gay History Month with authors offering a series of posts. Here’s mine…
I celebrated enthusiastically with the rest of those who love equality when veteran basketball player Jason Collins came out in April of this year. It was a brave thing to do, even if Collins was in the twilight of his career with no contract for the following season. (And I’m not aware of any contract interest in Collins for the coming season.) His coming out was billed as the first for an active major league athlete, but that isn’t strictly true.
From 1976 to 1978 Glenn Burke played for the LA Dodgers, and came out to his teammates and the club owners while an active player. Everybody knew. When asked, team captain Davey Lopes said nobody cared. In 1978 Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s, where he sustained a knee injury before the 1980 season, when Billy Martin was manager. Martin did care. He was notoriously homophobic, frequently using “faggot” in the locker room as an insult. That injury was the end of Burke’s career. The A’s sent him to the minors, and and then released him before the end of the 1980 season. Burke died of AIDS-related causes in 1995. He was 42.
But between between Burke’s coming out and Collins’, there was one other that provides the real arc of my piece, and it’s the one I want to focus on. It was a huge turning point: the short life of Brendan Burke, who came out with his whole career still ahead of him.
In November 2009 Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, then the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, came out publicly, having come out to his family two years earlier. At the time, Brendan Burke was a sophomore at Miami University in Ohio, an athlete and student manager for the his school’s hockey team, the RedHawks. His team supported him fully, and the press coverage was consistently supportive, almost as if the sportscasters had been waiting for permission to state their support in the issue. Burke gave them that permission.
The NHL and the NHLPA (Players Association) were emphatic that the NHL was ready for out gay players. Toronto PFLAG championed Burke’s story as an object lesson in the importance of family support for someone coming out.
Just months later, Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident–February 5, 2010. He was 21. The full roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Miami RedHawks attended his funeral. On February 6, the RedHawks named Burke honorary first star of their game against Lake Superior.
His high school erected a statue in his honor, and USA Hockey established the Brendan Burke Internship, an annual award given to a recent college grad pursuing a career in hockey operations. The CBC made a documentary, “The Brendan Burke Legacy”. The Stanley Cup even appeared in that year’s Chicago Pride Parade, when Brent Sopel used his personal day with the Cup to honor Burke.
Brendan’s older brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, helped create the You Can Play project in March of 2012. Please check out their website, and if you can, donate.
“We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s unreasonable or strange to think that the N.H.L. and the N.H.L.P.A. are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue.”
While I’m still looking forward to the day when a watershed change in social awareness of queer equality issues doesn’t require the death of a Matthew Shepard or a Brendan Burke, I’m grateful for the response to their tragedies. And truth be told, I’m proud of the NHL and NHLPA for being the first major league organizations to go on record as being unequivocally welcoming of out gay players.