As the first openly LGBTQ+ professional men’s hockey player, Toronto-based Brock McGillis knows first-hand the struggles many members of the community experience while grappling with society’s definition of masculinity. Growing up a part of the hockey community, Brock’s identity was synonymous with hockey. As a result, he struggled with recognizing and accepting who he was, and how he might be perceived by his peers. Now proudly out publicly, Brock has become a resource for many struggling with their own personal journeys and acceptance. He takes a seat in the barber chair to share his story and what gives him hope for the future.
As one of the first men’s professional hockey players to publicly come out, what was your experience like? How did that experience impact your mental health?
It was a life-changing experience. I was retired from playing hockey however the game was still a big part of my life. I wrote the article where I formally came out publicly, hoping at the very least my words and experience may help a few people. The first day I received over10,000 messages from people all over the world. I started getting requests from media, calls to speak at schools, events, corporations, and colleges/universities.
It made me see the world differently and the decision to write that article changed my life forever, but on the flip sideI was thrust into a role of advocacy and activism without having any proper training. I went from experiencing a moment of incredible empowerment and inspiration, to suddenly having people from all over the world come to me with their struggles. And at the time, I wasn't far enough removed from my own struggles. I didn't know how to detach from other people’s situations while still providing support and guidance to get them the help they needed. It really took a toll on my mental health. Five months after coming out, I had to take a step back from my advocacy work because it was so overwhelming. I ended up going back to my therapist, re-worked through some of my own traumas and learned how to better help others, being a resource for them without taking their struggles on myself.I essentially had to learn how to self-care. Ultimately that experience led me to being in such a better place mentally - it forced me to work even harder at it.
What kind of coping mechanisms have you integrated into your self-care regime over the last few years that allow you to be in a better mental space?
In the last year, I’ve learned to put ‘me’ first and slow down. I learned to take a second, collect my thoughts, my emotions and breathe. I think there's steps towards self-discovery. You go from accepting who you are to eventually getting to the point where you fully love yourself. But I also think there’s a step during that journey where people seek out acceptance elsewhere instead of internally. I'm a big believer that only you can accept you. Learning and accepting that you are enough, and really practicing that thinking, it’s a lot of work and it’s tough but I'm at a point now where I just don't care what anyone thinks about me. I know in my heart what I'm doing, what I stand for and why I do it and that is a part of self-care and growth. Also, for me, exercise and meditation are huge. I need it daily - if I don't get it I don't feel right. It’s important to recognize which coping mechanisms work best for you. The types of self-care that work for you are those that allow you to be your best self.
You’ve expressed concern around the perceptions and expectations of masculinity in hockey culture, how do you think typical views of masculinity impacted your experience?
There’s this idea in hockey that you have to be this rugged, tough guy - a hyper-masculine man. Then there’s a perception that being gay is feminine. In hockey culture, players put each other down by feminizing one another, or using homophobic or homo-negative language, which increases this perception that masculine men are ‘superior’. That’s not true. Some of the strongest people I know are women and frankly in my opinion, some of the more ‘feminine’ gay men I’ve met are the strongest people I know. They are unapologetically themselves, regardless of what society thinks of them. To me, that is stronger than being called macho.
Having experienced this period of self-discovery, looking back on your younger self, what would you say to yourself?
I say it everywhere I go-I love being a gay man. I say it intentionally because as a gay person growing up, I never heard that and I want young people to hear that. I would tell myself that you don't need to seek acceptance and what other people think of you is irrelevant. I wish in hindsight that I come out at 14 or 15-I would have been happier. I would have been authentically myself. I wouldn't have conformed to a culture that isn't real. I would have realized that normal doesn't exist. We’re all weirdos, and that's a beautiful thing. I'm a happier person today as a gay man than I was at any point playing hockey. But I could have been a happy gay boy playing hockey, and I never got that opportunity.
What would you say masculinity means to you?
I hate the constructs of gender. The idea of masculinity and the way it's constructed doesn’t allow people to be fully realized individuals. It just describes what certain elements of being a man should be’, But those elements are also present in women and in non-binary folks. Why can’t a gay man play sports? And if they do, why do they have to be rugged and tough to play? It doesn't take away from their competitiveness.It doesn’t take away from anything. We need to break down these constructs that have been created about masculinity and what it is, and just embrace being fully realized human beings. That’s what masculinity should be-showing your toughness, but also showing your vulnerability and weakness. Masculinity should be more than just tough ruggedness. Not conforming to culture is tougher than saying “I'm a man and I have a powerful slapshot”.
What does Pride mean to you?
I'm all for celebrations, providing you're doing the work to shift your culture first. Pride originally existed because we couldn't be ourselves. It was a fight for civil rights and for human rights. I love visibility but it’s important to reflect on what you’re doing internally with your culture. How are you making your workspace a safe space? How are you using your influence in society to shift culture? In hockey we’d never have the parade before winning the cup. In the same vein do the work, then have the celebration. I think Pride should be about healing, about understanding and learning about our history - so we don't take for granted what we have so that we're not complacent, so we don't lose our rights and so that we keep pushing until the entire community has equality.
What gives you hope for the future?
There's so much that gives me hope. The straight allyship that I see growing warms my heart, and as people recognize how to be allies and how to evolve society, and as I see youth coming out at a young age and being unapologetically themselves, it gives me hope. People starting to understand gives me the most hope. The fact we’re getting to a point in society where not only do people know the history, but they’re also openly saying that it wasn’t right, that gives me hope. I recently heard of a straight 13-year-old kid in Arizona who witnessed homophobia and racism on his hockey team. He went to his coaches and when they didn't do anything about it, he stood up to them in front of the whole team. Then his coaches benched him. So, he went and got his mask repainted. On one side he had Grant Fuhr, a prominent Black goaltender, and then on the other side he had me. And I was just speechless and brought to tears. Kids are now standing up, holding each other accountable, talking to their peers at school and their hockey teams.It’s all made me realize that shifts can happen. We can create them. So, there's a lot of hope. There's more hope than not.