January 11, 1999
Gay hockey is no oxymoron
Tom Farrey, ESPN.com
But how many NHL players have the guts to do what Howard Bloom is doing right now? In a tightly packed locker room that holds the smell of sweat as effectively as any little glass bottle contains perfume, the goalkeeper for the Boston Lobsters stands up and begins undressing himself before a gay man.
Not just one gay man -- but a room full of homosexuals, who are also getting naked.
That's what hockey players do after games. They get clean. They drop their clothes, go into the shower, lather up, towel off and get dressed again. All the while talking great goals, and maybe, the bars they're going to hit later. It's a ritual older than the building that houses this locker room, Matthews Arena, where the NHL's Bruins played before moving into the Boston Garden.
Bloom, a straight, married player on a gay hockey team, exists in a world turned inside out. It's a world beyond the imagination, and desire, of many straight athletes, who suspect they would be looked at in a sexual manner by gay teammates.
"Maybe they are looking at me," he says, "but I don't notice it."
Unless made aware, it's hard to notice anything unusual about the Lobsters. Mostly former high school players now in their 20s and 30s, they strap on helmets a couple of nights a week after work and do battle in the New England Men's Senior League, otherwise made up of straight teams. The only clues about their orientation are the small Gay Games patches on their arms, and the logo of the their sponsor, a gay bar, on their chests.
But they are different, for merely playing a sport rich with violence and macho values. In North America, hockey is a game that admires the sight of blood on ice, that loathes weakness -- or anything it perceived to be weak. The homophobia is thick enough that no current or former professional player has ever declared his homosexuality publicly.
"When you ask people their perceptions of gay men, they probably don't think of a hockey player," said Richard Bonomo, one of the captains. "They probably think of what they see in the news -- some guy with a wig on. And a skirt. They usually don't think some guy in a skirt is going to kick the (heck) out of them when they mouth off."
The Lobsters are also different because they're good. Their umbrella organization, the Boston Pride, won the gold medal in recreational hockey last summer at the Gay Games in Amsterdam, beating Team Seattle in the final. The team was made up of the best players on the Lobsters and another gay team, the even more-competitive Lazers.
In its local league, the Lazers and Lobsters usually finish in the middle of the pack.
"There have been times on the ice when guys will deck you and say, 'Take that, fag!" Bonomo said. "And I'm thinking, did they know they hit the nail right on the head? Or was it just a lucky guess?"
Says teammate Mark Murphy, "Most of the time the abuse happens because we're beating them. They don't like getting beat by people who shouldn't be able to play or take their punches."
Most of teams that know the group has gay players treat them no differently than they would a straight team, Lobster players say. One team even gets along with them so well that they now share a summer-league team, saving expenses for both sides.
Homophobic comments and excessively dirty play have occasionally led to fistfights in the no-checking league. But most of the time, the Lobsters exact their revenge in more creative ways.
"We can be just as nasty as they can," said Bonomo, a well-muscled, 200-pound right winger who serves as the team's de facto enforcer. "In fact, we can be worse. They may be brutal and try to slug you, but the majority of us are far more deceptive. If someone takes a cheap shot at me, they'll pay the rest of the game, and I'll never go off the ice for a penalty because I will torture them, do all kinds of stuff."
"Like butt-end with my stick," he says, a sly grin rolling across his face. He's referring to a common tactic in which the player exposes the end of his stick to spear an opponent. "I'll butt-end -- but also brace it against the board, so if they're coming up behind me they run into it and I can't be called for it."
The gamesmanship is fun, but the main reason Bonomo plays with the Lobsters is for the camaraderie. The predominantly gay team offers him a chance to enjoy a sport he loves, in an environment that isn't hostile to his sexuality. On a straight team, he might have to pretend to be someone else, or at least edit his conversation in the locker room.
Make no mistake: Only the pronouns change in the locker room.
"It didn't seem like the normal locker-room chatter that I had heard growing up," said Bloom, who joined the team three years ago, when the Lobsters needed a goalie at practice one day and asked him to fill in, only weeks later telling him about the orientation of the team. "You know, guys talking about 'This guy going out with this guy' ... "
From across the locker room, a teammate interrupts Bloom's interview with a reporter. "What's wrong with that?" he says loudly.
"Nothing," Bloom responds. "It was just the first game I played with you guys, and I wasn't expecting that. 'Cause nobody bothered to tell me you were gay."
"Well, that's because we thought you were gay."
With that comment, the room fills with laughter.
The Lobsters and Bloom know this conversation is strange and rare, and that is what makes it so uproarious. They have turned one tiny corner of the hockey world upside down, reversed the power roles that usually leave them as the lonely minority in these situations, and it feels great.
The main difference is, they treasure Bloom. Not as some sexual object, as some straight athletes might assume, but as evidence that homosexual and heterosexual jocks can share a common goal -- even an intimate space -- everyone get something positive from it. Hockey is what brought them together, and ultimately it is all that matters, despite the jokes.
"It would be naive to think that in a locker-room situation, in which everyone sees everyone's bodies, that a gay man wouldn't look at a straight guy," says Jeff Pike, a member of the team and a director of the national Gay Games Federation. "But there's an element of respect, much as if men and women were in the same room.
"Respect is the key."
And respect is what this what this unusual team has achieved.