I replayed the clip over several times, wondering why it so captured and moved me. Brian Burke, NHL general manager and hockey overlord was being interviewed by George Stroumboulopolous on CBC’s “The Hour”. Anybody who knows hockey is well aware of the brash, blunt and highly opinionated persona of Mr.Burke. He is a burly tough Irishman through and through, the kind of man whose picture could be in the dictionary beside the definition of masculinity.
After quizzing Burke on the latest fortunes of his Toronto Maple Leafs, “Strombo” segued into a topic that instantly changed the temperature of the interview. In 2010, Burke’s son, a hockey player and student manager for Miami University’s hockey team, came out of the closet publicly. Headlines abounded in the hockey world and were still dominant in the press when Brendan was tragically killed in a car accident just a few months after making the announcement.
Since then, Brian Burke has been an advocate for the gay community, especially on the topic of homophobia within the athletic world. He has stated publicly that he is following through on the cause in honor of what his son started and has since been vocal publicly about the importance of closeted athletes feeling safe to come out.
When Stoumboulopolous started engaging Burke on the subject, I expected a fairly composed and straightforward set of answers from Burke, knowing that he’s a man who has a very staunch public image. You’ll have to watch the clip to see what unfolds and what he has to say about his son and the future of gay athletes.
This clip can do more to shift the molecules in a homophobic parent’s brain than a million gay pride parades.
After watching the interview several times, I came to the realization of why I so deeply connected with it. It’s because for the first time on the issue of gay rights, I empathized instead of sympathized.
As an actor, many of my closest friends and colleagues are gay. As supportive as I am of gay rights and equality, I couldn’t honestly say that I empathized with many of the trials and inequities that a gay person faces. How could I as a straight man? I could relate by hypothesizing a world where gays and lesbians marginalize us heterosexuals (Prop 88?), but that seemed silly and condescending, even in my thoughts. In my grappling for relevant experience, I felt like a white guy in a black nightclub trying to unlock his hips.
I was left with a libertarian conviction that every human has the inherent right to pursue their own happiness and to be treated equally. We’re all human and we love who we love. Adequate understanding, but somewhat textbook and lamely sympathetic.
True empathy provokes a deep and involuntary emotional connection to another person. After watching this interview, it didn’t take me long to realize the threads of contact that I had. Burke is a hockey man, I’m a lifelong player of the game and a passionate fan. I identify strongly with his tough facade and his straightforwardness, not to mention the Irish blood and quick temper. I find myself in agreement with many of his values, both in the hockey world and outside of it.
Above all, Burke lost a young hockey playing son in a car accident. My brother was killed in a car accident at age 15 – driving home from playing in a hockey tournament.
Hearing him talk about his son’s legacy, I drew a connection to his conviction and felt something of real depth on the matter for the first time. I never knew or considered what life might have held for my brother, he was only 15 and I’d never considered that he was anything other than a straight young athlete. But if by chance life had held the same path as Brendan Burke, I became empathetically aware that I would want the culture of sports to shift as much as Burke obviously does. Such is the power of identification with the messenger as much as the message.
Anybody of my generation who grew up as an athlete in team sports knows the locker room machismo. The words “faggot”, “cocksucker” and “homo” were passed around as part of the currency of proving one’s toughness. Likely because the cultural institution before us passed it down, and so it goes. How do we change it?
Do we wait for the aging homophobes to die and label everybody else who isn’t on the support bandwagon as a bigot and an ignoramus? One need only look at the political divide in the United States to see how scary a culture becomes when sides are entrenched and the listening stops.
In the minor hockey world, as I speak, the “bigots” are cheering on their young kids on rinks throughout small towns all over Canada. The gay community may flock to friendlier climes in the big city and we can all sneer at the unwashed conservatives, but the prejudice still lingers and suffocates. It’s 2012 , but none of the major sports leagues in North America have an openly gay athlete. What does that say about how far we’ve come?
Conversely, I see awareness of the gay community raised every day, in the media, in the education system and in living color on the streets of my native city, Vancouver (boy, those rainbow floats in August sure are entertaining). I can’t imagine the Dad with the Tim Hortons coffee in the bleachers, loving his son but eschewing “fags”, is as exposed or open to the ideas. It’s doubtful that the opinions of Ellen, Dan Savage, or our liberal intellectual elite hold much sway with him, but he does hold a mountain of sway over his son’s future self image and the perpetuation of homophobia in the locker room. How can we write him off and not endeavor to shift his perception?
That is why the message delivered by Brian Burke is so powerful and so valuable. The messages of tolerance and understanding have been delivered ably for years by gay activists and icons who are able to reach the centrists and topple them off the fence. But those more closed off to acceptance will, frankly, need the message delivered from somebody who they perceive to be like them. It’s not pleasant to acknowledge tribalism, we try to pretend that we’re throughly objective, but psychological studies prove that on the whole, we’re not. A white, rural blue collar guy with a more straight laced outlook (no pun) is going to relate more to Brian Burke than to Jane Lynch. Sometimes you have to fight a battle on another’s terms and if we’d stop being so damned politically correct we just might affect change.
The ideas need to be delivered on an emotional level from somebody like Brian Burke in order to penetrate the consciousness of those not as open, those who identify with outdated thought but who can’t so easily deny the words of a tough guy, a lunch bucket personality, a hockey lifer, and most important, a grieving father whose love for his late son would rattle the nerves of any parent with homophobia in their heart.
The toughest son of a bitch I can think of looks into the camera and says “There is a chance your child might be gay.”
This clip has had only 4000 views as I write this blog. Let’s make it 4 million.