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How a gay hockey star is fighting homophobia when not in the rink

Brock McGillis LGBTQ Speaker Former Hockey Goalie
Courtesy Brock McGillis; Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brock McGillis is on a "Cultural Shift Tour" speaking to over 100 high school and minor league teams about LGBTQ+ acceptance.

If it wasn’t for Brendan Burke, former professional hockey player Brock McGillis might be sitting at home right now rather than boldly undertaking a rigorous LGBTQ+ speaking tour across Canada. “There was a time in my life when I was so apprehensive about my sexuality, and coming out,” McGillis remembers. “I was narrow-mindedly focusing on one door of the process, and when I eventually did come out, I found that lots of doors opened up.”

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During his period of uncertainty, McGillis made a friend in Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, former general manager of the NHL’s Toronto Maple and Anaheim Ducks. The younger Burke made news in 2009 when came out as gay while a sophomore at Miami University when he was the manager of the college’s hockey team.

“Brendan became a friend, and in February of 2010, he texted me one day and said, “I can’t wait for the day that you’re out to your family,’ and I ignored the text,” McGillis regretfully recalls. “Two days later, he died in a car accident. I then came out to my family to honor him, and I hope he’d be proud of me for this tour I’m on right now.”

McGillis is on a “Cultural Shift Tour” that he conceived, with the goal to foster a more inclusive environment within hockey. It is an ambitious endeavor, to say the least. McGillis is aiming to speak with more than 100 high school and minor league hockey teams across Canada.

McGillis is using his life story to humanize being different and sharing instances where individuals made pivotal shifts in their thinking toward the queer community.

Through these conversations with the upcoming generation, McGillis imparts simple yet impactful ways for people in the hockey world to foster authenticity. The tour’s itinerary includes stops in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, with plans for a similar venture across the United States in the near future.

Growing up in this world, McGillis endured a lot of “locker room talk,” which included a fair share of gay slurs. During that period of time, he attempted to conform and blend in with the other players as a way to hide his true feelings.

In November of 2016, McGillis made the decision to come out. “After I told my family, people were starting to find out about my sexuality through friends and within the sport of hockey, so I said I needed to do something to be part of the solution toward acceptance," he says. "That’s why I finally decided to come out. And to be honest, I was overwhelmed with messages of support when I did.”

The experience led McGillis to a post-hockey career of public speaking and being an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. During his talks, McGillis says, he tries to give what he calls the “CliffsNotes” of his coming out story. “Like everyone else’s process of coming out, mine had my own challenges,” he says. “But one lesson I learned is the importance and value of being accepted, and that goes beyond sexuality to include other faiths, race, and socioeconomic status. Basically, anyone who might feel disconnected or excluded.”

“I try to frame my thoughts through the lens of being less reactionary after someone comes out and more about taking a proactive approach to the situation where people can focus on creating an environment where everyone can be themselves,” he explains.

Ultimately, he wants straight white kids who can't conform to the dominant culture, BIPOC communities, and people who are nontraditional in any way to feel comfortable too. “I think the premise is that we can all be shift makers, and we can shift the culture to be more welcoming for everybody," he says. "So I focus more on that. If people come to me and ask, ‘Well, what do we do? How do we treat someone who might be different?’ then we have that conversation about everyone being included, because even those straight white kids might be struggling themselves.”

And rather than appear threatening, McGillis wants his meetings with these teams to be fun. “I want this to be interactive. And I want it to be something they remember. Because to me, that's going to humanize it. I want them to think of my face when they say something homophobic. Or if somebody in their life is LGBTQ+. And before they make a judgment, they can catch themselves and evolve in their language, behaviors, and attitudes.”

How does McGillis measure success? “It comes down to affecting one person at a time, and that just spreads. Over time, people come up to me and let me know what they’re dealing with. Some have come out to me, of course, but I had one boy who told me about how he deals with anti-Semitism and that I inspired him to talk to his teammates about what he was going through and how it made him feel.”

He also had a parent reach out in Vancouver who said that after he spoke to her son's team, it changed the way that her son saw the world. “These are 14- and 15-year-old boys, so am I going to evolve each person's attitude or language? No, but if I can evolve 90 percent, that would be incredibly meaningful for everyone.”

For McGillis, another post-hockey goal is to replicate his Canadian tour in America. “Let's see if it materializes, but I have a feeling there's an appetite for it in the U.S. because there's an appetite for it here. I mean, the day we announced the tour late last year, over 100 more additional teams reached out and wanted to be included. So people are paying attention, and that makes me so happy, and I'm aiming to talk to as many people as I can.”

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.