By Aaron Zaretsky
Sports are popularly known to be heterosexual dominant, but that did not stop athletes from the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community dominating in their desired sport. Below are FIVE Canadian gay athletes whose accomplishments and breakthroughs not only have an impact in Canada, but their respected sport overall.
Being an athlete has its challenges. However, being a gay athlete has additional challenges. Recently, I interviewed figure skater Eric Radford, and when asked what his biggest challenge was as a gay athlete, he said: “Overcoming the fear of the unknown, anxiety of how people will react. How judges look at me. Will they treat me different?”
He overcame that fear, skating towards a bronze medal at the 2018 PeyongChang Winter Olympics with skating partner Meagan Duhamel, and helped Team Canada win a gold medal in the figure skating team event Olympic Team Canada. In doing so, Radford became the first gay athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. “I was genuinely shocked and bursting with pride,” Radford said about the victory, and making history was the “icing on the cake.”
With a remarkable story, Radford’s presence is heard at events and public speaking engagements at schools. Radford is an inspiration not just for young and future gay athletes, but for all athletes across the world.
Born in St. Albert, Alberta, Erin McLeod was four years old when she first played soccer for her hometown team. At 17 years old, she debuted in the Canadian youth program as a goalkeeper, and two years later she won a silver medal in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Her success continued in 2006 after winning the outstanding goalkeeper award in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship. After performing at a high level in several tournaments wearing the maple leaf, McLeod was selected into the all-time Canada XI Women’s Team in 2012. In that same year, she was a recipient of the Alberta soccer award of excellence.
In an article, McLeod stated that she struggled with her sexual orientation as a young girl. She was internally debating if coming out publicly as a gay athlete would actually make a difference. In 2014, angered by Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, McLeod publicly declared her love for American soccer athlete Ella Masar. They got married the following year. McLeod became very proud of who she is and realized the importance of being authentic. Also, young girls saw McLeod’s public announcement and became inspired to tell their parents that they are gay, citing McLeod as their role model. McLeod coming out publicly as a gay athlete has and will continue to make a difference.
Born in Montréal, Pat Patterson is a former professional wrestler who wrestled for 29 years. He made an impact inside and outside the ring. Inside, he became the first ever World Wrestling Federation (now called World Wrestling Entertainment) Intercontinental Champion in 1979. He also had the idea of the incredible over-the-top battle royal called the Royal Rumble match.
Outside the ring, at 17 years old, Patterson left his parents in his journey to become a professional wrestler because they asked him to leave after he told them that he was in love with a man, Louie Dondero. They were together for 40 years. Patterson began his wrestling career in 1958 and, when he joined WWF in 1979, he became the first ever gay superstar wrestler. Unfazed by his parents and widespread homophobia, Patterson conquered the super-macho world of professional wrestling and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996.
Born in Vancouver, Sandy Parker is a Black lesbian wrestler. She fell in love with wrestling after attending just one wrestling event. Parker began wrestling in the early 1970s which was a challenging time for Black wrestlers, and even more challenging for a Black gay wrestler. She wrestled in the World Women’s Wrestling Association, a promotion where Lillian Ellison (aka The Fabulous Moolah) had a lot of power. Parker was not on her good side, resulting in poor bookings, including not being able to perform at the World’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. Ellison had several rules and one of them was telling Parker to not attend any gay bars, which enraged Parker. Those rules did not stop her from making an impact. Parker retired from wrestling in 1986 winning the World Women’s Wrestling Association tag team championship six-times, and was the first Black women’s World Champion.
Born in Calgary, Mark Tewksbury rose to stardom after winning a gold medal in the 100 metres backstroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The victory propelled him to win the Lou Marsh award for “Canada’s Athlete of the Year”. The gold medal also capped off a fantastic swimming career as Tewksbury retired in 1992, with an incredible 21 national championships.
I recently interviewed Tewksbury and he revealed that he wanted to accomplish a few things: to be honest, stop pretending, have some authenticity, and use his goodwill to “challenge people on their attitudes towards a certain issue which was honestly about different sexualities.” When asked about whether or not he feels he was able to accomplish those things he said, “100 per cent. It was the beginning of a really important process for me where I feel just fantastic … in my 50s. But that took some work to kind of undo some societal differences that made me think perhaps, I was bad to be a gay person and I needed to change that for myself.”
“And what is even cooler is I’m not really part of the conversation that much anymore, which shows progress.”
Eric Radford, Erin McLeod, Pat Patterson, Sandy Parker and Mark Tewksbury are Canadian athletes who have broken through the heterosexual sports barrier. They have all made an impact and their story inspires not just present and future generations, but anyone who is faced with barriers and wants to breakthrough!