Dwight Efford reflects on ‘coming out’ both on and off the ice

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“That’s so gay.”

It’s a phrase that has been uttered in locker rooms for years.

And while some athletes see it as harmless, it’s this type of unchecked banter that can lock gay teammates away in isolation, leaving them to wonder if they will ever be accepted by their teammates.

Dwight Efford, 50, is a recreational hockey player who no longer lives in that isolation.

 “I think the locker room used to be the last place people thought they could say whatever, and it’s getting to the point where people are more educated and in tune with what is going on,” Efford says, reflecting on how locker room culture has changed over the years.

Produced by Max Shilleto and Ian Esplen

These days, Efford, a Calgary construction contractor with Harrison Pierce Homes, suits up with the Dragons in the Calgary Adult Hockey League, and leads the Dragons in both goals and points.

He says his experiences with past and current teammates have always been good.

“With the ones (teammates) that know, it’s always been positive,” Efford says.

While Efford has been “out” to his friends and family for more than 20 years, he speculates some of his Calgary teammates probably don’t know he is gay. He hasn’t formally “come out” to his entire team, but it’s also not something he hides when the subject comes up.

Conversations with teammates often lead to talk about relationships, as in any recreational activity or leisurely setting. When Efford is questioned if he has a wife or girlfriend he answers, “No.”

“They’ll ask, ‘Why not?’ And I’ll answer, ‘Because I’m gay.’”

Early days, tough days

Efford says as a youngster growing up in rural Saskatchewan, anti-gay attitudes were common. He says he was called a “fag” while he was involved in figure skating, causing him to give up the sport right around the age where he was just learning what the word “fag” meant.

pic1Dwight Efford’s (second from the left) Grade 3 class photo. Efford says that his childhood in Manor, Sask. was pretty typical.

Photo courtesy of Dwight EffordLooking back, he says he was a better figure skater than hockey player, but anti-gay slurs kept him away from a sport in which he believed he showed more potential in.

“Being called fag likely pushed that decision (to quit figure skating),” Efford says.

A young farmer in the ’80s, Efford says he began to come to terms with who he really was. He eventually moved to Calgary where he slowly began to come out to his family and friends at the age of 29.

To this day, he grins ear-to-ear and jokes about how he used to tell his hometown friends he had a girlfriend in Calgary named Brenda instead of a boyfriend named Brent.

Finding a safe place to play

In Calgary, Efford began to find other athletes like him in gay sports leagues. He says this provided him with the simple reassurance that there were other gay men like him that enjoyed playing sports.

“In the beginning, it was just knowing that there were other gay players, but there’s also the camaraderie after the games and the tournaments you go to with them,” Efford adds.

Efford fondly remembers a tourney in New York – a city he that he had never had an interest in visiting.

“I loved New York,” Efford says. “I believe we won the tournament and I thought it was a great place.”

Efford’s good friend Daryl Kochan has known him for more than 20 years. While Kochan lives in Vancouver now, the two often reunite for hockey tournaments and suit up with the Vancouver Cutting Edges, an all-gay hockey team.

pic2Efford in game action for his team the Dragons. His advice to other people contemplating coming out is that they do a little soul searching at first and when you’re ready to tell someone it’s likely going to be okay and it’s never as bad as you like it will be.

Photo by Ian Esplen“Dwight never complains or gives up, and if he’s hurting, you’d never know,” Kochan says. “He’s definitely inspirational and he’s also a lot of fun off the ice, which is important.”

Kochan has heard his share of players using anti-gay slurs in an attempt to rattle their opponents, but he adds that the frequency of hearing the word “gay” or “fag” is improving, and referees are cracking down on bad behaviour.

Kochan suggests two factors are at play with respect to the crackdown. One, more athletes are becoming comfortable being out of the closet. And two, society is less tolerant of anti-gay slurs.

Both Kochan and Efford say they are pleased how professional sports figures are stepping up and speaking out.

One sports figure doing this is “You Can Play” co-founder and president Patrick Burke. Burke is a former scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, and the current NHL director of player safety. Burke is also the son of Calgary Flames president of hockey operations and acting general manager Brian Burke. Brian Burke has also spoken out numerous times on the organization’s behalf about the inclusion of gay athletes in the locker room.

“When I played growing up, anti-gay words were tossed around very casually, and people would insult each other by calling each other gay on a regular basis,” Patrick Burke says. “Not that it’s gone away, but I like to think we’ve seen a significant drop in the use of that type of language.”

Burke says he believes one of the main reasons for the change is that people are becoming more aware of LGBT issues at all levels of sport.

“Whether it’s something as basic as asking, ‘Do you think we have a gay teammate?’ or more advanced like having a serious sit down team discussion about how to make the locker room more inclusive, we are seeing it talked about in the sports,” Burke says.

Burke also has a bit of advice for anyone that is contemplating coming out of the closet.

“The biggest thing is to find people that support you like your friends, family, teammates, an LGBT group or an online community,” Burke adds. “Then it’s just up to the people around you to be accepting and to give you a chance.”

And of the athletes that Burke has seen come out in the past five years, he describes the experience for almost every one of them as being positive.

pic3Efford works on install cabinets in his kitchen. He considers the bet part of his journey in life to be all the great friends he’s made along the way.

Photo by Ian EsplenHowever, Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the award-winning website Outsports.com, isn’t convinced the climate is improving as much as others might think.

He says that the climate only appears to be getting better, because people tend to self-censor when they think there may be a gay person around. And because we’re seeing more gay athletes are find the courage to come out to their teammates and the public.

“The most powerful change is just seeing other people come out because other people become inspired by it, and it has a domino effect,” Ziegler says.

Ziegler says such a phenomenon led to University of Massachusetts basketball player Derrick Gordon to come out to his teammates recently. 

“If you look at the story we recently did on Derrick Gordon, he said he’s tired of living a lie and looking over his shoulder, so he decided he had to come out because it’s exhausting living in the closet,” Zeigler says.

The biggest change, according to Zeigler, is that other players on teams are being more overt about their support.

Life now

Away from the rink, Efford’s custom home business – Harrison Pierce Homes – is doing fairly well in Calgary’s up-and-down economy.

Efford says he loves his job and the best thing about it is to be able to look at a finished job and say, “Wow, we built this.”

“I love what we do, so I’m generally pretty happy.”

Harrison Pierce Homes focuses predominantly on custom homes, but they will take on the odd renovation job. Once the work is complete, Dwight acknowledges that the results can be quit spectacular.

And as for how his life is turning out, Efford responds, “I don’t think I ever thought about having an open life, so this is a hundred times better than I ever could have imagined.”

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