What Gay Hockey Means To Me

Each year the Madison Gay Hockey Association invites its members to write about the role that the MGHA plays in building their identity. 2012 scholarship winner James (Sutherland) Parens shares his essay.

I joined the league three years ago, wondering if this was a way to mentally and physically get through the winter months. Having lived in Madison my entire life, one would think that I was at least relatively accepting of the ice, snow, and cold; in reality, my tolerance of the cold weather and the elements has dwindled over the years, and with that came an addition of a little seasonal-affective depression and some serious hibernation and hermitage. I was also feeling a little isolated from the queer community, and wanted a way to see people every week and get to meet new friends.

I had never played any organized hockey before. When I was younger (20+ years ago), I played a bit on the outdoor rinks on Madison’s east side. I wouldn’t say that any of those games helped much in the way of developing any real skills or strategic understanding of the game. It really looked more like a cross between ice-fencing and unsynchronized ice ballet. Not a lot of actual hockey was happening, just inflated egos and bruised shins. It was also not a sport I watched a lot, other than being a fan of Badger hockey and maybe going to one or two games a season. I was highly curious, albeit skeptical, about whether being in a hockey league, gay or not, was a good fit for me.

My three years with this league have surpassed any expectations I had for the organization and for myself. Three years of highs and lows, wins and losses, successes and failures. I have been on the first-place team, the last-place team, and this past season with a team that finished in the standings somewhere in the middle. But this only scratches the surface of my experience. The community of folks in the league has been a big reason why I choose to come back each season. It’s a slightly different definition of community than I have felt in other places. There are still people in this league whom I don’t know at all, or very little. There are folks who come from different backgrounds and have different life realities than my own. I never thought about that much the first two seasons I played. I was just happy to meet new people and work at learning how to play hockey. Entering this season of hockey, I learned even more about this group, and even more about myself.

In the off-season, I started taking steps to change my gender from female to male. There were definitely some anxieties about this in different areas of my life, and starting a new season with the hockey league, where last year I was one name, and now registering under another (but as a returning player) was one of them. It’s not that the hockey league doesn’t have any transgender individuals—we do. I just didn’t know of anyone who started transitioning after playing hockey for a couple of years. From the very beginning of the season, emailing the Operations Committee about this change, as well as the very first practice, I felt immediately at ease. People were almost seamless in changing my name and pronoun in their heads and in speaking with me. Any questions that people asked me were incredibly kind and respectful. I have felt incredibly supported in all areas of my life regarding this change, but I really needed this organization to be a place where I didn’t have to explain myself. Not only did this league accept and support me, playing hockey this season has increased my own acceptance of me, and how I define myself.

I have a special love for this league and the people associated with it because it’s been a constant for me over the past three years when my life outside of hockey has been anything but constant. In the past three-plus years, I have found the love of my life, bought a house, got engaged, began co-parenting two boys, quit my job to start a new career, and started transitioning my gender. I am the happiest I have ever been in my life, but large changes create anxiety; stress; and sometimes, shaky confidence. My Sunday nights in the fall and winter months have become an outlet for stress, as well as a familiar place to see friends and the chance to play hockey with some outstanding individuals. Playing hockey has been both a reset from the week and a place to celebrate accomplishments. (Heck, I celebrate the fact that at the age of 41, I am healthy and able to play hockey and plan to do so for as long as I can.)

This last season has been the most rewarding for me as a person. My team is an exceptional group of people, and I appreciate and respect each and every one of them. I admire how we developed into a group that really cares about one another, and that we all worked together to become a united team when faced with adversity. Being able to walk into a locker room and be greeted by teammates, getting to hear little bits about people’s lives and just engage in overall banter, shows how special the league can be for a person. Total team acceptance. The Violet Offenders will always have a special place in my heart when I look back at my hockey history with this league. Not only did I have a fantastic season with them, but this season is also when I learned to define and accept myself, learned how transitioning gender affects one’s hockey game, and learned how this league really has the potential to be everything that has been envisioned.

This league’s newly adopted mission states: “The Madison Gay Hockey Association is an adult developmental ice hockey league for people of all sexualities and gender identifications. We are especially committed to providing opportunities for those who have historically felt uncomfortable in traditional sports settings to learn and teach ice hockey in a safe, supportive, and fun environment. We aspire to the highest standards of sportsmanship and promote integration of the wider Madison community into the gay community.”

We are a diverse group, and I love that we have people who identify themselves in so many different ways. It goes way beyond “gay” or “straight”—the diversity of our players in this league include ages 22–60, single, married, in a relationship, parents, grandparents, students, professionals, working class, middle class, and unemployed. A player might be highly skilled at the sport, a complete beginner, or anything in between. Our diversity goes way beyond our mission statement.

In the six years of this young organization, several different issues have shown themselves. It is expected with a league of this size and diversity that there will always be a problem that seems impossible to solve, a conflict that seems too daunting to deal with. What is special about this organization is that people step up to these challenges, face them head on, and work to find a solution. Board members ask for input, whether it’s an official invitation or survey, or just a board member asking another player for an opinion about something. I think some of the best problem solving takes place when watching hockey games, talking about what is happening on the ice, or talking about a particular issue that has come to light.

This league continues to teach me how to work with people and understand different points of view. Different people bring different opinions; some that I don’t immediately understand, but strive to try. I feel constantly challenged—whether it’s learning more about hockey, developing my game, or learning about the strengths and weaknesses in my own character. This is the kind of challenge that extends into the rest of life, and this league and its people have continued to teach me about acceptance and perspective, both in my own learning and by their example.

I am a proud member of the MGHA, and this is what it means to me.