On January 26, 2020, Elite Ice Hockey League player Zach Sullivan, who plays with Manchester Storm, came out as the first openly bisexual male hockey player during his league’s first-ever Pride Weekend. Zach now joins us as an Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador and shares his journey as a pro athlete seeking to build inclusion and acceptance.
Athlete Ally: What was your journey like becoming a professional hockey player, and what do you love about hockey?
Zach: I started playing at around the age of 9. My parents had me try out every sport you could possibly imagine to counteract how hyperactive I was. For some reason hockey was the one that stuck with me. It’s been a long process getting to a professional level. The support of my parents obviously helped a lot and I owe them so much. What I most love about hockey is the family atmosphere around the dressing room. We always make fun of each other every day, but on the ice we are a family and we would sacrifice anything for each other.
What does it mean to you to be the first openly bisexual male pro hockey player? Why was it important to you to speak out?
To be completely honest, coming out hasn’t affected my hockey at all. I feel a definite responsibility to keep talking about my process and my journey to hopefully make others more comfortable and more confident to accept themselves. It felt like the perfect opportunity to make the biggest possible statement in the hockey world. I think with it being the first league-wide Pride Weekend for the British Elite League, and with my slightly raised platform, I hoped I could reach a few more people and possibly impact their lives and the hockey world in a positive way. For me the message is the only important thing.
How do you think the sport community can reduce stigma both around mental health and on LGBTQ inclusion?
I think the most important thing is to have people talk about LGBTQ inclusion freely. I think sexuality is a very private discussion, and it’s quite difficult to talk about. However, unless people talk about these kinds of things everyday, then it will struggle to become the normality. Ice hockey is one of the leading sports for helping athletes with mental health problems, offering players, especially in the States, access to others who have been through the same ice hockey-related struggles to help them deal with their situations.
What do you think keeps more male hockey players from coming out?
I think as you’ve alluded to, the stigma in sport certainly doesn’t help. Ice hockey is a very masculine sport; it’s very fast paced and physical. I certainly struggled with whether or not I would retain the love and respect from my teammates. As with most sports, the dressing room is a place full of jokes, so I was probably also worried about being the brunt of those jokes. However, since I have come out, the guys on my team have been absolutely amazing. I think most people when they “come out” just want to be treated exactly the same as before, and my teammates have done exactly that.
What is your hope for the future of LGBTQ inclusion in sport?
I genuinely hope that in the future people don’t have to become ambassadors or advocates for LGBTQ inclusion, because it has finally been accepted and people no longer need to “come out.” The only thing that should matter for anyone playing a sport is your ability level. Sexuality or gender identity should not even be taken into account when people consider starting a new sport. I am delighted to be joining Athlete Ally, as they are huge advocates for making change in sport at every level, and I am wholeheartedly looking forward to any small role I can play in their inspiring vision.
What advice would you give to closeted LGBTQ athletes who are wondering if they can be who they are and play the sport they love?
My only advice would be to take your journey at your own pace. My “coming out” was never intended to call other athletes out to do the same; the only goal was to help people feel more comfortable with their sexuality or gender identity, and hopefully feel more confident with themselves. If you feel that you are ready to do the same then that’s absolutely awesome, and I hope that the response will be as overwhelmingly positive as my response was. However, if you don’t feel ready then that is absolutely fine as well. It took me 9 years on my journey, probably longer, and only with the support from my family, unbelievably loyal friends, and great teammates.
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