Two years ago, Brendan Burke told his father he was gay. This week, the 20-year-old son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke told the world. Mr. Burke's candid revelations about his sexual orientation, detailed in an espn.com article, have reignited a national discussion about gays in sports and trained a light on professional hockey - one of the few sports that has never had an athlete come out. In his first interview since going public, Mr. Burke tells The Globe and Mail about his managerial role with the Miami University (Ohio) RedHawks hockey team, about the support of his family and about whether Canadian junior hockey leagues are ready to welcome an openly gay teammate into the locker room.
What has the reaction been from friends, people on the team and family since the article came out?
From friends and family, it's been 100-per-cent supportive. They've been behind me from the beginning and the same goes for the Miami University hockey team. I've had a whole bunch of e-mail and Facebook messages from people I've never met, thanking me. I've had a lot of messages from people who said they are gay and stopped playing sports for the same reason… so people seem to be responding well to it.
What was the first phone call with your father like when the story came out? Was it, 'Well, here it comes dad … better get ready for it?
No. This was entirely my own choice to talk about this. Like my dad said in the article, he expressed to me that he wished I wouldn't be the one being so public about this because he was afraid of the reaction. But I know the reaction that he has had has been positive and he's happy the reaction I've received is positive. But, no, this wasn't sprung on us or surprised us. It was deliberate and planned and this is the way I wanted to do it, and my family thought it was a good idea, too.
Do you believe if you do choose a career as a hockey executive this won't be held against you?
I think for some people it's going to be an issue. I mean, there are some people who aren't going to get over this and will still hold it against me. That's the reality of the situation. That said, there's been a lot of support that my dad, my brother and I have heard from people around hockey. I've been encouraged by the response. Do I think there will be some people who would hold it against me? Yes.
You refer to homophobia in the locker room as a reason you stopped playing hockey. Do you think this is at all diminishing?
Like I've said before, my experience was basically with homophobic slurs and that kind of stuff. I think as soon as the stereotype of a gay person was replaced by someone they knew, or were friends with, it changed. Once they realized there might be a gay person next to them or a gay person in the locker room, the homophobia decreased greatly. Miami, like I said, has been supportive. I think it's a pretty special place, and the bond between the team there is pretty strong and a little unique.
We like to think a college hockey team would be a little more enlightened than, say, a junior team - to be blunt. I'm sure you have an awareness of junior hockey. Do you think this could happen in junior hockey?
To be honest, I'm not sure. I think that might take a little longer. We'll see. I know that a couple of friends of mine who have played junior hockey have been supportive, but as far as the culture around that? That's a bigger question and issue and I'm not sure how that would come about.
Will we see a high-profile athlete simply come out some day for whatever reason and say: 'Yep, here I am. I'm gay?' Or is there still a taboo surrounding it?
I think we will. Canada is a great place that has always been very accepting and as a country in general it's pretty gay-friendly…. So that's a good base to start from. As far as the NHL goes, what we'd need is for a former player to come out and talk about what his experiences were and what challenges he faced, and having that discussion and that player talk about it would be a good place for a current player to come out.
I guess it is part of the culture change, isn't it? The culture has to change a bit more before somebody can come out.
Yes, and what's good about my story.… I realize that the brunt of the story has been about who my dad is… but to me the important thing is that it's started a discussion and people realize there could be a gay person next to them in the locker room. And, you know, I think it's important that it's starting here. We started a discussion. Let's see where it goes.