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Hayley Mick

Keeping his son's voice alive, Brian Burke joins fight against homophobia Add to ...

Brian Burke never expected to be a voice for change. That was the role his son took on when he announced to the world he was gay.

"I was afraid for his safety," said the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager. "I said, 'You need to have eyes on the back of your head.' "

Yet Mr. Burke stood in front of a microphone Monday, facing reporters and a Toronto hotel conference room packed with gay and lesbian community members, calling for an end to homophobia in schools.

"I hate bullies," he said. "We have to get to the point where everyone can go to school free of fear."

He was making the keynote address for the launch of Egale Canada's new website, MyGSA.ca, which will provide support and resources to students and educators. The national initiative aims to make Canadian schools a place where everyone feels safe, regardless of their sexual or gender identity.

"This is something my son would have supported," Mr. Burke said. "I think I owe him that."

In February, Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident, just weeks after he revealed how he had decided to come out to his family and players on the Miami University of Ohio hockey team where he was a manager, and how doing so had changed his life for the better.

Although Mr. Burke fiercely stood by his son at the time, Tuesday marked the first time since Brendan's death that he has attached his name to a cause supporting gay and lesbian rights.

"To have him come out as a role model is huge," said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada. "Brian is taking on a very difficult task."

Sports have long been viewed as inhospitable to gay men. The number of North American male professional team athletes who have come out can be counted on one hand, and none have done so before retirement.

Yet along with Mr. Burke's decision to call for more equality, there have been other positive signs of change. Professional rugby star Gareth Thomas recently become one of a handful of professional athletes who have come out while still competing.

"In the past, sports have led social change from the top down ... For some reason, the big macho guys in the pro leagues are afraid to do what the high school and collegiate players are doing," said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of OutSports.com.

Since the website began in 2000, Mr. Zeigler estimates that more than two dozen college and high-school athletes have used the site to reveal that they are gay. And in the vast majority of cases, responses from teammates and coaches have been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

L.A.-based photographer Jeff Sheng has photographed more than 100 gay athletes for his photo essay, Fearless, including 14 Canadian university athletes last year. Although he's finding it increasingly easy to find volunteers, barriers remain in certain sports, he said.

"I have four football players in Fearless, and I have no male hockey players from Canada. That already suggests there's a difference," he said.

Mr. Burke says he's sure that there are gay athletes in the NHL, and it's "only a matter of time" before the culture of fear eases enough for a star to reveal their secret.

Until then, Mr. Burke said he'll do his part to make that an easier process, even if it hurts.

Halfway through his speech yesterday, Mr. Burke braced himself to say some words about Brendan.

"I probably won't be able to do this..." he began. His eyes welled up. He turned from the microphone, unable to continue.

Later, he said that he felt like he let his son down. But even as Mr. Burke took his seat, audience members were rising from their seats in a standing ovation.

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