Out of the closet and onto the ice

by Gary Francoeur

Labonte won Olympic gold for the fourth straight time at the
Sochi Games. (Photo: Vincent Graton)

Canadian hockey goalkeeper Charline Labonté, BEd’12, has some news to share: She’s gay and she’s proud.

In a recent first-person account for Outsports and Lez Spread the Word, the four-time Olympic gold medalist came out publicly for the first time, revealing that she is a lesbian and in a relationship with a fellow Olympian, speed skater Anastasia Bucsis.

Labonté recently sat down with the McGill News to discuss her reasons for going public, the support she’s received from teammates and her hope that other gay athletes also find their way out of the closet.

Why did you decide to come out publicly now?

I think an objective in life is to get to a point where you are completely comfortable with who you are, and I feel like I have reached that point. I spent the last four years training for the Olympics and didn’t want to create any distractions for the team, but now I felt the time is right.

The article isn’t really about me though; it’s much bigger than that. It’s about trying to help other people get to that point where they can just be themselves. While there have been a few male athletes who have come out, I felt there was a lack of female athletes and role models for the younger girls [to emulate]. It seemed like the right thing to do, but I really didn’t know how people would react to the article.

And how have people reacted to it?

I’ve been overwhelmed by all of the support and love. I received a number of messages from young girls saying, ‘Thank god, I didn’t know what to do, I’ve been in the closet for three years, but reading your letter gives me the strength to tell my family.’ Even older women reached out – people who had never had the strength and were now able to come out. As I said earlier, my goal was to help people get to the point where they are comfortable enough [to come out], so that was very flattering to hear and made everything worth it.

You wrote in the column that you feel completely at ease being yourself among your Team Canada teammates. Was there a time when you were concerned about how they would react to your sexuality?  

Not really. I’ve been on the team for a long time, and I’ve always known that there were gay people [on it] just like everywhere else. Our group is very accepting, so we don’t really care about anything except you being a good person, you being a good teammate and achieving the same goals. I always felt I could be myself, and when I did come out to my team, their reaction was, ‘so what?’ It has never been an issue.

Is that the norm or do most gay athletes still have a difficult time even today?

It is still very difficult, and the way you can tell is because there are so few athletes coming out. If it was accepted everywhere, I think they would be OK with coming out and it wouldn’t be considered such a big deal. In fact, athletes wouldn’t even need to come out, because it would just be normal and accepted.

Take men’s hockey, where I don’t think there has ever been a player who has come out publicly. People might say there are no gay players in the NHL, but of course there are. It’s just that their environment isn’t very accepting, so it hasn’t been seen yet. It will be a huge step for sports in general when the first NHLer does come out publicly.

Michael Sam did become the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL earlier this year. That had to be significant.

It was a huge step [for openly gay athletes becoming more accepted in sports]. It’s not easy to be the first person to do it, and he probably got more coverage and attention than he wanted, but I think he is confident in who he is and probably has an amazing support system. At the end of the day, he’s a good player and that’s all that should matter.

When did you first realize that you were gay and did you struggle with your sexuality?

I always had boyfriends while growing up, and it was only at the age of 19 that I started to question myself [about my sexuality]. I wasn't OK with it at all at first. I didn't want to be gay and I struggled with it. But I had amazing people who supported me and shared their own experiences, which made me feel better and become comfortable with myself over time.

What was your experience like as a gay athlete at McGill?

When I started my undergrad at McGill in 2006, my close friends knew I was gay, but I really didn’t advertise it. But people found out and it was totally fine. My teammates on the Martlets have always been amazing, and my coach, the staff and teachers were all very supportive. It’s been great, and [my sexuality] was never really an issue.

You’re on track to graduate from McGill with a master’s in sport psychology later this year. What does your future hold?

Oh gosh, I don’t know [laughs]. I was very fortunate to hopefully get two degrees from McGill and I’m hoping that will play out for me in a good way. I love hockey – it’s my passion – but the reality as amateur female athletes is that we also need to further our real careers after sports. I might have four Olympic gold medals, but that doesn’t guarantee me a job at the end, which is why education is so important. Right now, I’m in a transitional stage and trying to figure out where I want to go from here.