When you walk into a hockey rink as a queer person, you walk in with your guard up. It doesn’t matter if it’s your home rink or one you’re playing at for the first time. It’s a defense mechanism, it’s armor, it’s preparation for the ways you might be challenged or called out as not belonging. Sometimes it’s benign—the hockey dad who held the door for me and asked how long it had taken me to tape the rainbow stripes on my stick blade, unfamiliar with the fact that Pride Tape is made specifically to pattern out that way. Sometimes it’s realizing that you’re the only person in your locker room who isn’t straight. Sometimes it’s teammates asking why you have the same last name as your spouse, because it never occurred to them that you could be married. Sometimes it’s realizing you came to the rink in your binder and the only bathrooms are segregated by sex and right off of a lobby busy with kids and parents. Sometimes it’s walking to the ice in your gear past a junior team and pretending you don’t hear the homophobic and transphobic jokes. Sometimes it’s teammates never passing to you and making sure everyone knows how incompetent they think you are.
So you can imagine my friend William and I standing in the corner of a rink lobby in Boston, surrounded by cisgender folks who were there to watch a youth hockey tournament, doing our best to look like we belonged as we tried to figure out who was safe to approach.
We’d traveled to Boston from the Upper Midwest to play with Team Trans, the first team comprised entirely of transgender players to ever play in North America—in any sport. Team Trans formed after a hockey player started looking for trans folks on social media who might want to come together as a team. After months of organizing and an incredibly generous offer by Boston Pride Hockey (BPH), an LGBTQ hockey organization, we were finally getting together for the first time as a team to play a Friendship Series against BPH.
A pair of hot pink sneakers with blue laces caught my eye, followed a second later by a hockey stick taped with the blue, pink, and white stripes of the trans flag. “I think those are our people,” I said to William. Now my anxiety about finding the rest of Team Trans disappeared, but it was quickly replaced with a different kind of anxiety. Most of Team Trans had been playing for decades, and a couple of our teammates had even played at the professional level. Would we be able to keep up? Would there be a place for us, even here?
Soon enough, though, there were 16 of us in the locker room pulling on our gorgeous new Team Trans jerseys. That first night was just for us to get to know each other, as we sorted out who wanted to play what position and ran a few drills to get used to each other. We had a wide range of skaters from beginner to professional, and while the pace was fast, we were able to relax and have a good time.
Walls down, spirits raised
I have to admit that it wasn’t until midway through our first game, the next day, that it all clicked for me.
I already knew the locker room felt easier and more relaxed than any locker room I’d been in before, even though I’ve played almost entirely in inclusive and queer spaces. I knew that everyone on the team was great at playing inclusively and cheering each other on. But suddenly, seven or eight minutes into a hard-fought game against Boston Pride, it hit me. It wasn’t a coherent thought, exactly—instead it was an overwhelming awe-tinged feeling, like the first time you really look up at the stars and realize how big the universe is. It was happiness. It was belonging. It was the first time I didn’t have to keep my guard up.
And it was happening in a hockey rink.
We didn’t win that game, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about whether or not we would win. It wasn’t about us versus them, in any form. It was about having that space on the ice, on the bench, in the locker room, where no one had to worry what anyone might say about their name or their pronouns or their body. It was about skating across the ice and feeling more free than any of us had felt before, without the weight of difference on our shoulders. It was about saying whatever we wanted without having to worry about self-censoring anything, because we knew we were safe. It was like looking up at the stars, and realizing how big the universe is, and knowing for the first time exactly where you fit in among the cosmos.
I can’t wait to do it again.