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'Standing on the Line' explores the cost to athletes who affirm their sexual identity

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Image: National Film Board

Athletes are unique individuals. Devoted to becoming the best they can be, and often in more than one sport, they sacrifice more than most of us are willing. For these individuals, winning means everything. Winning may even include denying a significant part of themselves in order to be accepted by teammates, fans and management -- just be allowed to continue competing.

In his documentary, Standing on the Line, filmmaker Paul Émile d'Entremont explores the taboos associated with being openly LGBTQ in amateur and professional sports and the stress of deciding whether or not to affirm one's sexual identity.

This film takes a fresh, often moving look at a variety of LGBTQ athletes who are working to overcome stereotypes and prejudices in order to improve life for all athletes.

Olympic speed skater, Anastasia Bucsis, was the youngest member of Canada's team when she skated at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. At 20 years of age she knew she identified as LGBTQ, but being a conservative Catholic girl from Calgary, Bucsis realized she had no LGBTQ friends, felt she couldn't tell anyone and fell into a depression.

Coming out was the best thing Bucsis could have done. Her parents had suspected for years, as had her best friend and roommate. All offered their support. In fact, coming out improved Bucsis' outlook and speed on the ice.

The story was a little different for David Testo, former soccer player with Montreal Impact from 2007 to 2011. Testo was the first gay male American professional soccer player to publicly declare his sexual orientation. Coming out ended Testo's career.

Testo was raised Christian in Ashville, North Carolina. When he came out to his mother, she denied his truth because of her fear of the South being racist and unaccepting of homosexuality.

Testo knew from the age of 10 that he was gay -- it was his desire to be accepted that spurred him to become a soccer player. But things changed in the professional locker room when he came out. Some teammates were uncomfortable, and Testo didn't want them thinking he was looking at them sexually. That didn't last long because Testo didn't play professionally once he came out. The abrupt end to his soccer career led to a period of self-hatred, pain and self-abuse. It also led to the life-altering change that stopped Testo's self-destruction. Testo is happily thriving in Montreal, Quebec where he is a yoga instructor.

The first semi-professional hockey player to come out was goalie Brock McGillis from Sudbury, Ontario. Trying to hide his sexual orientation by drinking and womanizing, McGillis waited until he stopped playing to come out. Now, he teaches young hockey players how to curb homophobic rhetoric and to be more inclusive and accepting of others.

D'Entremont travelled to Moncton, New Brunswick to visit the L'Odyssée High School where football coach Serge Bourque believes, "Everyone should be able to play football and feel free to be themselves."

According to d'Entremont:

"I presented my project at a number of school board meetings. Some were uncomfortable with the topic and turned me down. At long last, the Francophone Sud School District opened its doors to me, which is where I heard about L'Odyssée. The school had a number of great things going for it, including the Indigo project. Still, getting assistant coach Justin Boisvert, who trains the school's team, Les Olympians de Moncton, and former player Jean-Christophe Comeau to talk on camera wasn't without challenges. Before they came on board, I really had to stress the project's importance and scope. I also had to point out that the documentary would be around for a while."

Both Boisvert and Comeau are LGBTQ athletes. The Indigo project is a safe space for anyone with issues to have discussions. These issues are not limited to sexual orientation.

The documentary also explores the demands and expectations placed on athletes who do come out. At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Bucsis joined the fight against Russia's anti-LGBTQ law, but Bucsis was the only Canadian and only one of five athletes to take this stand. Ironically, the LGBTQ community had hoped for more from her.

Testo found it was the business side of hockey that didn't support him coming out. When he started his own business, hockey associations told him he could coach for free but he could not become a staff member, nor could his business be associated with the teams or players.

Things really began to change when Brian Burke, former president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames, became an unexpected LGBTQ rights activist. Burke's son, Brendan, came out and was forced off his team. Tragically, Brendan died in a car crash in 2000.

Burke wants society to teach young men to think about how others feel -- something that is missing from the teachings of many male-dominated sports, which may lend themselves to sexist or homophobic tropes.

Brendan's brother, Patrick, co-founded the You Can Play project to ensure athletes would be able to compete based on ability alone and not face discrimination for their sexual orientation.

D'Entremont takes viewers on a loving journey of healing that creates an inclusive environment for all young athletes simply hoping to be remembered for their physical and mental skills. This 100-minute documentary would make the perfect film for when physical education, civics, law, family studies or social justice teachers need to leave a meaningful assignment for a supply teacher. Spread over two periods with time for a written reflection after 40 and 60 minutes, this film a wonderful way to open up the dialogue on one of those uncomfortable, but vital discussions.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: National Film Board

Editor's note, September 4, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of Brian Burke's deceased son. He was Brendan, not Brandon. It also misstated the year he died in a car accident. He died in 2010, not 2000.

An earlier version of this article misstated that David Testo was the first gay soccer player to publicly come out. He was the first gay male American professional soccer player to publicly come out.

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