Continuing his series of interviews for LGBT+ History Month, Jay Forster catches up with Zach Sullivan, a year after the defenceman came out publicly as bi…
Last week, freelance journalist Jay Forster began a special series of feature interviews to mark LGBT+ History Month.
Jay, who shared his own personal story on Sky Sports in January 2020 in the build-up to the Elite Ice Hockey League’s first-ever Pride Weekend, spoke to the San Jose Sharks’ Kurtis Gabriel, a fierce LGBT+ ally who advised the NHL to ‘get uncomfortable’.
In his second article for February, Jay spent time again with Zach Sullivan, having interviewed the former Great Britain international 12 months ago following the latter’s social media posts which announced to the world he is bisexual...
On January 26, 2020, I was sitting on a train from my mother’s house in Durham to my home in Chester, scrolling through Twitter to pass the time.
In his own home, Zach Sullivan was waiting to hit the ‘Tweet’ button on something that he’d later realise would send waves throughout the UK hockey community, and even further afield.
With the click of a button, Sullivan came out as bisexual, the first male professional ice hockey player to do so. He’s currently one of only two openly LGBT+ men in professional ice hockey worldwide.
I sat down with him last year in the players’ lounge at Altrincham Ice Dome, where he played with the EIHL’s Manchester Storm until the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shut down hockey across the UK.
A year later, we’re talking via Zoom, but even through a webcam, you can see that Sullivan is more relaxed, more confident in himself, and it’s not just the bright blond hair he’s sporting.
“It’s like you’re not living with something hanging over your head,” says Sullivan. “I can just kind of get on with my life now.”
So how has the last year been? Sullivan laughs. “Normal, boring…” Sullivan has spent most of the lockdown period at home in Surrey, training with a team in Romford, and it’s been business as usual, apparently.
“Yeah, no one’s really mentioned it,” he says. It’s exactly what he wanted from this experience. He talks about how he never wanted to be known as ‘that bisexual hockey player’, and he hasn’t been.
Have there been a couple of potentially ‘borderline’ comments in the locker room? Of course. Hockey is a sport built on ‘chirping’, tossing insults at team-mate or opponent alike, but Sullivan is quick to tell me that no one has sent any slurs or nasty comments about his sexuality his way.
“I’m quite lucky in that a couple of the guys on the team I’ve known since I was about 10, and they made sure I knew that they wouldn’t stand for anyone saying something, and that person would be out the door,” Sullivan says.
My own coming out was greeted by my team-mates with the same chirping about my on-ice performance that I would normally get. It seems Sullivan’s teammates have acted much the same.
He talks about how in hockey, your team is like a second family. Everyone has each other’s backs, regardless. When asked about whether he’s seen a change in hockey culture, he’s quick to defend the locker room attitude.
We talk about Yanic Duplessis, a high school hockey player in Canada who came out in September of last year, and the homophobic comments that were thrown at him by so-called hockey fans. It’s a sharp contrast to Sullivan’s team-mates, one of whom, Cameron Critchlow (currently with the Jacksonville Icemen of the ECHL), texted him as soon as he saw the article on Duplessis. “He messaged me like, ‘this is awesome, this is really going somewhere.'”
Finding strength in community
With the pandemic, it’s been hard to connect with anyone, let alone other queer hockey players. There is no group chat for LGBT+ hockey players out there, though Sullivan laughs and says he would be happy if there was; he has however been in contact with Brock McGillis, probably the biggest LGBT+ name in hockey, as well as getting involved with Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT+ charity, along with John Dickinson-Lilley, formerly one of Great Britain’s top Para-skiers, who also happens to be gay.
He thinks it’s important, as an LGBT+ athlete, and especially as the only openly bi player in the EIHL, to remember that you’re not alone. “The support network is a huge thing, and there are other athletes out there. They might not be in your particular sport, but they support you and they will have advice for you.”
Sullivan has good things to say about the LGBT+ community in general, though he hasn’t been able to engage in it as much as he wanted to. COVID-19 shut down Surrey Pride, which he had been invited to, but he has managed to make some connections. “The thing about the LGBT community,” he tells me, “is that they just want to be included, so if you reach out, they’ll reach back with both hands every time.”
Overall, it hasn’t been the year either of us were expecting. When the COVID shutdown put an end to the 2020/21 season, I was just getting to know the team off the ice, preparing to report on their playoff push for Chasing the Puck. Sullivan was getting ready to finish off the season strong and help the Storm reach the playoff weekend in Nottingham. He had just started to discover the LGBT+ community, and what kind of support comes from them.
But, mixed in with all the feelings about lockdown, the lack of hockey, and not being able to see his friends or team-mates, there has been some good. Last time we spoke, Sullivan talked about how hiding his sexuality had taken a toll on his mental health. A year of being open has given him a sense of confidence he didn’t have before.
“It’s been good,” he says, once again showing off his new hair with a self-deprecating grin. “I wish there was hockey – I’m sure everyone does – but it’s been good.”
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