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Brendan Burke's target was the locker room, that traditional space of gay slurs and macho pranks. When the 20-year-old former goalie revealed his homosexuality to the sports world this week, he knew the fact that his father, Brian Burke, is the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs would shape the headlines. But it's the guys on the bench he wants to reach.

"The important thing is that it's started a discussion," he told The Globe and Mail in an exclusive interview, "and people realize there could be a gay person next to them in the locker room."

And for many gay athletes - and a growing number of their straight teammates - that's a discussion long overdue in sports, which one Canadian expert called "the last bastion of homophobia." Despite the recent progress made in same-sex rights, gay athletes can't be certain of their welcome, especially in team sports such as hockey and football - it's not a coincidence that there are no openly gay athletes playing professional sports. Many former high school and university athletes describe how they faked being straight, joining in the locker-room banter about "faggots," pretending to pick up girls.

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"As a young guy, it's a decision: Do I want to be gay or do I want to be an athlete?" says Jay MacDonald, 31, an alpine skier in high school and former captain of the cross-country team at the University of New Brunswick, who spent several years flirting with women in front of his fellow runners before revealing he was gay. "I chose to be an athlete."

Many others make the opposite choice: avoiding sports altogether in high school for fear of being found out, returning only as adults to the game they missed.

But there are steady signs of change. Earlier this year in New Brunswick, the Woodstock High School Lady Thunder hockey team united to support two players who had recently told their teammates they were gay. Facing another team, the insults escalated on and off the ice, to the point where the opponents refused to shake hands. "You expect attention," says Sierra Paul, 16, now the team captain, who made the decision last December to change her Facebook page to say she likes girls. "But you don't expect hatred. It's a slap in the face out of nowhere."

"They started treating the fact that they were gay like a disease," says 16-year-old right-winger Hannah Steeves. "If anybody touched them on the ice, or if we fell on them, they'd be like, 'Get off me, lesbian.' I was sick of it."

A close-knit group of friends in the small town 100 kilometres west of Fredericton, the players began speaking out. Along with the coaches and some parents, they wore anti-homophobia pins, even sharing them with players they met at a tournament who'd faced a similar experience. This fall, the Woodstock players received a provincial human rights award. (The other team, who they won't identify, eventually apologized.)

But Adam Tittley, 24, remembers long years when the gay taunts flew around the locker room and no one spoke up - not even him. A former member of the junior national water polo team, the Montreal native says he used sports to disguise his sexuality and fit in. "In my mind, gay men were not good at sports. If I could swim that much faster, score one more goal, nobody would suspect me."

So he lived undercover, getting a girlfriend, watching quietly when his teammates would bully another player by casting them as gay. "It was mean and cruel, and it was what guys did to each other," Mr. Tittley says. "Everything I did, I did to survive."

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But several years ago, he quit water polo. Hiding his identity was weighing on him, and he just didn't love it any more. "No one knew who I really was," says Mr. Tittley, who now rock climbs. "I couldn't stand to be in that environment."

But sometimes, the reaction to finally coming out doesn't match the fear of being found out - Brendan Burke says the e-mails, telephone calls and postings on his Facebook page have been bereft of negative comments.

When Kelly Granley, 24, a former Junior A hockey player in Red Deer, Alta., now working as a youth adviser at an Edmonton school board, came out to his teammates in high school, some of the parents had a harder time dealing with the news, refusing to let their sons share a hotel room with him. The players, many of them good friends, accepted him - partly, Mr. Granley believes, because he handled the situation with humour.

"That was a gay play," they'd say. And he'd joke, "Oh, do you mean in a good way?" He doesn't think the trash talk, which came across as homophobic, is the issue - he's done it himself, he says, as part of the game. The problem lies with old-school coaches, Mr. Granley believes, an issue that will correct itself as the next generation takes team management positions.

Trevor Ritchie, a 19-year-old student at the University of British Columbia who came out to his junior team in September, got more support than he was expecting: As a surprise, his teammates chose pink for their uniform. "I can't stand pink," he says, laughing. "I don't know what they were thinking. But I appreciate the gesture."

But athletes concede that it's easier to tell their fellow players when they are either at the top of their game - as Mr. MacDonald was - or have already stopped playing, as in Mr. Tittley's case. For both men, the reaction was accepting. But the young high-school athlete, especially a player who's not a star, or lives in a small town, has more pressure to stay quiet.

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Canada's high-school atmosphere still sets an anti-gay tone: A new national survey of 3,600 students in 20 school districts, conducted by researchers in Manitoba, found that 70 per cent reported hearing homophobic comments every day - and that's outside the locker room.

Ryan Powell, for instance, who grew up in a small Alberta city, and who kept his sexuality quiet all through high school, stopped playing sports when he was in Grade 6. "I just stepped away from the controversy of being found out," says Mr. Powell, now 30, who works in the hotel industry in Vancouver. He has picked up soccer again by playing on a gay-friendly team in the city - a trend that has developed rapidly over the past 10 years, to include soccer and hockey leagues, and a rugby team called the Muddy York in Toronto.

By coming out, Mr. Burke has helped open the door for other high-level gay athletes to join him, says Roger LeBlanc, a kinesiology professor at the University of Moncton, who studies the issue. But to really change the sports environment, he says, players' associations need to crack down on anti-gay behaviour, and straight athletes need to start speaking up against the homophobic atmosphere in locker rooms.

"People follow by example," says Alyssa McLean, 17, assistant captain and the other openly gay player on the Woodstock High School team. Her teammate Ms. Steeves puts it this way: "It's like when you're in high school, and the teacher asks an awkward question, and everyone looks around. And once one person raises their hand, everybody feels free to do it."

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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