And he had a secret. It was hard enough to share it with his mom and dad.
But as a young athlete, steeped in the machismo of sport, where “about the worst thing” is to be a “fag” or a “homo,” there was one conversation that was even harder.
Telling his teammates he was gay. Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and his son, Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, have just launched the You Can Play Project to tackle the “casual homophobia” of professional hockey, where there is still no openly gay athlete. The initiative is in honour of Brendan Burke, their son and brother, who came out shortly before being killed in a car accident in 2010.
Public-service announcements, with 36 NHL players so far signing on, deliver a simple, powerful message that an athlete’s sexual orientation does not matter. “If you can play, you can play” is a sevenword mantra taken from a piece written by Brendan.
The campaign is a small sign of change in the elite level of sport. One day this attitude may trickle down to places like the locker-rooms of the Lanark-Carleton Minor Hockey League, where Scott Heggart risked ostracization and ridicule to do what few athletes before him, professional or amateur, dared to.
His truth telling didn’t play out as he’d expected.
From the time Scott Heggart could walk, he’d wander around like a pintsized warrior swinging some sort of sporting implement, whether it was a hockey stick, baseball bat or golf club. And as soon as he could read, he was memorizing stats.
He loved sports, especially hockey. But by the time he was in Grade 7, he’d come to realize, he didn’t love girls, at least not in that way.
Sure, he had gal pals, but when his buddies were snatching first kisses and going on dates, Scott hung back. He wasn’t interested.
Did he think he was gay? “I’d started to understand who I was, what it meant. And if I was being true to myself, I probably would have come out in Grade 6, but I didn’t want to be that person,” he recalls.
At the time he played basketball at Bridlewood Community Elementary School, and minor league hockey in Kanata. If he owned up to his sexuality, he feared he would have to stop playing.
“The worst thing, from my teammates’ perspective, was to be gay.” If there was the slightest hint you possessed a feminine side, or if you whimpered after slamming into the boards, or if you dared wear a pink shirt, you were ridiculed.
‘Faggot’ this. ‘Homo’ that. But interestingly, never directed at Scott. No one thought the lanky athlete could be gay. And he planned to never tell them.
But the situation ate at him. “I thought there was no way they would accept me.”
So he withdrew. He’d practise and play, then he’d hide at home.
His parents, Julie Wilson and Randy Heggart, wondered what had happened to their “happy boy.”
“We knew he was wrestling with something but we just couldn’t imagine what,” recalls Julie.
They asked, he shrugged. He had every reason to believe his parents would be supportive. But even if he told them he was gay, how could he admit that he was gripped by selfloathing and suicidal thoughts?
“I started looking around me at all the hate that is directed at gay people and that really threw me off the deep end.”
So he tried to think himself straight.
“I really mentally punished myself for my thoughts. It wasn’t a psychologically healthy thing to be doing.” And when he realized he couldn’t alter his identity, he thought of killing himself.
“I spiralled downward. And it became this constant mental pain that I was dealing with.”
After a year of intense suffering and loneliness, he knew he had to seek help, or he might harm himself.
He emailed his sister, Sonya, 12 years his senior, asking to meet.
“Is this about a girl?” she asked when they were face-to-face. Of all the questions.
When he said no, she replied, only joking: “Is this about a boy?”
“I looked her in the eyes, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’ ”
He’d finally shared the secret he’d held close for so long. They talked, cried, hugged. Sonya, like the rest of her family, would later say she never suspected Scott was gay. In retrospect it “made sense,” in part because he hadn’t been girl crazy like his older brother.
Telling Russell was harder. He was nine years older, another jock who loved the sporting arena.
But Russell listened quietly, then asked if it was a phase. “I still love you, I still consider you my best friend,” he said. He jokingly offered a protective brotherly warning if Scott brought home a partner, and he didn’t like him. “I will let you know you have a ‘dick’ of a boyfriend. The same as if you brought home a girl who was a ‘bitch.’ I would tell you straight up.”
With his sister by his side, Scott told his parents in a few quick sentences.
It went something like this, according to all who were there: “I’m going through a really rough time. I want some more freedom in my life to express myself. I need to feel at home in my own house. I can’t go on like this – I’m gay.”
His parents were somewhat relieved.
“When you said you had something important to tell us, I was thinking it was obviously something very grave and I wasn’t sure what we were facing,” his dad Randy would later say.
Mom Julie says that if she’d really thought about it, she might have “put it together.” They had attributed the past months of moodiness to a “rocky adolescence.” And when their friends asked why Scott didn’t have a girlfriend, they’d invariably say that he was too busy with sports. And they believed this.
This had been the easy conversation. But Scott, then 15, couldn’t imagine taking the next step and telling his teammates. He would also be moving to a new school for Grade 9, Sacred Heart Catholic High School in Stittsville, where he’d have to make new friends. So he chose another, very teenage way, to continue the conversation.
During the first week of Grade 10, Scott recorded a video of himself telling his coming out story. He posted it to YouTube, then showed his parents.
This video would eventually receive more than 52,000 views from people who had no idea he was a gay teen living in Stittsville.