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Gay hockey and tennis referee about his struggles with coming out



Sport was the reason I never had that question in my head explored when I was growing up, but in the end, sport was the thing that gave me all the support to finally get it out.

Hockey is a tough sport and the people who play the game have to be strong. This was very evident in the locker room, especially in high school in Orange, Connecticut, and in college. In the fall of my freshman year in high school, I began to realize that I was attracted to both boys and girls. I had no idea what this meant or how to find out, but once the hockey season started, I quickly realized it just didn’t seem like an option.

There was rarely a day when gay insults weren’t used in the locker room and it reinforced the perception in my mind that if you weren’t straight and went after girls, you weren’t a hockey player.

This was about the same time my hockey career started to flourish, and I started playing tennis because I needed a vacation court. What became clear was that it didn’t matter to the sport that the same attitude towards being gay existed. In the hockey referee room on the higher levels, insults and comments were thrown around freely and in the tennis referee the rumor mill that referees were gay was part of the normal conversation.

It was very clear that if you want to be successful as a referee, you have to keep your feelings secret and live an honest life. For the next 20 years I kept that secret and never said a word to a soul. I lived what looked like the American Dream. I had a wife and two children and the house with the white picket fence.

I had quite an incredible official run in both hockey and tennis during those years, I became the youngest chair umpire in the history of the US Open at the age of 18 and worked at Wimbledon and the Australian Open as well as many professional tournaments around the world before being named World TeamTennis Director of Officiating in 2005. In hockey, I referenced over 400 games at NCAA Division I level for 11 years, was selected for five NCAA Division I Frozen Fours for women, worked two national championship games and was selected twice for the men’s NCAA national tournament.

As the years passed, it became more and more clear in my mind that I was gay. I fell into depression and my marriage fell apart. My escape was leading hockey games on Friday and Saturday nights from October to March.

In October 2017, I worked a match about three hours from home and it was the first time in my career that I didn’t even want to be on the ice to referee the match. I knew something important was going on because being on the ice was my happy place and now I didn’t even want to be there.

Bryan Hicks, right, with his friend, David, and the World TeamTennis trophy.

For the next few months I tried to find out why I was so unhappy. I was unwilling to look myself in the mirror and admit what it really was. I decided it was because I wanted to be home with my family and quit playing hockey in college. It was the right story for people to believe.

I had achieved all the goals I had in hockey and there was nothing left to do on the ice. The season ended in March and I closed it with a selection for the national championships and the men’s national tournament. I announced at the championships that I was retiring from the ice in December. At the same time, what I didn’t admit was that I knew my marriage was over because I couldn’t keep the secret. But I also didn’t know what to do next.

That all changed when I flew to Chicago for World TeamTennis and watched the Love Simon movie. If you’re not familiar with the movie, it’s about a closet gay high school being exposed by a fellow classmate. When I watched the movie so many emotions came out of me and I finally knew what to do.

The first person I spoke to was my mom, and it took me a while to gather the courage to tell her I was gay. After the words came out, I started to cry as the emotion and secrecy that I had been hiding for 20 years was finally revealed. The weight had been lifted and for the first time in a long time I felt happy. For the next few days, I told my immediate family, but in the back of my mind I knew my last hockey season in college would be just a few more weeks.

I was in the car driving to Cornell with two of my closest functioning partners, Ryan and Tom, and about 45 minutes into the ride, I turned to them and told them to tell them something. Ryan had a clever comment as usual and I just said it, I’m gay. Ryans response was perfect: Oh really, that’s nice, where do we eat chicken parmesan for lunch?

Bryan Hicks, left, as an umpire at Wimbledon in 2001.

That line showed me what I feared most in hockey was just in my head. That support from my family in charge gave me the support I needed to get through my divorce and discover what my mind and heart had been telling me for a while.

If there is news or gossip during the service, it usually spreads like wildfire. Still no one said I was gay because it wasn’t news or gossip to them, it was just me. When I finished my farewell tour of ECAC Hockey, I was back in my happy place, on the ice, just having fun because I was so scared to tell someone it wasn’t a secret anymore.

The calls and texts I received from people in the League and in the hockey community were always supportive. The icing on the cake that showed me that my sexuality never mattered was in June 2019, when I was appointed as Women’s Director of Officiating for ECAC Hockey.

Looking back, I let fear hold me for twenty years because of a perception I had in my head. I will never say I go back in time and change something because I have two wonderful kids but I hope someone will read this and realize you can’t let it stop you from being yourself because in the end this is the only way to find real happiness.

Bryan Hicks is the Director of Officiating and Operations for World TeamTennis and the Director of Officiating for Women’s ECAC hockey. He lives in New Jersey with his friend, David, and two children, Layton and Kaylee. You can contact him by e-mail [email protected] or on Instagram (@bryan_hicks34)

Story Editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an LGBTQ athlete and you want to tell your story, send an email to Jim ([email protected])

Check out our archive of coming-out stories.

If you are an LGBTQ person in sports and looking to connect with others in the community, please visit TO GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in the sport.

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