By Stuart Miller-Davis
Early in her coaching career Shelley Coolidge walked into a dressing room and saw a player wearing a shirt that read, “I’m here, I’m queer, deal with it,” and it made her very proud.
“For myself, at that time, still a closeted coach, I thought this individual has got more courage than I’ve ever had,” she recalled in a recent phone interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages.
“It made me proud to see that individuals were courageous enough to be out in the communities and to challenge the norms that were out there.”
Originally from Saskatchewan, Coolidge was the manager of women’s hockey at Hockey Canada before joining the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in 2003 for a six-year tenure as the program manager and head coach. She then held the same position with the Carleton Ravens from 2009-2014. Since her departure from Carleton, she has worked with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC). She currently is self employed running Cool Edge Consulting, working as a mentor, a coach developer, and consultant in Ottawa.
Coolidge said it was pretty taboo to be out as gay or lesbian while she was competing as a young hockey player.
“I went through quite a long period through high school and university just sort of questioning who I was and trying to find ways during that time to be straight because there weren’t many athletes that were out,” she said.
“It was a time and a period where there weren’t many role models who spoke about it. As I started to get into the workforce, you could get fired for being a gay individual.”
But as her career progressed, Coolidge came to know that as a coach trying to help people who may be questioning their identity that your biggest job is to listen.
“You need to have an open door and be available. Listening is a skillset that all of us can continue to work hard on,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re actually listening and supporting each individual and actually hearing what their concerns are.”
The second thing is knowing when to refer to experts.
“For some coaches it is realizing when they don’t have the skillset, it’s being confident enough to refer them to people who can better help and support them,” she said. “I know at the university we had a lot of those avenues and it is important to know what those avenues are for the benefit of your athletes.”
Reflecting on her own experiences, Coolidge said Ottawa has become more welcome to LGBTQ+ coaches and athletes than it was years ago.
“There’s a number of incredible role models not only in the community but also in and around university sport,” she said. “We have athletic directors here in Ottawa that see people first not necessarily by label, but they support diversity and inclusion.”
A big part of becoming more welcoming for LGBTQ+ athletes as a city is education, Coolidge said.
“National sport organizations, the CAC, Canadian Women in Sport and Respect Group are doing a much better job of educating coaches,” she said. “In the hockey community there’s specific training that wasn’t available 10 years ago. The more information we’re able to gather, and the more we set out to be lifelong learners, the better the Ottawa community is going to get.”
Still, men’s sports have struggled to accept LGBTQ+ representation compared to their female counterparts. In Coolidge’s sport of hockey, Brock McGillis is the only out gay man to have been a pro. This is partly because there’s different pressure for male athletes than females, Coolidge said.
“I don’t think that women coming out as gay or lesbian are perceived as threatening femininity,” she said. “I think it’s great for young boys and men to come out, but I do think there’s a perceived threat to their masculinity.”
There are positive signs for gay male representation in sports like hockey: 17-year-old Drummondville Voltigeurs prospect Yanic Duplessis came out as gay in September. He’s said publicly that he hopes his decision will inspire others to feel comfortable following his lead.
“He had the courage to come out and I think that the he’s going to be a real leader for young men,” she said. “I really hope the (QMJHL) surrounds and supports him in a way that helps them to do work in the right way.”