Out in sport: ‘Locker room gay trash talk is so normalised, but it’s not cool’

As a former SM-Liiga hockey player comes out, another gay Finnish sportsman talks about attitudes towards sexual identity and locker room 'homottelu'.

File picture of locker rooms / Credit: iStock

When former pro-hockey player Janne Puhakka announced he was gay in a weekend newspaper interview, it prompted a wave of support and encouragement for the ex-Espoo Blues star.

On Puhakka’s instagram page over the summer he wrote about how he had “always been open” about being gay to his friends and family.

“I think it’s important that we stand up for certain things in life and I’m grateful to those that took a strong stand in support of equality and fought for ‘our’ values making it a more tolerant society we live in today” he wrote, with a picture posed together with his Norwegian partner.

While it’s fairly common and uncontroversial to find elite female athletes who are gay, it’s still unusual for male athletes to come out, and those who do often wait until they’ve retired, like Puhakka.

Five years ago when champion swimmer and Olympian Ari-Pekka Liukkonen came out, he was a rare example of a Finnish athlete at the top of his sport who felt he could be openly gay.

File picture of Tuomo Jaakkonen playing disc golf, September 2019 / Credit: Tuomo Jaakkonen

Oulu rugby player Tuomo Jaakkonen came out in a more unconventional way, when the documentary he was part of screened at film festivals in the USA and Europe.

The film Freetime Machos was released in 2009, and charts the progress of struggling Oulu Rugby Club in northern Finland.

While Jaakkonen had never made any secret of his sexuality, and most of the team were aware anyway, one narrative strand of the documentary showed him talking about his sexuality with the only teammate who didn’t already know.

Jaakkonen, 39, says he’s pleased that a sportsman with Puhakka’s profile has decided to go public with his story.

“I would say, finally! It’s so obvious that a certain percentage – and not that small of a percentage – of men are gay, and they’re spread throughout all fields of life” he says.

“I think it’s really important that there’s a Finnish example of a sportsman who has come out […] I think it’s quite obvious when you’re in an individual sport it’s easier to come out, you don’t have to think about the team, you can be independent. And maybe if you’re in a team you feel more pressure” he adds.

Jaakkonen says he doesn’t have a particular ‘coming out story’, because he was never in the closet. Although he struggled with his sexual identity in his teens with bouts of insecurity and depression, at university he felt more able to be himself.

“In the team I think most people knew. It wasn’t any secret or issue, it never was” he tells News Now Finland.

“For me I’ve never encountered homophobia in my life! Not in student circles, not in a moose hunting club; not in the rugby club and those guys they knew and it was never an issue, not in the slightest” he says.

File picture of Tuomo Jaakkonen (centre, wearing white) playing for Oulu Rugby against Jyväskylä in this 2009 photo / Credit: Mikko Ala-Kojola

Locker room talk

The area where Tuomo Jaakkonen says there’s a lot of room for improved behaviour is in the locker rooms with so-called ‘homottelu‘ or homophobic banter.

“It’s just so standardised, normal talk in the locker room to use that word, gay, as meaning something inferior. Even if they don’t think of it that way. Even if they are absolutely non-homophobic guys, good guys, in the locker room they might say ‘oh you’re so gay'” he says.

Jaakkonen explains that although he doesn’t consider this direct homophobia, that kind of locker room talk can still have consequences on people, whether they’re still in the closet or open about their sexual identity.

“There’s a fine line because you have to understand in the locker room they’re not meaning anything by it, but still I took it to my heart, because always when I heard it, it makes me feel really small and made me feel inferior” he says.

At Oulu he made sure to let the other players know it was “not cool”.

“If someone is in the closet and they hear that kind of talk, it makes them feel small and bad about themselves. But it’s so normalised you cannot always mention it, you have to pretend you didn’t hear it, and it’s annoying.”

With studies, work and a home life – Tuomo Jaakkonen married his husband the first day that marriage equality was legal in Finland in March 2017 – he’s been out of rugby for a few years, but still says he’s got a few games left in him.

“I was there at Oulu Rugby Club for ten years from 2004 until 2014. I played most forward positions as a prop, second row and number 8. But now there’s been a few years I haven’t been involved” he explains.

“Just today I chatted with a rugby friend of mine and I said I’m on a diet, and on a fitness regime, maybe in January I will take it up again because I love it, and it’s so much fun.”