This is a story that I think a lot of people have seen pieces of, either from talking to me personally, or from following me on twitter. My battle with the Sabres to see them achieve some degree of inclusiveness and accountability dates back at least five years.
In late 2011 I started doing more writing specifically on LGBTQ issues. As a queer person myself with partners who are transgender and pansexual (yes, two) it’s a topic that hits pretty close to home. I had recently learned of the Salvation Army’s atrocious record towards LGBTQ individuals and I had known that the Sabres partnered with them by promoting bell-ringers that take up shop outside the arena on game nights during the holiday season. My partner’s alma mater, RIT had recently barred the Salvation Army from campus over these same concerns. I also recalled an older story from Syracuse University about the Carrier Dome’s usage rules prohibiting organizations that discriminate, keeping the Boy Scouts of America out.
Activism is always a battle between the ideal and the achievable. Both open you up to criticism. Aim too high and you’re called unrealistic. Aim too low and people tell you that you’re making the community look bad and that such things aren’t worth your time. At the time I saw small but meaningful steps forward on LGBTQ outreach by the Buffalo Sabres to be achievable. I had two objectives: get them to end their partnership with anti-LGBTQ groups and get them to produce an It Gets Better Video in support of LGBTQ youth.
At the time the Pegulas had recently bought the Sabres and ushered in the appearance of an era that was more receptive to “non-traditional” media, aka blogs. They held several blogger summits where members of the front office, usually president Ted Black, would discuss issues with bloggers and writers who had been invited or allowed to attend. The site I wrote for, Black and Blue and Gold was one of those such outlets, with Editor in Chief and site creator Phil attending the second summit.
The Sabres had their own cameras and recording devices there for a short period of time that were ultimately turned off for more informal discussion. Phil made the calculated decision to wait until the team’s cameras were off before posing a question about the partnership with the Salvation Army. We didn’t want to give the impression of a “gotcha” attempt and we wanted to provide the easiest path forward for the team. Faced with a small collection of writers starving for access, validation, or just the experience, Black was receptive and promised to look into the matter.
“Looking into the matter” involved just asking the Salvation Army if they discriminate. The following is an email from Director of Community Relations Rich Jureller:
I am writing to inform you that we have met with Major Donald Hostetler and Major Thomas Applin of the Salvation Army to address your concerns regarding their organization’s alleged discrimination. During our discussion they made it clear that the Salvation Army does not discriminate against any class of individuals and they comply with all laws regarding the provision of benefits to Salvation Army employees. They also refuted the accuracy of online claims of discrimination.
The attached letter from Major Hostetler summarizes their position on this matter. He requested that we share the letter with you and encouraged you to speak with him directly should you have any further concerns or questions.
We are satisfied with their response to the allegations and will continue to work with the Salvation Army in the future.
The Salvation Army’s own website made their thoughts on the matter pretty clear at the time:
“There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.”
Jureller declined to comment further on the matter and instead reiterated that I should meat with the local Salvation Army leaders.
I asked the Sabres if they would consider doing an It Gets Better video in support of LGBTQ bullying victims. (Had I known then what I know now about Dan Savage I would have chosen something else.) Brian Burke had recently become involved in LGBTQ outreach and Buffalo had recently lost an LGBTQ teen, Jamey Rodemeyer, to suicide as a result of bullying. New York had also just legalized same-sex marriage on a key vote from Buffalo native State Senator Mark Grisanti (R). I had hoped that the organization would recognize the opportunity to be a community leader, both within Buffalo and within the NHL as no other teams had partnered with any pro-LGBTQ initiative at the time.
A few weeks later the team released news that they would be working with Buffalo-area schools to develop a series of anti-bullying PSAs with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. To quote Rich Jureller:
The death of Jamey Rodemeyer was the impetus behind our decision to develop anti-bullying messaging. It is why we began discussions with NCMEC earlier this season when we learned they were working with area schools to help deal with the anti-bullying problem. NCMEC provides multiple resources for the schools, administration, students and parents. They are a national organization (with local chapters) that has done a significant amount of research and work on the program. Through their experiences, they are helping us shape the message that we want to convey through our video, which we anticipate will be completed before the end of January.
Your concerns about LGBT bullying are well-taken. The messaging in our video will focus on prevention, understanding and acceptance of people’s differences and where to get help if you are a victim of bullying. Therefore, LGBT bullying, as well as, Jamey’s story will be part of the discussion when finalizing the treatment for our video. Although, as I’m sure you know, bullying is not exclusive to LGBT. It can impact any child of any background.
Almost none of this ended up being true. The Sabres did indeed produce a series of anti-bullying PSAs but they were very generic and did not mention Rodemeyer or the LGBTQ community. The PSAs are no longer available on the Sabres’ website.
Jureller’s last two sentences are deeply troubling in that they suggest that even though LGBTQ teens suffer disproportionate amounts of bullying (as does any vulnerable group) that they aren’t worth increased attention. Jureller’s statements read as though he feels that tackling bullying is a zero sum game where focus on one group detracts from others. The team reiterated their stance on Twitter:
My interpretation of this at the time, coupled with continued support of the Salvation Army was that to Jureller and the Sabres, discriminating against straight individuals is a problem while discriminating against queer individuals is not.
With the Salvation Army battle looking pointless and the anti-bullying PSAs promised at the time I quieted down. I was also preparing to move from New York to Washington State later in the year which occupied much of my time. With a new state, new life, and the need for a new job I didn’t take up the matter again until the Salvation Army put itself in the new again by ~surprise~ discriminating against LGBTQ individuals.
In 2014 leaked internal documents from the Salvation Army said the following:
Leadership roles in denominational activities such as teaching or holding local officer roles require certain adherence to consistently held spiritual beliefs. This would apply to any conduct inconsistent with Salvation Army beliefs and would include same-sex sexual relationships.
For anyone in a Salvation Army ministry position, the theological belief regarding sexuality is that God has ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman and sexual activity is restricted to one’s spouse. Non-married individuals would therefore be celibate in the expression of their sexuality. This is the long-standing expectation of all individuals in ministry roles in The Salvation Army, including lay people.
I sent another e-mail to Rich Jureller and copied Director of Marketing John Durbin. (I believe I actually sent multiple e-mails copying several individuals but I have not been able to find them.) I reiterated my previous discussions with Jureller and attached the documents mentioned above while also quoting them in my e-mail. Let me remind you of Jureller’s own words:
If there is new evidence to show otherwise then we would take that into consideration.
This would seem to qualify. However, I received no replies. I made similar inquiries about the Boy Scouts, whom the Sabres have hosted on multiple occasions. Making Jureller’s next step for him, I reached out to the local Boy Scouts chapter as well. I received no replies. I did however receive the following in a separate conversation with Kevin Snow who was then a member of the Sabres public relations department:
I applaud your attempts at keeping the conversation alive. You obviously feel very strongly in what you believe in, and I hope you are successful in helping to make change in the future.
To be clear that’s one part of the public relations department telling me they hope I am successful in making my case to another part of the public relations department. Minimal reading between the lines necessary.
To take a step back, this was all going on at roughly the same time. Things above and below are slightly out of order, but only because it is easier to follow the narrative of each topic than to jump back and forth.
Somewhere in the middle the Buffalo Bisons (baseball), Syracuse Crunch (hockey), and Rochester Amerks (hockey) all played the homophobic Kiss Cam gag where two members of the opposing team are shown to jeers from the crowd because being gay is weak and deserving of ridicule, apparently. I was ultimately successful in getting all three to stop the practice though it took a variety of paths. (The Amerks’ incident was particularly galling as it happened the same week they released their You Can Play videos.)
The Amerks were immediately receptive. Their community relations director, Rob Crean, called me back within a few days and they ceased the practice. The Bisons blew me off with the woman listed in their directory as community relations berating me for calling her. I ultimately contacted the owners (who own several other minor league franchises in various sports) and they promised to discontinue the practice everywhere. The Syracuse Crunch ignored me for weeks and, after I applied pressure in various ways, said they were ending the practice anyway and that the referenced incident had been a mistake. (Whatever Crunch, as long as you stop.)
Jumping off my earlier request for information regarding arena staff and handling anti-LGBTQ bias, I decided to reach out to all 30 teams on the matter. That work can be reviewed here. I took a human approach in crafting my e-mail.
To Whom it may Concern,
I’m a longtime _____ fan and one who has the fortune of being able to move back into the area next season. As you can imagine, my life now is much different than it was in my childhood. I am a gay individual with a transgender partner, and while the NHL has made massive advances in terms of tolerance, not to mention the ___ with __(player)__’s participation in the You Can Play Project, there are still things that concern me.
Recently there was an incident where a gay couple was assaulted outside Madison Square Garden. I’m curious as to whether or not the __(Arena)__ staff has training in how to recognize and respond to incidents motivated by sexual orientation bias. With a transgender partner, I’m ALSO curious if the _____ staff is aware of what gender bathroom my partner should use by _____ law or _____city ordinances. I assume that the _____ are fully able to provide an entertaining and safe atmosphere, but with the current cultural landscape you can understand my concerns.
Again, I wanted to lay the easiest path forward for teams. The responses were by and large pretty good. Several teams contacted me directly to discuss the matter. The most heartwarming came out of Phoenix:
Their head of Arena Operations Jim Crann didn’t call me until Monday morning, but that was because he spent his own time Sunday evening personally researching Arizona state law in regards to transgender individuals. We had a long, and engaging conversation on the topic, and judging by the thoughtfulness and warmth of their front office, it’s a shame more Arizonians aren’t Coyotes fans.
Several teams didn’t respond, which was disappointing, but even worse was what came out of Buffalo (after three attempts):
Thank you for your email regarding restrooms at First Niagara Center.
We have single- stall unisex or” family” restrooms on each level of the arena.
I hope you will consider visiting us soon.
I’ll note above that I asked specifically about safety, which is something that every venue should be proactive in pursuing and ensuring. I can understand teams that didn’t respond either because they deemed it unnecessary or they were busy. (I think this is weak, but I understand it.) I cannot begin to decipher any reason for responding but ignoring the safety aspect other than incompetence or malice.
Then the Sabres hired Craig Kanalley to run their social media.
I was initially excited for the Kanalley hiring. He’d come from the Huffington Post, a fairly liberal and inclusive publication. I thought that, even if the majority of the front office remained homophobic, that the public face could begin to arc toward rainbows.
I was wrong. So wrong.
When Zemgus Girgensons and Jay McKee made homophobic comments, the team said nothing.
Oh, but they turned their avatar purple for a day (when literally every other NHL team also did so).
Kanalley has also shown an unwillingness or inability to moderate hate speech on the team’s social media pages. On more than one occasion I’ve informed him of racist or homophobic comments and waited for the response. And waited. And waited. And made the inaction public. And then gotten a response several hours or days later. Kanalley’s title is Manager of Social Media. Making sure the social media pages aren’t full of hate speech and harassment is part of the job. And there really aren’t that many comments. Most posts have between 20 and 40 entries that are 10-15 words.
The team has also, through a video posted on twitter, promoted goaltender Robin Lehner’s mask, which features a Trump decal. The decal is very prominent in the video posted by the team, albeit unmentioned. Coincidentally another Sabres goaltender, Anders Nilsson, sports a pride flag on his mask. The team has tweeted photos of Nilsson’s mask, but has not shown the Pride flag.
I don’t honestly know how much of this is Kanalley being handcuffed by the organization, how much of it is Kanalley being ignorantly positive and incredibly naive (in addition to unqualified), and how much of it is Kanalley having a lack of empathy for LGBTQ fans. The gamut of assumptions run from Kanalley being cowed and/or hopelessly naive to something more malicious.
Whether this is a reflection of ownership remains to be seen. The Pegulas have been sleazy at best, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pennsylvania politicians (where there is no limit on state campaign contributions) and using the Buffalo Sabres and their facilities to enlighten New York State politicians on the benefits of hydrofracking, where Pegula has made his money. The political campaign contributions total approximately $840,000, most of it to pro-oil and gas PACs and Republican politicians, notably Pat Toomey, Tom Corbett, Christopher Collins, John Boehner, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown and Paul Ryan. Many sites report this giving as bipartisan but the only donation to a Democratic campaign is $2,500 given to Friends of Schumer in 2012.
A quick search reveals that these politicians, while anti-LGBTQ, are also very pro-gas and oil. The latter presumably motivated Terry and Kim Pegula most, but I doubt the former gave them much pause. Whether the Pegulas are extremely conservative or not remains the source of much speculation, but none of it has been answered definitively. (That the Bills allegedly tried to prevent players from wearing Black Lives Matter cleats for the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats Campaign doesn’t bode well for the Pegulas, who also own Buffalo’s NFL franchise.)
Similarly the homophobia put forth by the continued, repeated actions of the Sabres organization and its members seems to suggest that the Pegulas are banking on the fans caring more about the success of their sports teams than the safety and well-being of their friends, brothers, and sisters.
I started off by being nice, by laying forth several easy paths forward for the Buffalo Sabres to allow them to step forward in a way that allowed them to be more supportive of LGBTQ fans with minimal effort and minimal backlash from bigots. I, and others who have helped me, did damage control for them in a number of ways. The organization responded in turn by deciding that catering to the comfort of the bigots was more important than reaffirming the safety and value of its most vulnerable fans.