The 2017 CWHL Draft takes place this Sunday. Fans of women’s hockey will be paying attention for more than just draft pick announcements. On Sunday we will finally have answers to some of the questions that have stood unanswered since the news of the CWHL’s expansion into China broke. When this article was written, the CWHL had not made an official statement about the Vanke Rays, but they will draft players on Sunday. So will Kunlun Red Star.
And there's this lovely graphic showing this year's CWHL draft order: Kunlun Red Star will draft sixth, Vanke Rays are seventh. pic.twitter.com/kIj3ZiHGqC
— The Ice Garden (@TheIceGarden) August 15, 2017
Even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the expansion we do know a few things. CWHL players from all seven teams will be playing in China for the 2017-18 season. That means they will be traveling to a country that is just 16 years removed from no longer listing homosexuality as an illness, and 20 years from decriminalizing homosexuality.
The CWHL was the first professional sports league to form a partnership with the You Can Play Project. That partnership has stood for four years and eight months. Its success has resulted in numerous You Can Play Nights hosted by the league. More importantly it has provided LGBTQ youth with a powerful example of strong, successful women who are out and proud.
— Sasky Stewart (@saskystewart) March 1, 2017
The league’s values, especially regarding inclusivity, clash with China’s LGBTQ track record. In June Reuters reported that the China Netcasting Services Association took another step to censor online content. The new regulations in place specifically target homosexuality, categorized as “abnormal sexual relations.”
China’s online content regulations are just the most recent example of the country’s complex history with LGBT rights. Last year China banned displays of same-sex relationships from television. The country still does not permit same sex marriage or foreign LGBT couples from adopting.
Outsports reported there were 56 out LGBT athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero. It was a record for the Olympics, but none of those athletes were from China. That prompted an article from the New York Times.
“[The absence of Chinese athletes] shows that the environment isn’t here for sexual minorities to come out yet,” Peng Yanhui, a spokesman for LGBT Rights Advocacy China told the Times last summer.
The 2022 Olympics in Beijing is the driving force behind the CWHL’s expansion into China. China wants a successful women’s hockey team. That is why wealthy Chinese businessmen have invested the money to make the expansion possible. That is also why Noora Räty, Kelli Stack and others are getting paid to be ambassadors.
Three years ago Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws released before the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games created a great deal of anxiety for the women’s hockey community. One of those players was current Les Canadiennes de Montreal star goaltender Charline Labonté.
She came out in an open letter published on Outsports and Lez Spread the Word in June 2014. In that letter she shared some of the concerns she and her teammates experienced:
“Of course, the new Russian laws, including the anti-gay “propaganda” laws, created a malaise that was felt by most people around me, gay or straight. Were we afraid? Of course! Were we in danger? No idea. We never had the intention to protest or talk about being gay. We were in Sochi for a single reason and that was to compete at the highest level of our capacities.”
It goes without saying that China is not Russia, but the LGBTQ community of mainland China still faces very real persecution and discrimination.
In a separate issue, China’s values do not always align with Canada’s, to put it mildly. The civil rights gap between the two nations could soon be coming under the spotlight when dozens of North American athletes, many of whom are out and/or outspoken LGBTQ activists, play in China for the first time.
Will we see Pride Tape wrapped around sticks in Shenzen next season? Will the two Chinese teams host You Can Play Nights? Only time will tell, but for the moment much remains unknown, which is par for the course regarding the CWHL’s historic expansion.
What we do know is that the CWHL and its players have a long track record of supporting and embracing the LGBTQ community. Hopefully that will travel with them overseas.