TORONTO, ON- As the clock closed in on midnight on Tuesday, December 16, 2020, Mackenzie Dunford had a decision to make.
The post was sitting there, on the website they had made just for this moment, waiting to be shared. It was not unlike a similar one they had made a month before announcing their commitment to the York University Football Program.
This time was different though, the hulking six-foot-four defensive lineman was not announcing news they were joining a U SPORTS athletic program. This was different and deeply personal.
The post sat there, the title staring back, “When I came out….”
The story within the post told of Dunford’s experience coming out as bisexual and gender non-binary privately to their family but also expressing a wish to come forward and help others who were closeted. Doing that, though, meant taking the step and posting that story for the world to see.
Questions popped into the 19-year-old’s head, “Did I make the right decision? What’s going to be the response? How much hate am I going to get was a big one.” said Dunford. “It was just a lot of anxiety.”
“Ultimately, though, I knew if I was going through it, others were going through it too.”
Finally, at 11:40 pm, Dunford hit send. It was time to move forward.
Growing up a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan in Inverary, Ontario, a small township twenty minutes north of Kingston, football was a time for family for Dunford and their father. “My dad and I watched the CFL; we used to like to sit down and watch the Labour Day Classic.”
It was a chance meeting, though, on the first day at Adam Scott Collegiate Vocational Institute in Peterborough that convinced Dunford the game might be more than something to watch on TV. “One of my Grade 8 teachers was the Head Coach for the Junior Football team at my high school, I walked into class the first day, and he was like, I want you on my team next year.”
“I had a hard time that first year; I ended up not playing much because of injuries, but I came back the next year and fell in love with the sport and didn’t look back.”
Despite limited experience, thanks in part to their large frame, Dunford quickly found themself a place as a starting lineman for Adam Scott. “I started on the defensive line, mostly because that’s where I was able to learn quickly.”
Following three years at Adam Scott, Dunford transferred close to home, to Sydenham High School just 10 minutes west of Inverary for their senior year. Coming back to the Kingston area was a change for the then 17-year-old, but they quickly found a home on both sides of the ball for the Sydenham Golden Eagles. “When I moved to Sydenham, they put me on the defensive and on the offensive line as well, as we didn’t have as many people.”
On the field in 2019-2020, the Golden Eagles excelled, finishing fourth in the regular season but pushing to the semi-finals of the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Association playoffs. Off the field, Dunford struggled with questions about both their sexual and gender identity. In a masculine-culture-dominated sport like football, these questions led to self-doubts.
“There were a lot of times where I was like ‘should I even be playing football? Do I feel like this because I’m not “a man?”, is this still a sport for me?”
Dunford graduated from Sydenham but despite announcing in March 2020, their commitment to Vanier College in Montreal, they headed to Quebec unsure of what their future path would be. With the football season at Vanier cancelled due to COVID-19 though, it afforded a chance for U SPORTS programs to quickly come calling. One of those programs was the York Lions.
“I hadn’t even thought about York until I was at Vanier, and we started talking, but we hit the recruiting blackout,” said Dunford. “After the blackout, Coach Okpro messaged me and said, “Hey, we are interested in you; if you are still interested, I would like to give you a call.”
Despite also having positive conversations with the programs at Concordia and Laurier, ultimately, it was the academic supports at York that drew Dunford into becoming a Lion.
“I liked some of the programs they have at York for the football teams, the academic programs because I know that’s something I know I have struggled with, so knowing York has the people in place when you are struggling, that helps my decision.”
Finally, on November 7, 2020, the announcement went up, Dunford was committed to the Lions.
Despite things on the field changing, Dunford knew coming out was the step they needed to take to move forward personally. “I kind of started thinking about it while I was in Montreal in September and October,” Dunford said. “I came back home and started doing some research; I looked in Canada and U SPORTS, there are not many LGBTQ athletes who were out.”
“I knew I needed to do it, and I figured, while I was doing this fresh start going to university, I didn’t have the pressure of knowing a lot of people, so I was restarting everything. So I just kind of decided this is a good time for me to come out and be myself for the next four or five years.”
In their mind, the site had a simple goal. “What I did was I set up a website to teach people about LGBTQ people in sports, talk about experiences, and talk about my experiences as a closeted non-binary player in football.”
The morning of December 16, the site quietly launched, and that night, Dunford made the decision, hit send, posted their story and stepped into a new reality.
The following day, despite the initial fears, Dunford was blown away by the reaction to the post. “It blew up on Twitter, a coach from Laurier found my tweet, retweeted it and shared it with his whole team, his team slowly started retweeting it, and then a lot of the York players found it and started tweeting it as well.”
“The OUA Twitter page found it, as well the U SPORTS page, and retweeted it, and that’s when I started getting tweets from around the world,” said Dunford.
Tweets from people from Texas, Mexico, Germany all congratulating Dunford on their courage and offering support. “A lot of people were like, ‘I support you one hundred percent if there is anything I can do, message me, and a few guys even referred me to people they know that have come out recently.”
For Dunford, worried about taking such a step, such a positive reaction gave them hope about attempting to start a shift. “You hear a lot about the bad stuff but the good stuff just kind of sits there until you get to see it yourself.”
Seven months later heading toward Fall 2021, the original goal was to join the Lions football program this upcoming season but like so many, COVID-19 threw Dunford’s life into some turmoil. They found themself laid off due to the pandemic, the ramifications of which are still being felt. “I do have to skip this season due to COVID financial difficulties.”
While a first opportunity to suit up in the red and white will not come until 2022, Dunford views it as an opportunity to keep growing. “I’m disappointed, but all my energy is going to be to get to York in the winter and putting myself in the best personal and financial spot to get there.”
As for LGBTQSports.com? “I’m doing a lot of research right now to find things to write about,” said Dunford. “I’m going to be doing a post about what allies can do to help, different teaching posts, I’m trying to make it as big as possible”
Off the field, although it’s taken some getting used to the attention stepping into the spotlight can bring, Dunford is ready to help others in the LGBTQ+ community, whether athlete or not, in whatever way they can. “A few people have already told me thanks for the website because it helped them realize that they weren’t alone and that other people could be in the sport that they love and struggling.”
- To read deeper into Dunford’s personal experience please visit their website at: https://lgbtqsports.wordpress.com/