By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Ebti Nabag
By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Ebti Nabag
The stress and pain of hiding his sexuality nearly killed National Lacrosse League ref Kyle Kennery. Now he's hoping his story can help and heal others.

Kyle Kennery will take any excuse he can to jump on his Harley Davidson. Having parked his Road Glide after rumbling from the eastern edge of Hamilton to the western lip of Toronto, Kennery ditches his helmet and long pants for shorts, flip-flops and a trucker cap, fully embracing a warm May day. He takes a short stroll along the shore of Lake Ontario before plunking down on a picnic table-sized rock. The seagulls swirl and beachgoers soak up the sun while Kennery sorts through different chapters of his layered life story. Asked about the early phase of his arc, the 36-year-old dives into old memories, his smile growing widest when he shares the underlying spirit of his youth. “It was an era of, ‘Come home when the streetlights are on,’” he says. “I’d [head out the door] on a Saturday with five bucks in my pocket and ride to the next town.”

While the front wheel of Kennery’s BMX could turn in any number of directions, sports were always calling. In terms of scheduled games, he played hockey and lacrosse, and refereed both sports from a young age. When there was nothing formal punched into his calendar, Kennery took advantage by skateboarding, waterskiing or taking his clubs to the golf course. Staying home wasn’t a bad option, either, what with the pool and hot tub in the backyard. The Kennery house — located in Georgetown, Ont. — was often a hive of activity, and if you’d peeked over the fence, it would have been easy to assume the gregarious guy in the middle of the action was having the most fun. But while the happiness was genuine in many respects, it did not represent the full picture. On the inside, Kennery was frequently churning, convinced he had no choice but to completely conceal parts of himself from the world. “Knowing that I wasn’t straight was really hard on my psyche,” he says.

Kennery says he sometimes felt like an undercover cop, doing whatever was required to blend into his surroundings. In this case, the environment was the hyper-masculine sporting circles of a working-class town. Homophobic slurs were an unchecked part of everyday life. Kennery bristles thinking about the language he used then, aware now that he likely damaged other people who similarly felt they had to hide parts of themselves. “I was pretending to be some heterosexual male,” he says. “And a heterosexual male living in Georgetown who played hockey and lacrosse said things like ‘f–.’”

If the father of two and National Lacrosse League referee ever hurt people with his words, he’s now trying to counterbalance that by sharing his story. No stranger to pain himself — Kennery was the victim of sexual abuse as a child and is a recovering alcoholic — he aspires to be a queer role model in the sports realm, something he wished he’d had growing up. Kennery — who first made the leap to publicly share he is pansexual last winter — is almost giddy reciting the interactions he’s had with those who’ve been touched by his tale. “[I’ve] had people from all over North America reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’ve never told anybody, but this is how I identify,’” he says. “I feel super honoured.”

Those conversations have only cemented Kennery’s desire to help an already-changing world further evolve, as he carves out a new life stage coloured by purpose and a growing sense of peace.

Kennery grew up in a house full of competitors, so much so that Monopoly had to be outlawed for the sake of preserving family harmony. Kyle’s younger brother, Bryan, played every sport under the sun. The boys’ mom, Patti, had a passion for basketball and golf, and will still lay out to make a dig on the beach volleyball court. Their father, Kevin, was a former major junior hockey player who represented the St. Catharines Black Hawks in the 1974 Memorial Cup and coached many of Kyle’s hockey and lacrosse teams. Gumption was never an issue for Kyle, who carried that same spine to refereeing. On one occasion, Kyle’s strong will led to Kevin getting a call from somebody at the rink telling him to jump in the car and head over. Kevin soon learned his son was calling a pee wee game when he requested a belligerent fan be booted from the premises. The sizeable man refused to leave, so Kyle dug in and said the contest wouldn’t restart until his ruling was followed. Things got hot enough that someone decided Kevin better get on the scene. Not every teenager would stand tall in the face of that much adult anger, but Kyle never budged. “He had a lot of confidence in himself early,” Kevin says.

He certainly didn’t second-guess himself when it came to becoming an official. Kennery had done typical early teen jobs like working at Tim Hortons and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fast food, it turned out, couldn’t hold a candle to what he was doing with a whistle. “None of [the other jobs] were as fun as being involved in hockey and lacrosse, and they definitely didn’t pay as well,” he says.

With a little dough in his pocket, Kennery was able to indulge some of his fancies. A clothes-conscious guy, he filled out his closet a bit. He was also drawn to the flashy white skates Nike produced. Once in a while, friends would needle Kennery over the care he put into his appearance. “As we used to say, ‘metrosexual,’” says Kyle Termini, Kennery’s pal since their early elementary school days.

“I was essentially trying to brainwash myself and say, ‘Hey, maybe you can do this.’”

Comments like that — to say nothing of coarser ones — could wound Kennery. He knew his sexual desires weren’t limited to girls, but also felt there was no chance people would understand if he came clean about the way he felt. Even as early as 12 or 13 years old, he turned to alcohol to cope. Binge drinking not only tamped down his anxiety, it also became a badge of honour: Only a real man could pound the bottle all night and stay standing. “Especially in this macho-bravado jock world, it became this superpower, almost,” he says.

Among the positive influences in Kennery’s life was an inspirational Grade 7 teacher who left a mark with a message about the importance of helping others. Years later, when it came time to choose a post-secondary avenue, Kennery opted for the child and youth counselor program at London’s Fanshawe College. Graduation day was notable not only because he’d earned his diploma, but also because he invited a girl he’d dated in high school to attend the festivities with him. Kennery and Nicole [not her real name] wound up engaged a year later and married before they were 25.

With a day job counselling, Kennery continued to spend evenings following his passion for refereeing both hockey and lacrosse. At one point — between the two sports — he was at the rink roughly 25 nights out of the month, taking games anywhere he could to refine his abilities. Termini, a former Jr. A tough guy with the hometown Georgetown Raiders, said Kennery’s communication skills are a big part of what allowed him to excel in stripes. “I think players liked him because of that,” Termini says. “If he was reffing [a player like] me, he would know how to start the game if I was on the ice: come talk to me before the game [and say], ‘You do this, this or this, you’re gone.’”

Through a series of tournaments and showcases, Kennery worked his way up the ladder. He actually had an Ontario Hockey League tryout in the late summer of 2012, calling an exhibition game that involved a hot-shot kid named Connor McDavid. On the lacrosse side of things, he started officiating games at the junior level, then in a semi-pro league. Along the way, NLL executive vice-president of lacrosse operations Brian Lemon got a look at Kennery in action and liked what he saw. In 2015, Kennery made the jump to North America’s premier lacrosse league. “There’s nothing like being front-row centre for just a barn-burner when the boys are rolling and there’s just that great energy,” he says. “And you can contribute to that balance of safety — because that’s ultimately our biggest responsibility, keep everyone safe — but the boys are battling and they’re playing competitively. That’s the dream.”

As for holy matrimony, there were certainly blissful parts. Life-of-the-party Kyle and more-reserved Nicole were trailblazers in their friend group, getting hitched young and having kids early because they wanted to be energetic parents. (Kennery’s son was actually born the night before he got his OHL tryout.) But even with youth on his side, Kennery’s existence was becoming exhausting. His hard drinking had spilled into his early adult years, whether it was putting a tough workday behind him with whiskey and wine, draining beers on the golf course or really letting loose with friends on the weekend. Alcohol indulgence was also a crutch he leaned on as he tried to beat back the fact he longed for a broader sexual experience.

“I was essentially trying to brainwash myself and say, ‘Hey, maybe you can do this,’” he says. “I knew on my wedding day I had attractions to genders other than females and yet I still went forward with it. My only regret is [I wish] I’d been honest [with myself and Nicole] from the start.”

Kennery surely had no idea that speaking up in class at Fanshawe could greatly influence the trajectory of his life. The discussion in the counselling program that particular day centred on the various forms sexual abuse can take. As the conversation pushed past common examples of abuse to explore wider definitions, Kennery — one of the few men in a classroom mostly made up of young women — had a revelation. “I was like, ‘Shit, that’s what happened to me in one situation,’” he says.

To this day, Kennery does not get into the details of what he experienced when he was 12. What he will share is that the encounters were with people outside his family. In one instance he was abused by a male, while the other instance was with a female. That day in class, though, Kennery did speak up, sharing — maybe even for the first time — what he’d experienced. “I was like, ‘Hey, that happened to me. Here’s the story,” he says. “And I remember the girl sitting beside me going like, ‘That doesn’t really count, eh.’ And I shut up. That cost me 10 years; I never talked about it again [for that long].”

“I was done pretending to be somebody and someone I wasn’t. I was just so exhausted from this constant façade and this constant show.”

Given everything he was carrying around and how he was behaving, it’s amazing Kennery made it as long as he did without crumbling. While he has no shortage of alcohol-related regrets, he acknowledges things could have been much more severe since his lifestyle easily could have resulted in an arrest, even death for himself or someone else. Hard drugs entered the scene by his 30s. Eventually, he hit the wall. On that day, Kennery walked into the principal’s office at the school where he worked as a counsellor and said, through sobs, he had to go home. Nicole met him there, and Kennery — who had only come out to Termini and one other friend at that point — tossed her the key to his vault. “I just remember feeling like, ‘I’m so tired of feeling like a piece of shit,’” he says. “I think it was the first time depression had really taken a hold of me. Even my best friends — who were awesome, really amazing people, people I respected and cared about — would make off-hand comments because they didn’t know I was queer. You can only sweep so much under the rug. I was just done. I was done lying to the woman I loved. I was done pretending to be somebody and someone I wasn’t. I was just so exhausted from this constant façade and this constant show.”

In a perfect world, turning to the next chapter would be a straightforward exercise. Of course, things are rarely that easy. With young children to care for and lots of love in the house, Kennery and Nicole didn’t immediately conclude their union had to end. But other changes were clearly necessary. In the fall of 2019, a couple years after coming out to his family, Kennery decided to leave drugs and alcohol behind for good. Before checking himself into a treatment clinic, he started sharing his truths — including being a survivor of abuse — with wider friend circles. “I said I’m going off to rehab for 40 days and here’s a whole big gambit of why,” he says. “I just laid it all out.”

Kennery had been out of treatment for a few months by the late winter of 2020. Though he had come out to many people in his life at that point, Kennery was still struggling to wrap his brain around exactly how life was going to change. He held strong and abstained from alcohol, but just could not get himself to a stable place mentally. “I was just white-knuckling it too hard,” he says.

Early one morning just before the pandemic hit, he lost his grip. Alone in his bedroom, with his wife and kids in other parts of the house, Kennery pulled out his phone and called his mom, dad and brother to say goodbye. Purely by chance, nobody answered. Kennery swallowed sleeping pills in the hopes he’d never wake up. The next thing he remembers is doing just that at the hospital and seeing a nurse he knew; she was one half of a couple he and Nicole were friendly with and whose kids played with theirs.

“Not only am I waking up with this shame and regret, I’m waking up looking at a familiar face,” he says of the experience. “I know I scared a lot of people and I hurt a lot of people. Everybody says, ‘Hey, man, don’t ever let yourself get there again.’ It’s hard to explain that I was just in a dark hole. I was still, like, hating myself. I didn’t feel like a good father; I didn’t feel like a good husband. Depression and anxiety had really gotten the best of me, and I felt like I was just done. I was still sober, but I hadn’t really come to terms with everything and I still felt like I was full of shit, like I was this fake person.”

From that raw place, Kennery began laying the track on a new existence. He moved in with his mom while he got back on his feet. That meant leaving the home he shared with Nicole and the kids, a place that — through all his struggles — often resembled his own childhood home in terms of whirling action and affection. “Our divorce had nothing to do with falling out of love,” he says, noting Nicole’s support for him never wavered. “It was about going a new direction.”

Kennery was a great hockey defenceman and his fast, take-no-prisoners mentality, prompted Kevin to nudge his son toward the idea of trying to play AAA. Kyle, though, was happy skating in Georgetown with his buddies. All these years later, one of those old teammates — a former blue-line partner, in fact — sought out Kennery after reading his first-person piece on Outsports. The man told Kennery — who crafted the article about one year after his suicide attempt as a way to blow the doors open on a new life — that he was out as a gay man and living happily with his partner. He also said he hoped he was never one of those people who hurt Kyle with the type of language that got thrown around with as much care as used hockey tape in the dressing room. “I was like, ‘Damn, there you go!” Kennery says. “Somebody I grew up playing sports with is in the same boat as me and lived a lot of those similar injustices.”

Making the world a more inclusive and compassionate place is one of several things motivating Kennery these days. He doesn’t hold a grudge against the young woman from college who minimized his abuse so many years ago, but he can’t help but wonder how his timeline for recovery might have been accelerated had he been met with understanding and acceptance that day. He’s now trying to provide that empathy to others who might need it. Termini has long known his best bud to be the kind of person who not only instinctively lends a shoulder, but always finds a way to strike the right chords. “He can definitely get you with his words,” Termini says.

Kennery is truly touched when people, some of them total strangers, reach out with their stories. His advice for those who are hesitant to come out is to give people the chance to amaze you with how supportive and understanding they can be. “And in that shitty situation where somebody comes out to their parents and they get shut down,” he says, “there’s going to be someone else who will love you and accept you.”

Kennery is living in Stoney Creek, about a 45-minute drive from the children he cares so much about and the former wife he maintains a healthy relationship with. He sees the kids on weekends now, but hopes to be a 50-50 parent down the road, as his new life continues to take form. Staying sober is a day-at-a-time endeavour involving a reliance on well-established routines, including two five-kilometre runs and two 10Ks per week. That regimen has gotten a self-acknowledged “vain person” looking and feeling great. “He’s got his energy back. He’s got his swagger back,” says Kevin. “That’s the guy we missed.”

Kennery — who still referees hockey at various junior levels — can’t wait to call NLL games again next winter, when the league re-emerges from a pandemic-driven hiatus. He has also returned to counselling — pre-treatment, he took a detour into the world of sales and realized that wasn’t the job for him — and runs professional development sessions aimed at informing people about LGBTQ2S+ rights. He acknowledges the LGBTQ2S+ “alphabet” can be daunting for some, and all he asks of people is to come at the conversation with an open heart. Kennery is happy to explain his own pansexual identity and gives a little can-you-believe-it head shake over the somewhat-rich fact that when he does encounter pushback these days, it often comes from an unlikely place. “Gender, for me, is not the boundary of my attraction,” he says. “That, I find, is the hardest thing to communicate — that idea that, if I were to date a woman, is that going to be [received by people saying], ‘Oh, I thought you said you were queer?’ Well, I’m pansexual. Women are still part of that equation. There’s this really weird situation where there are times within the queer community that people who are gay say, ‘Oh, it’s just a transition phase.’ ‘Phase’ is everyone’s favourite word! Why can’t I just be me?”

The answer, of course, is that he can. And that’s great news for a lot of people.

Photo Credits

Ebti Nabag/Sportsnet