If you asked Claire Buchanan if she feels as if she defied the odds, being born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, she would share with you in the humblest manner how she has defied them for some thirty-six years later by living in a society that does not understand what a queer, disabled, high-performance athlete contends with living in Canada, but she’s grateful for the unwavering support by those closest to her throughout the years.
Knowing instinctively, as a mother does, that life may present challenges to her soon-to-be teenage daughter, Buchanan’s mother Sue began searching for sporting opportunities within the community and discovered Cruisers Sports.
The younger Buchanan immediately began playing Para Ice Hockey. Around the same time, they discovered the Burlington Vipers wheelchair basketball team, coached by Chris Chandler.
While she had Chandler early in her career, she remarks that he was the first coach she looked up to with appreciation and gratitude. “If I could choose a coach, Chris would be the person I would choose to be coached by.”
Through that opportunity, after years of hard work and dedication to her craft, Buchanan was offered a scholarship to play collegiately with the Alabama Crimson Tide Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team where she was a two-time national champion.
After relocating to the United States for two seasons to play for Alabama, Buchanan came home, where she trained in Toronto at the Toronto Pan Am Centre with the Canadian Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team. She was a member of Team Canada from 2014 to 2018.
As she began to realize her career in wheelchair basketball was winding down, she heard through a teammate at that time that a group of individuals were trying to create a Canadian Women’s Para Ice Hockey team and asked if she would be interested in trying out for the team.
“After not being involved in the sport for eight years, I went out and bought a sled. I immediately realized I was going to have to relearn everything all over again. I didn’t just pick it up easy.”
Void of being a proud, queer disabled mom, Buchanan prides herself on the advocacy she carries with her every single day.
She recognizes that although she sits amongst many intersectionality including being a disabled, queer, high-performance athlete who is also a mom; she wouldn’t change it for the world.
“I’m proud that I can lead by example, not only on the ice and within the circles of which I’m a part but also in my son's life.”
Away from the rink and the home, Claire was fortunate enough to land an opportunity to be a part of Accessible Media Incorporated “The Neutral Zone”, a podcast that explores para sports and mainstream sports. She was the first woman named to the panel in mid-2019. “I was first connected to the show as a guest to talk about women's para hockey.” Claire explains that this experience opened up doors to more opportunities, networking, career paths, and meaningful conversations.
It's no secret that being part of the queer community can be exhilarating but frustrating all at once, which can present a dichotomy, but Claire does her best to take it all in stride living in downtown Toronto year-round, especially during June, which is Pride month.
Claire describes the views of Pride and sports, “it also shines a light on those negative views people do have. We see it in professional sports during Pride month that people speak up and speak through hate and not being accepting of everyone and we see the consequences of that.”
Claire reiterates that ignorance comes from a lack of understanding, and therefore having these authentic conversations can lead to more education and equity.
But as a disabled queer individual, Buchanan admits that it can be a bit challenging to celebrate herself not only during Pride month but all year round as spaces within the city and more specifically in the downtown core gay village isn’t necessarily accessible.
“As a disabled queer person, we are shut out of a lot of events and being able to be fully a part of Pride because the city and the building and the way that the city is navigated is that the spaces that are part of the queer community aren’t always accessible.”
For Claire to celebrate with others who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs, it is integral that spaces and events like those at Pride Month be accessible to all.
Although Buchanan has found it difficult at times to feel as if she’s welcomed and included in the overall society, she feels as if she’s had a different experience while being part of a team at the rink and in the locker room while participating within the many Para Hockey programs, she’s lucky enough to be a part of.
“Sport has one of the spaces where I’ve felt comfortable for me. Being a part of women’s sports, I’ve had a lot of teammates who are out and have been comfortable being out […]”.
Claire indicates that there continues to be a good amount of representation and that she’s never experienced any kind of hate. She strongly believes that nothing has changed from the way teammates, coaches or opponents have treated her while also suggesting that she’s never wanted to change anyone’s mind.
Claire expresses gratitude about how safe she feels within the queer and para hockey communities. She ends by sharing “I absolutely feel safe. I’ve found my way back to para hockey at a time when I was desperate to find a space where I felt supported and loved.”
Along with the challenges faced by being part of many different sects of society, Claire faces many difficulties not only being a high-performance athlete but an open queer high-performance Para Hockey player in Canada. It’s a sport that isn’t recognized enough due to the fact it’s a female sport and that it’s played by a substantially marginalized community overall.
“At the disabled level, there’s not enough money, there is not enough broadcasting, just not enough representation and investment."
Acknowledging the struggles that one has faced along the way is difficult for anyone, but discovering how to exist so that you and those around you can live in harmony is something that she acknowledges may have only come after being part of multiple high-performance sports and the programs associated with them and many hours of self-reflection.
Claire states that she has learned to live authentically. She acknowledges that she is a representation of the queer and disability communities. “It’s not that I am trying to be intentional, but in a sense it’s like, look at me, I’m here, whether you’re queer or straight or whoever you are in this world.”
Claire explains that disabled and queer people are part of marginalized groups in society. They have to be louder and take up space. She adds that we must find a way whether it be in partnerships or individually to build more equitable and equal playing fields across the board.
Additionally, when speaking about the idea of opportunities because she lives amongst so many intersectionality, Buchanan pulls no punches and is brutally honest about how on the one hand she’s been very lucky, but on the other, it feels like it’s been a never-ending struggle. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle, because of the state of the current Para Women’s Ice Hockey.”
Buchanan’s fight for equity and equality has been a lifelong journey so when she discovered that the fight for Women's Para Ice Hockey was going to be a battle she was not surprised.
She knows that for the greater community to be successful it requires support and the right level of funding for the women's game to be represented at the Paralympic Games. Although she is a disabled queer woman, she is unable to access certain resources she feels would help benefit her, but on the other hand the experiences she has been able to have and that she knows she’ll continue to experience are also due to her intersectionality as a queer, disabled female athlete.
As for her hope for the future of queer people in spaces, Buchanan believes that although more spaces exist that are safe for everyone to enjoy and to just simply be today, it continues to be a collective effort on everyone’s part moving forward. “To be able to walk in spaces and not feel like your safety is threatened. That is the one thing I wish I could change because that’s what Pride is.”
They are not asking for anything extra and just want the same respect and laws as everyone else.
Claire has been fortunate enough to have many role models throughout her experience in Para Sports and life, but when asked about who she feels she has been able to look up to and connect with on a personal and professional level she mentions Brock McGillis.
Brock is known to have created a network called the Alphabet Sports Collective which creates safer spaces for queer individuals in sports and has been an integral part of Claire’s journey in broadcast journalism.
Claire has had the opportunity to connect with many individuals in her parasport journey that have had impacts on her. One of these is her coach Chris Chandler that helped shape her. Currently, she is coached by Tara Chisholm and Derek Whitson who embody the idea of “making everyone feel welcome and safe where their voices matter.”
Even though she has become an advocate within the spaces she has been lucky to share about, she feels that she still gets nervous but it’s worth it because as she says, “I get this thrill and I have seen the benefits of what it does having those conversations. The growth alone you experience, it’s worth it.”
Due to her experience with advocating for certain spaces and a multitude of different groups, she has been lucky enough to connect with like-minded genuine individuals who are helping create safe spaces for hockey players young and old of every ability including Rink of Dreams founder Elise Weiss.
The Rink of Dreams is a backyard ice rink, that they also turn into a ball hockey surface so that it can be used all year round.
It has allowed people from different backgrounds, walks of life and organizations to utilize while appreciating and growing the game many of us have grown to love, appreciate and have helped escape from the difficulties we face in our day-to-day lives.
Buchanan doesn’t necessarily lament her experiences growing up however she has some pretty sound advice for her younger self and the hope for generations that look up to her as a role model.
“Don’t believe the negativity. No matter what you do in life there are going to be moments of you can't and you don’t belong here, your voice doesn’t matter.”
Her hope for future generations is that they can get more support. Buchanan has a keen understanding that although able-bodied and disabled people live separately, for them to move ahead and live in unison it’s up to all of us to be allies.
Her journey as an advocate continues and will be lifelong, she knows that although exhausting at times, that it’s important and at the end of the day it’s entirely worth it; “I’ve learned to pace myself but to give myself some grace.”
Claire's mental health is of the utmost importance to her however with that in mind she knows that she will continue to work hard and shape the communities in which she has had a connection. Buchanan wants generations after her to remember to live their most authentic selves and excel no matter what their path is.
The legacy that she wants to leave led her to “create the first queer and allied para hockey team to hopefully play this season.”
One thing is for certain, despite everything she’s faced in her life, it’s evident that no matter how hard she has had to work at it; she’ll leave the earth better than when she first arrived.