Before his death last week in an Indiana automobile accident, Brendan Burke’s presence on Wikipedia was limited to a single line added last November to the bottom of his father’s page. The son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke had publicly revealed that he was gay, and that his famously hot-tempered father was supportive.
The announcement wouldn’t normally have been particularly newsworthy, except for the clashing of two frequently divergent worlds: male professional sports and open homosexuality. Not only do homophobic taunts continue to bleat from stadium stands, but openly gay pro athletes have been virtually invisible. Following the revelation, Brendan Burke’s story became international news, particularly on gay-oriented blogs and in the sports media.
Then, on February 5, a snowstorm and a car crash. Brendan Burke was killed, along with his passenger, 18-year-old university athlete Mark Reedy. A Wikipedia article was created the following day and promptly marked for deletion by an editor. The reason given was that Brendan Burke may not be notable enough to warrant his own entry, in accordance to Wikipedia’s notability guidelines.
“A sports star coming out is noteworthy, but somehow I can’t help but think this move to delete is inspired by homophobia,” an anonymous commenter complains.
When a Wikipedia page is flagged, the onus is often on the user-driven community to revise the article with “reliable, secondary sources” to justify inclusion in the online encyclopedia. Like contributors, Wikipedia editors are oft-accused of personal agendas, and some users in the ensuing deletion discussion question whether this was another case of “gaywashing”; others say that Wikipedia is just sticking to its policies.
“Brendan’s chief accomplishments appear to be (a) being related to a notable person; (b) coming out as gay, and (c) dying young,” says user FisherQueen. “Wikipedia is not a memorial.”
“His orientation is the key to his importance,” counters Justacat66. “He is one of an incredibly small group of athletes/people involved in mainstream pro athletics who had dared to go public with his orientation – this alone makes him worthy of an article of his own.”
Self-described hockey journalist RGTraynor proposes a merger into Brian Burke’s entry. “He was a high school hockey player (which is not in of itself notable), did some broadcasting (which is not in of itself notable), was the son of a more famous man (which is not in of itself notable),” says “Coming out is pretty much all that can be considered noteworthy, and a section on him could be handled in two paragraphs.”
At this point, there’s probably been enough support expressed to preserve the entry on Wikipedia, and the homophobia accusation is shaky at best, but the gist of the controversy is rooted less in Burke’s death than in the reverberating effects of his coming out. The stories of gay children become highly newsworthy when the issue contrasts with the views or careers of their prominent parents—that’s why Mary Cheney and Maya Keyes have their own Wikipedia pages. Brendan Burke may only have existed in the public consciousness for a matter of months, but clearly his truncated, but important history deserves its own entry on Wikipedia. That’s difficult to argue against as long as Frances Bean Cobain gets one.