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Left field courage

I’ll begin by extending aroha to Campbell Johnstone – who, last week, revealed his identity as New Zealand’s first openly gay All Black.

Johnstone, who played for our international side back in 2005, shared his story with Seven Sharp’s Hilary Barry last Monday night. The former Crusaders prop hoped sharing his authentic self with the world would “take away the pressure and the stigma … and actually help other people”.

Our readers know I’m no sports connoisseur. But to see a New Zealand rugby player living his truth, after years of concealing it, felt extremely poignant. And the rugby community clearly felt the same – with Johnstone receiving a barrage of support.

The reaction from the general public has been interesting. Amongst the encouraging Facebook comments, a portion of “traditional” New Zealand is obviously sceptical. “Why is this newsworthy?” “Is his private life any of our business?” “Good on him – but don’t shove the gay thing down our throats.”

[Hilarious. A gay former All Black? Keep it in your bedroom, mate. Entire magazine spreads dedicated to Dan Carter’s wedding? Fair game. Make it make sense.]

Is Johnstone’s story newsworthy? It shouldn’t be. But for now, it’s pretty momentous – so let’s talk about it.

Firstly, for much of Aotearoa, rugby has been the pinnacle of hyper-masculinity. The All Blacks exemplified all the ideals: Dominant, stoic, brutal when necessary. True grit. Gay men, often stereotyped as feminine [thus lesser], have been excluded from that narrative.

Johnstone said it himself: “My dream was to be an All Black. Manly, strong, possibly had a wife and kids.”

Eighteen years since Johnstone left the team, attitudes have a ways to go. A 2020 study by Monash University found homophobic language was rife within New Zealand sports teams – to the point where 88 per cent of young sportspeople felt able to come out to their teammates.

Therefore, as Stuff sports reporter Paul Cully pointed out, Johnstone’s story is hugely significant – as it disrupts the outdated images of sexuality which still persist in sports codes.

“[Anti-gay slurs] often link homosexuality with weakness or deficiency. Now there is an All Blacks prop who has smashed the stereotypes underpinning that language.

“Johnstone’s coming out further adds to the narrative that rugby is for everyone.”

On that note, Johnstone’s story is crucial for young LGBTQ+ sportspeople. Rangatahi of all communities deserve to see themselves represented, including in sport.

As Andrew Rusbatch of the Christchurch Heroes Sports Trust told 1News, young queer men need role models from all sectors of society. There is more to gay culture than “glitter and hotpants”. Gay men are involved in high-performance sports – and, for young people struggling to find their place, their visibility matters.

We know sports stars can influence positive change. Rugby greats, from John Kirwan to Ardie Savea, have spoken candidly about mental health. Para-athletes have championed the inclusion of disabled New Zealanders. The Black Ferns have elevated the profile of women’s sport around the world.

And now we can see New Zealand rugby throwing its support behind the Rainbow community. We see sportspeople having tough conversations: how can we shift old perceptions of masculinity and sexuality? We see Johnstone sharing his journey with the current Crusaders side – and them listening with admiration.

Considering where we were … that’s powerful.

To quote fellow gay rugby player Dean Knight, “one day, no one will bat an eyelid when an All Black embraces his boyfriend to celebrate a hard-fought victory.” For now, we can celebrate sport in Aotearoa accepting differences, dismantling stereotypes, and welcoming marginalised communities.

I’d say that’s newsworthy – wouldn’t you?

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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