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Campbell Johnstone is more than a headline. He’s made history. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Campbell Johnstone is more than a headline. He’s made history. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONSportsFebruary 2, 2023

A gay All Black is a big deal

Campbell Johnstone is more than a headline. He’s made history. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Campbell Johnstone is more than a headline. He’s made history. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

After Monday night, the accepted narrative around rugby, sexuality and masculinity will never be quite the same, writes Sam Brooks.

If you tuned into Seven Sharp on Monday night, you probably did so unaware that you were about to watch a history-making interview. After a wholesome segment with two lifeguards helping out their community during the record-breaking floods, Hilary Barry sat down for a chat with New Zealand’s first openly gay All Black.

As we all now know, that All Black was Campbell Johnstone, who played three tests for the national team as a prop. In his interview with Hilary Barry, he said his reasons for coming out now were to take away the pressure and stigma surrounding “that whole issue”, and so that the public will know there is at least one All Black who is gay. Statistically, of course, it’s highly likely there are many more among the 1207 players ever to be named an All Black.

After the interview, the news went national, and then international, with the BBC and Reuters among the media organisations reporting on Johnstone’s announcement. 

It is, without a doubt, a big deal. So why doesn’t it feel like a big deal to many of us?

Campbell Johnstone (left), Derren Witcombe and Clarke Dermody during an All Black trial. (Photo: Ross Land/Getty Images)

Before Monday night, if you asked a member of the public who they thought the first openly gay All Black would be, the answer almost certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell Johnstone.

One reason is that Campbell Johnstone isn’t actually an All Black right now. You hear “first openly gay All Black” and you think of someone who is currently in the squad. And it’s true – of course it would be bigger news if a current All Black announced he was gay.

Secondly, Campbell Johnstone isn’t a widely known name. He’s not endorsing a chemist chain, he’s not on Celebrity Treasure Island, and he’s not dancing with any stars. Somewhat ironically though, Monday’s news makes him suddenly more famous than most of the current All Blacks line-up. Your gay friend in Aotearoa might be able to name a few members of the team, but your gay friend in America sure as hell can’t. Now they know Campbell Johnstone.

Thirdly, and I think most crucially, TVNZ made the right decision in not promoting the interview days in advance. Imagine for one moment if Seven Sharp had announced on Friday that they had an exclusive interview with the first openly gay All Black coming on Monday. There’d be only one question on everyone’s minds.

“Who is it?”

If I had found out on Friday that Seven Sharp had that exclusive, you bet your gay ass I would have been Sherlocking my way through All Black lineups, zooming in on photos, looking through headlines, all in the service of figuring out who the mystery gay All Black was. I would’ve hit up my two friends who are into rugby and be like, “Who do you think it is? Is it this one? Is it this one? Tell me, you must know something!”

If it feels gross reading that, good! It should. That’s what would have happened on social media and in text chains across the country ahead of the interview and, to be fair, that’s human nature. When you raise that particular rainbow question mark, people want it answered, immediately. Hell, there’s a whole subset of Taylor Swift fans dedicated to analysing her lyrics, music videos and even paparazzi photos to find proof that she is, in fact, gay – despite having only publicly been in long term relationships with men. It can seem less invasive when it’s focused on some distant overseas celebrity, but the fact remains that speculating about somebody’s sexuality is speculating about something that is, frankly, none of your damn business.

Taylor Swift is not an All Black, and is unlikely to ever be one. Which brings us back to the significance of Campbell Johnstone stepping forward. When we think of an All Black, we think of a big masculine guy. We don’t think of a gay man. Until now.

The Probables front row of Campbell Johnstone (left), Derren Witcombe and Tony Woodcock pack down for scrum practice during the Captains Run at McLeans Park in Napier, New Zealand, Thursday, June 2nd, 2005. (Photo: Tim Whittaker/Getty Images)

Johnstone isn’t just the first openly gay All Black. He’s the first openly gay prop – when he played he was a big, beefy dude with the build of a tradie. He wasn’t the star of the team. He wasn’t a rugby hero. He was just one guy among a bunch of guys; one of the team. 

On Monday evening a whole lot of New Zealanders sat in front of their TV and had their image of what a gay man looks like, and what a gay man can be, disrupted. A gay man can be an All Black. An All Black can be gay. A gay man can be part of the country’s most famous sporting institution and, for better or worse, its most prominent symbol of masculinity.

That disruption is important. It sounds obvious, even remedial, but the more that we realise that minorities don’t have to look, sound, act – or play rugby – in a certain way, the safer those minorities are. (And the better society is!)

That’s not the only disruption that happened, though. A lot of gay kids, gay boys, gay men, sat in front of that screen too and realised not just that they could be an All Black and still be true to themselves, but now they wouldn’t ever have to carry the burden of being the first.

Johnstone told Hilary Barry that when he came out to his friends and family, it was like he’d told them that “we’re out of milk” – it really wasn’t a big deal. But it’s a big deal to the rest of us.  By telling his story in public, on a screen, in front of all New Zealanders and potentially millions more across the world, he’s made it a little easier for every kid who has to step out of the closet and onto the rugby pitch after him. 

This week, Campbell Johnstone is a headline. By making history, he’s also made a sacrifice. He will be the first openly gay All Black for the rest of his life. He’s never going to be just one guy among a bunch of guys ever again. But he’s made it possible for others to be.

Keep going!