How would the coming out of the ‘first gay All Black’ be treated by rugby? It all depends on how dedicated the sport is to its stated goals of inclusivity and acceptance, Jamie Wall writes for RNZ.
Many businesses and organisations around the world marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) earlier this week. Social media posts, statements and stories did the rounds, with NZ Rugby (NZR) making sure they were among those championing inclusion of the Rainbow Community.
Of course, while NZR’s efforts should be lauded as a definite step in the right direction, you can paint a rainbow with a pretty broad brush. A good friend who is gay (and I suspect is a closeted rugby fan) queried in the most fabulously apt way if NZR are applying makeup when they really need skincare. As in, it’s all well and good to say these things but what real change are we going to see from a sport that, for male participants anyway, is seemingly so inherently anchored to the ideals of hyper-masculine heteronormativity.
Because that’s one big giveaway off the bat: While Spence’s words flatten out what is a pretty nuanced issue on its own around just how a player in such a rigidly team-focused environment would even go about showing that level of individuality, they also lump it together with a couple of other inclusion issues that are completely different.
Let’s break it down: the ‘T’ in LGBT+ is a discussion that NZR have already admitted is “really complex”. The ‘L’ describes an environment in women’s rugby where it homosexuality is so common due to the game’s foundations partly as a feminist counter-culture movement, that it has reached the point of pretty much universal acceptance from those who are involved and follow it.
Considering that NZR have just had a review of women’s rugby that showed in stark detail just how far down the ladder it sat in terms of priorities, that seems pretty clunky. Because really, if they wanted to champion members of the rainbow community, NZR would do well to recognise the contribution gay women have already made to not just the sport, but New Zealand society. Recently retired MP Louisa Wall, Black Fern #59, literally paved the way for same-sex marriage – easily the most significant political achievement by any former player.
Associate Professor Sally Shaw, of the University of Otago’s School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Science, agrees that the clear issue that NZR is trying to solve with the Pride Pledge is almost exclusively the relationship between rugby and gay men.
“There’s a lot more nuance around getting gay men involved in sport, but I think NZR do deserve a warmish round of applause for at least trying to do something,” she says.
“For years, sexual identity had been nowhere in the sport landscape. With the current number of reviews going on across sports, I think it’s becoming clear that athletes are starting to say ‘hang on a minute, I need to feel safe in my place of work’. When you talk about club and amateur rugby, there’s not that mechanism there. The issue of gay men in all sports is vast.”
Shaw has authored a comprehensive report on women’s rugby participation for NZR, which very much proves a far higher level of acceptance.
“Women’s rugby came out of the desire of women to be doing something powerful and strong. They really wanted to explore what their bodies could do, what it feels like to be tackled and squashed into the ground! The women who are playing club rugby have had to fight just to get a team sorted, to get someone to coach them. So they’ve had to work together as a community, just to be women playing rugby. Women always seem to be working against what’s established – so the question of sexuality becomes secondary.”
It is somewhat ironic that the barriers put up in front of women’s rugby have played such a pivotal role in turning it into what NZR is saying they want the men’s game to be.
“You hear a lot about the ‘sisterhood’ in women’s rugby, it has a lot to do with whānau. You’re part of it, so dealing with sexuality is part of it too,” says Shaw.
For arguably New Zealand’s highest profile women’s player right now, even thinking about having her sexuality judged isn’t even something she’s thought about as it “simply hasn’t happened”.
“Everyone in my team is wonderfully supportive of everyone and diversities – not just sexuality,” Black Ferns and Sevens gold medalist Ruby Tui says.
“Finding a positive group that embraces all of your authentic self and where you feel like you belong is the greatest thing.
“I know my story is not the same as everyone, so that’s why it is important to keep talking about it. Usually people are just scared because they don’t know any better but if people are honest they all have the same curious questions anyway. My hope is that the support and inclusivity grows ever stronger and diversity is represented more and more so as a collective we can be at our best and most effective.”
So how does what NZR is saying turn into positive change? There is some evidence that it already is, as Shaw rightly points out the acceptance of diversity is much higher among younger people due to to it simply being part of societal trends, and anecdotal evidence (albeit pretty limited) suggests that use of homophobic language on the field has reduced significantly over the last couple of decades. Even among older players, stories of simple acceptance in clubs already very much exist, with an example being proudly openly gay player Dion Hosking in Auckland.
Hosking, in his early 40s, plays in the President’s Grade for College Rifles RFC and says that rugby for him “is about clicking with like-minded people and I’ve found it to be really inclusive. My sexuality isn’t a big deal.”
“I just want to play footy. All the boys know I’m gay and I haven’t had any issues with it. I remember going to the University club and they had a massive rainbow flag up in their clubrooms, things like that make it not an issue … there might be a misconception that some gay boys are going to come in and check everyone out in the showers but that’s so far from the truth. There are gay men at other clubs, around the country but to be honest I kind of don’t even think about it much any more.”
He readily admits that his experience as an older and more comfortable person in his own skin is quite different from that of a younger player, but says that NZR seeking out and talking to other openly gay rugby men like him would show that they’re not alone.
While there obviously aren’t any openly gay All Blacks, there are at least a couple that are open to talking about it. The Israel Folau saga saw TJ Perenara show solidarity with those who were harmed by the Australian player’s ultra-conservative views on homosexuality. Fellow halfback Brad Weber also hasn’t been shy in speaking out on the matter, and has put his money where his mouth is by volunteering his time with The Waterboy charity, who run a programme called Everyone’s Game.
“I think back to when I was at school and it was the language we used that was the real problem,” Weber says.
“I admit it, I was no angel and part of it. But if I had some high profile player come in and say ‘hey that’s not cool’, I would have listened. So we can change that, or stop it even starting at that age, we can create better habits.”
Weber is convinced that diversity is the most important thing the game can strive for.
“If we create that environment, where everyone feels welcome, you won’t have guys who might be struggling turn away from the game. Instead there’s a community for them, a support network.”
So while there is a bit of makeup about NZR’s efforts around IDAHOBIT and inclusion, the evidence is there that the skincare is being done too. It’s clearly part of the DNA when it comes to women’s rugby and Weber and Hosking’s experiences show that it can be dealt with in a respectful way at both elite and grassroots level. There is work to be done, for sure – rugby still does have that drunk-uncle-at-Xmas vibe that means you’re just waiting for something inevitably cringey or offensive to happen. Someone, somewhere will say something this weekend on a rugby field or in a club that will make someone else wince.
Truly though, whatever happens from here on in could actually render the idea of the first gay All Black a bit of a moot point anyway. If rugby does eventually make it to the inclusivity goals it wants and gay rugby players are fully enveloped in its normalisation, such an event would be treated like any other day of the week. After all, the All Blacks’ identity is literally built on the concept of the team first – so the ‘gay All Black’ will always instead be the ‘All Black who happens to be gay’ in that environment anyway. Tui, however, is convinced they’d be inundated with sponsorship deals.
“Really it’s about the support structures that are in place, through club, provincial, Super Rugby, because that’s where it’s needed to be able to help someone communicate what they want,” says Shaw.
“It’s not just about that moment in time when an All Black comes out. What’s going on before that for that person to feel secure and safe?”
In the meantime, the best course of action is to be mindful of what is said in rugby environments. As Weber points out, if you were to substitute gay slurs with racist ones, it’s highly unlikely it would even pass anyone’s lips. Tui says that “simple everyday conversations mean so much to members of the rainbow community. So if you have ever pulled a mate up for something they shouldn’t have said or stuck up for a rainbow community member – thank you!”
Really though, it just comes down to something that’s a pretty decent rule for life in general: If in doubt, don’t be a dick.