'See ourselves everywhere' - Gay AB a beacon for LGBTQIA+

By James Perry

 Gay rugby team official Phil Pene believes Campbell Johnstone becoming the first openly gay All Black is exciting for the game as a whole.

Johnstone, All Black 1056, told TVNZ's Seven Sharp earlier this week that, while he confided in some teammates and family members during his career, he kept a secret from the public because of the traditional views of what being an All Black meant - "manly, strong and possibly with a wife and kids".

Pene (Ngāpuhi), a committee member of the Falcons Rugby Club, Auckland's only gay and inclusive rugby team, says with Johnstone coming out, no career path is off limits anymore to gay men across Aotearoa.

"Whether you want to be on Ru Paul's Drag Race or be a fullback on the rugby field, we can now see ourselves everywhere. Just because of his one speech, we can go anywhere. It's limitless. That's the powerful thing I feel for young people now they finally see somebody in the All Blacks environment who's come out and told the world he's gay, and he doesn't apologise about it. So yeah, we can go anywhere."

Praise from top official

Immediately following Johnstone's announcement New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson, a former teammate of Johnstone's at Canterbury, acknowledged the three-test All Black prop sharing his "authentic story" and providing strength and visibility that would pave the way for others in the game. 

"Rugby is a sport that is welcoming to everyone and a place where people should feel safe to be who they are," Robinson said.

Pene says the immediate support of the game's administrators, players and the public gives hope and encouragement for other gay rugby players to be comfortable within themselves.

"So you can take so much from the support that he's got from the whole country, and take that with you and know you're going to be okay, in that space and have the courage. All it takes is that first conversation. I've never had a problem with being gay, so I've not been in that sort of environment but I can just imagine the weight that would come off your shoulders. 

"I feel that just him coming out must feel for anyone else that is struggling with it has had that weight lifted. He's opened the door and I think it's made it easier for others to step through."

Global endorsement

Current All Blacks, including Brad Weber (Ngāti Porou) and Aaron Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu) were also quick to voice their support for Johnstone. Weber said on Twitter the moment was hugely influential for young people, especially rugby players who might be questioning their sexuality. The news also spread around the world with support flowing from rugby fans and organisations from as far away as Europe.

Pene hopes that will be reflected in rugby clubs up and down Aotearoa as gay rugby players are accepted as being part of the community.

"The importance of what he did has opened up not just for gay people but also anybody who wants to be able to play our sport, it just makes the game even bigger, doesn't it? So it's exciting times."