Richard Tankersley: I stopped playing rugby because I'm gay

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

Like thousands of Kiwi guys, I started playing rugby around the same time I started learning how to read.

I was 5, playing Saturday morning barefoot schoolboy rugby in rural New Zealand. When Hawke's Bay held the Ranfurly Shield back in the late sixties, to me the black and white striped jersey of the Mighty Magpies was as important as the All Black jersey.

Rugby on a Saturday morning and then a flurry of activity as Dad and his mates headed for McLean Park on a Saturday afternoon - complete with beers and Mum's bacon and egg pie - are strong memories from my early days.

I was a large boy in those days, and not so fast, so I was always put in the tight five: I was never going to make the back line. I didn't set the world on fire at rugby but I loved it, I loved belonging. And there were pluses - even though as a prop, I always ended up at the bottom of a crunching ruck, if I got the ball at the right time, I'd occasionally score a try and that was bloody great and I'd remember that feeling forever.

But by my early twenties, when I was still playing the occasional social game of rugby or cricket, I knew it was time to quit forever. I was gay and I decided to come out, and like in so many other parts of my life, in rugby and cricket teams gay guys like me were simply not welcome.

Poofter, faggot, girl's blouse - these are typical put downs Kiwi guys like to call each other. So when I was putting on my boots or my cricket whites I'd know I was stepping into an environment where I had to be defensive, careful and hidden. I hung up my boots because I could no longer hide who I was so I could keep on playing.

I applaud last week's milestone announcement from New Zealand's major sporting codes, and am happy to see the leadership from NZ Rugby. But I am very interested to see how this will play out for the vast majority of New Zealanders who are not elite sportsmen and women. How will this trickle down to those not-so starry-rugby players?

For me, we will have arrived when a gay guy can play third grade rugby for his local club and turn up to the after function with his male partner.

I have a mate who'd been pressured for years about why he never brought a girl to social functions. One day he had enough and when his mates asked him the old "Are you a Fag?" question he turned around and said: "Well Yes I am actually."

His mates weren't laughing anymore. "Oh shit mate. We didn't want to know that."
"Too late for you, you do now."

And it was amazing but those hard-a*** guys coped and got on with it and some of them are still his mates to this day. He was a very brave man.

Because it's never easy to be the courageous person who comes out if you have no support - why would you ever put yourself in that kind of danger?

As someone who grew up in a small country area, I don't like the way so many of us flippantly blame "small town New Zealand" for our country's intolerant culture. For me it's "small mind New Zealand" that is to blame for homophobia and racism, and that small mind thinking can live in a city of one million people as much as in a village of one hundred.

I chuckled when I saw a headline in the media this week proclaiming that New Zealand is ready for a gay All Black. Do the math - I suspect we've already had several.

Last week's announcement asks less of those of us who are gay and who love sports, and more of our friends, family and team members: will you stand alongside us? Thousands of people stay away from sports because they don't want to deal with the prejudice. But I believe that for many, that would change in heartbeat if they knew that somebody had their back. People will do very, very brave things when they understand that someone will back them and let them be part of the team.

So what do our words and actions say to our team-mates? What signals do we give out to each other? I believe that it's up to everyday Kiwis to decide whether they will support their mates by how they act, or whether they'll stand by while their mate quietly heads off to the changing rooms for the last time.

Richard Tankersley is a commissioner with the Human Rights Commission.

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