Dean Knight: Rugby players need to come out in support of gays

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The absence of out gay players perpetuates the appearance that rugby is for 'red blooded' heterosexual men. Photo /  Richard Robinson
The absence of out gay players perpetuates the appearance that rugby is for 'red blooded' heterosexual men. Photo / Richard Robinson

In the debate about whether any gay All Blacks should come out, Mike Lee encourages elite players to remain in the closet. Sports culture, he says, "is all about performance, not sexual preference".

While I share Lee's hopes of a world where being gay or straight isn't "the issue it is today in all walks of life", the reality is that having an out gay All Black is important and overdue. We should be supporting elite athletes being open about who they are, not warning them to stay silent.

Lee pretends individuality and sexuality are irrelevant to sports' mission and the All Black brand. Nonsense. The All Black brand today is constructed on personality and oozes (hetero)sexuality.

Witness Dan Carter in his underwear. Endless stories about who Richie McCaw may or may not be courting. The supporting line-up of WAGs (dreadfully, code for wives and girlfriends). Cory Jane and his blow-by-blow tweets about his family life.

Piri Weepu bottle-feeding his young baby. And don't get me started on Sonny Bill Williams.

Celebrity is as much the mantra of the All Black machine as performance. Whether Lee likes it or not, the lives of our elite rugby players are not private.

The absence of out gay players perpetuates the appearance that rugby is a game for "red-blooded" heterosexual men and reinforces the barriers to participation by gays at all levels of the game.

Sadly, one doesn't need to go far to find instances of homophobic language at rugby fields and stadiums. Or reports of a rugby environment that isn't welcoming for gays. Sure, we've come a long way and there is some great work being done by some unions, clubs and individuals. But, while the IRB's charter speaks as rugby as a "A Sport For All", there's still much work to be done.

Some of that work needs to continue at the grass-roots level. The Bingham Cup, rugby's gay world cup, took place in Manchester last year. More than 1000 gay rugby players across more than 35 teams played in the competitive tournament celebrating being gay and rugby players.

When the next tournament comes Downunder to Sydney in 2014, we are confident that we will see more Kiwi gay rugby players join in the contest and festivities - hopefully sending a New Zealand team in its own right.

Other work needs to happen in the professional domain. Unions and management that embrace a truly diverse rugby environment. And a willingness to take real steps to make that happen.

Doubts about the adverse effect on selection and sponsorship (cultivated again by Lee's comments) must be alleviated. Comfort that the rugby hierarchy will stand by the player regardless. Support - not scaremongering - is needed.

They can take a lead from those that supported players such as Gareth Thomas, rugby league's Ian Roberts, boxing's Oscar Cruz, our Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup. These athletes have successfully navigated sport out of the darkness of the closet.

Straight allies are also important. Ben Cohen's Stand-Up campaign against homophobia is excellent. The Wallabies supporting their local gay rugby team at Sydney's Mardi Gras festival. And little things like Adam Thomson tweeting in favour of marriage equality. Anything that helps debunk the myth that gayness is taboo in the rugby family.

Of course, ultimately it will take some courage on the part of an elite player to come out. Gareth Thomas' account of his personal struggle is testament to that. But his experience also speaks to the relief about reconciling one's public and private lives.

As an aside, it's a shame this discussion was prompted by revelations about anonymous encounters. Salacious speculation doesn't make the path easier for any players contemplating being open.

We frequently hear the All Blacks described as role models. Let's hope they "and their chaperones" take that duty seriously. Yes, a person's sexuality is totally irrelevant to how someone plays the game of rugby. But their sexuality also forms a really important part of who they are. These two dimensions can - and must - co-exist.


Dean Knight is a senior law lecturer at Victoria University and a gay rugby player who plays for the Kings Cross Steelers, London's gay rugby team.

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- NZ Herald

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