Naming gay All Blacks? Bring It On!

Mike Lee's extraordinarily obtuse article in the Herald this week ignores the importance of rugby in Kiwi culture and the fight for gay rights. John Forde explains why the time is perfect for rugby to come out of the closet

New Zealand’s struggle for gay rights has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years. Ten years ago, gay rights were of interest only to the gay and lesbian "minority" who were directly affected. Now, issues like marriage equality and homophobic bullying appear to have caught the national imagination. The first reading of the country’s gay marriage bill passed by a healthy majority, and criticism of John Key’s “gay red top” comment was so strong that it launched a national campaign to shame him into eating his badly chosen words. Not bad for a country where homosexual sex was only legalised in 1986.

Now, what’s most encouraging is that gay rights are being seen for what they truly are – human rights, which don’t just affect gays and lesbians but which say something about the kind of tolerant pluralist society that most New Zealanders want to live in.

Personally, I’m delighted that the nation’s media are joining in the punditry so enthusiastically, and that it’s becoming a truly national dialogue – even if the extension of the conversation leads to spectacularly obtuse and ill-informed articles like Mike Lee's opinion piece in this week’s Herald, "Naming gay All Blacks marks sexuality, not talent."

Lee’s article follows on the heels of a recent appeal by Rainbow Wellington for a gay All Black to lend his public support to the gay marriage campaign. Lee’s article queries the link between rugby and homosexuality, and attempts to sever the connection, arguing that rugby players should be marketed as good players, not gay libbers. The All Blacks' sponsorship appeal is, he states, about their reputation as good players, "not that they're heterosexual or homosexual in their private lives." He also argues that a gay All Black would smack of tokenism, carrying unreasonable expectations for that player to over-perform "to avoid accusations of reverse discrimination."

I’m not sure whether Lee’s concern is, as his job title suggests, about the purity of brand promotion, or just old-school homophobia carefully disguised as a no-special-rights libertarian piece. Either way, it's muddle-headed and almost wilfully ignorant about the importance of rugby to New Zealand culture, and the potential for positive change that a gay All Black would effect.

My friend Dean Knight, law lecturer and co-founder of the Krazy Knights, New Zealand’s first gay rugby team, has already responded to Lee's article with his own opinion piece in the Herald. To which I would like to add my thoughts to why, in opposition to Lee, the time is absolutely right for an openly gay All Black.

Lee’s article seems to ignore the obvious that rugby is a massively important part of New Zealand culture, and a cornerstone of how masculinity is defined and applied in our popular culture. The All Blacks aren’t just sportsmen: they’re role models, icons, sex symbols and highly profitable marketing products. Modern All Blacks are seldom, if ever, private about their heterosexuality. Their girlfriends, marriages, families and interests outside the rugby field are reported on extensively, mostly as part of a carefully controlled Faustian pact between the NZFU and the media. When an All Black gets married, women's magazine editors are invited to the wedding and it makes newspaper headlines and gets national television coverage.

Off-field, All Blacks regularly support various charitable causes. Anton Oliver has spoken about alcohol abuse and environmental conservation, Norm Hewitt on domestic violence, John Kirwan has spoken candidly about his struggles with depression, and David Kirk withdrew from a 1986 tour of South Africa on moral grounds. In each case, the country has sat up, listened and paid attention. 

While not everyone might hold up the All Blacks as personal role models, it’s indisputable that their lives and personalities carry weight. So with that in mind, it’s completely reasonable for gay activists to ask them to engage publicly with the marriage campaign. It’s also reasonable to conclude that an All Black making a public declaration of support for gay marriage (or, even better, stating that he was gay and that he wanted to marry his boyfriend), would have massive influence in New Zealand, perhaps on a par with US President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage last year.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable truth that Lee seems quite happy to wave away: to date, there’s been resounding silence from All Blacks on the subject of gay marriage, and there are still no openly gay professional rugby players. It would be far better to ask why that silence endures, rather than shrugging our shoulders like Lee does and dissolving into sterile arguments about sport sponsorship companies acquiring "a gay player or two to tap into niche markets". 

The other uncomfortable truth that Lee seems either oblivious to or anxious to avoid, is that there is a connection between homosexuality, homophobia and rugby. The absence of an openly gay All Black or even a straight All Black who’s willing to back the gay marriage campaign, is evidence that this connection is as strong and troubling as ever. 

For generations, rugby has been the arena where Kiwi men have learned what it is to be a real man. For better or for worse, the All Blacks have long been vanguards of Kiwi masculinity. The quintessential All Black will always, I think, be Colin Meads, who seemed to typify the approved qualities of New Zealand masculinity: stoic, plain-spoken, unpretentious, thoroughly assured of his place in history and his relationship to the land, indisputably straight, a family man, and avowedly free of any feminising habits like perming his hair or applying moisturiser. Though he’s been superseded in recent years by the new brand of media-friendly, gym-pumped and highly sexualised athletes of today’s post-feminist, post-Internet culture (more on them in a minute), there is a part of the popular imagination that misses Meads and his ilk limping valiantly and bloody-faced off a field and grunting: "At the end of the day, rugby was the winner".

Like most men of my age, I was co-opted into playing rugby at school, and I hated it. The game itself terrified me. As an unsporty, skinny, spectacle-wearing Mummy’s boy with an aversion to mud, playing rugby was a kind of never-ending torture in which I existed in continual fear. More important than my horror of the game, though, were the lessons that were dealt out in every practice and every game by a series of psychotic Phys Ed teachers. Playing rugby was about being a real man, and doing manly things: being aggressive, fighting, getting dirty and proving that you weren’t a girl, or – worse still – a poof. If the Phys Ed teacher wasn’t around to hammer home these lessons, there were always my fellow players to remind me – usually by hurling me in the mud when I wasn’t sufficiently dirty, hiding my kit or hurling abuse at me in the changing rooms. They’re lessons I’ve never forgotten: to be a man, you have to play rugby, preferably be a thug, and definitely not be a poof.

Times have changed, as has The Game, and we’re no longer in Neanderthal country. The NZFU have done a lot to clean up violence on and off the field, and thanks to Oliver's and others efforts, there’s more awareness about the explosive connections between rugby fandom, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. The semiotics of rugby players themselves have changed – they’re now highly sexualised products, regularly stripped down to their smalls to show off their gym-honed pecs and deltoid-flattering tribal tattoos. Witness the nationwide hysteria when Sonny Bill Williams suffered a wardrobe malfunction midway through the World Cup and was stripped shirtless on television. In that moment, the rugby playing metrosexual was born. (Although the New Zealand media didn't admit it at the time, there were as many men looking on admiringly as there were women). And thanks to Dean and other rugby playing poofs, it’s also ok for gay men to play rugby. The Bingham Cup, an international rugby tournament named in honour of the gay rugby-playing hero of one of the 9/11 plane hijackings, attracted over 1,000 players in Manchester in 2012, and will be hosted in Australia in 2014.

And yet, the pernicious effects of homophobia in sports culture, in New Zealand and abroad, continue. To date, there are only a handful of professional gay and lesbian sportspeople. In professional rugby, the out players can be counted on one finger – Australian rugby league player Ian Roberts, and more recently Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, who came out towards the end of his career, after spending most of his professional life in the closet. It seems that the spectre of Justin Fashanu, the British football player who came out in 1990 to severe criticism and abuse, only to kill himself eight years later, still hangs over the game. English celebrity publicist Max Clifford has stated that he’s advised several high-ranking sportsmen not to come out for fear of damaging their careers. Fear of criticism, fear of abuse by fans, fear of being disemboweled by the scandal-hungry tabloid press: these all appear to keep professional sportspeople in the closet.

Which brings us back to the All Blacks. Statistically, it’s inevitable that there's been a gay or bisexual All Black. There have been rumours on the grapevine for years about All Blacks having affairs with men but choosing to stay in the closet – one rumour now corroborated by radio DJ Steve Gray.  As Dean points out in his article, these rumours aren’t helpful, as they only contribute to a salacious atmosphere of secrets and lies that make coming out deeply unappealing. But what they do demonstrate that lies are being told and that there’s a public desire for the truth to be known.

I share Lee's hope that "in 100 years' time, being gay or straight won't be nearly the issue it is today in all walks of life". Unfortunately, we're not 100 years in the future. Homosexuality in sport continues to be "an issue", and it's unlikely to change until our cultural bastions of compulsory heterosexuality, including the All Blacks, change. 

Lee is wrong to suggest that a gay All Black would undermine the brand or that an All Black's sexuality doesn't matter. It does matter. All Blacks can't be role models if they're not open about who they are. And as compelling as the "safety" of the closet sometimes is, living in the closet is incompatible with being a role model. We still need our gay hairdressers, florists, artists and repertory theatre directors, but it’s time now for a gay rugby player to match them in bravery and honesty.

Having a gay All Black would make an immeasurable difference to the lives of young gay and lesbian kids, who, as we know, suffer unacceptably high levels of bullying and mental health problems. It would also send a great message to straight people everywhere that it's ok to be gay. 

I can’t wait to see the first gay All Black, when he does decide to reveal himself. And I hope to God that he does a naked calendar.