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

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

By Dean Knight

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.

Continued below.

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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.

Debate on this article is now closed.

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- Papakura
02:34 pm Friday 18 January 2013
While it is not impossible that there is a gay All Black it is pretty unlikely. I know it is a generalisation but gays tend to be successful in the more creative fields in business like interior design, fashion design, hairstyling, advertising etc. Likewise they will tend to participate more in sports like soccer, cycling etc rather than the tough physical contact codes. So why not encourage some soccer players to come out, there must be plenty of them

If an All Black wants to come out then good on them, but surely it is a personal decision

Paul H

02:34 pm Friday 18 January 2013
So it only really matters that they are All Blacks? Being gay and a cricket player doesn't count - same with league, basketball, lawn bowls or sailing? What about female sports? If you are consistent you will ask the same of the Silver Ferns that one of the girls should 'come out'.

But this is not about consistency - it is about the gay community wanting to have a "banner boy" who they can hold high wherever they go. It is not about rights at all - it is just marketing in a human form.

No surprise then that no All Black would want to be apart of such a circus. They just want to be a rugby player. You don't see the All Blacks running around promoting heterosexuality, absentence or other forms of sexual activity.

The gay rights community is no different to the Christian community that tries to capture every famous believer (e.g. Bob Dylan in the 70s) for their own cause.

If someone want to come out - whatever sport or profession - that will happen in their time and choosing. Not determined by the marketing of gay rights activists.


02:33 pm Friday 18 January 2013
This debate is ridiculous for the fact that it is another attempt by the gay's to politically hijack yet another thing that has traditionally been enjoyed by the majority.

Leave the game alone. Gay people don't need or deserve any special support or recognition by any part of our rugby community. If you are gay, or of Asian or Indian descent etc and you want to play rugby, grab your boots and head down to pre-season training. Train hard and then prove yourself on the field. That's all that counts. That is how a man tests himself. If you can do the business on the field, you will fit into any team. Rugby is a great equaliser.

The fact is that not very many gay people ever turn up to practice on a Tuesday or Thursday night. You don't need an All Black to say he's gay so you can pick up your boots and head along.


- New Zealand
02:32 pm Friday 18 January 2013
Dean Knight confuses the issue from the beginning here. Those who want to see Dan Carter in underwear and who Richie McCaw is dating aren't really All Blacks fans.

"But their sexuality also forms a really important part of who they are." So what? I don't care if they are gay, straight, bi, virgins or like to prance around with a feather in their bum. That's probably the same for almost all fans, the idea that successful people have to make their private lives public in an effort to make other people feel better is a massive misunderstanding of what a role model is.

One last thing, assuming there are gay All Blacks, gay players can join rugby at all levels. But it would seem that only gay players can play in the "gay world cup". The question then becomes: which of these organisations is more discriminatory?

The only valid point above is the need to change homophobic behaviour, but changing that has nothing to do with players being open about their sexuality.


- England
01:57 pm Friday 18 January 2013
Kind of weird that gay people - or rather certain gay people need to shout out about their "Gayness". They try and say their sexuality is entirely normal - which I am prepared to accept and then they run about being completely "Un-normal" shouting out their sexuality with their "comeoutedness".

Normal people don't go running around shouting out I am "Not Gay" or any other form of sexuality.

The normal practice is for a person to live their life and let others make their own observations. Obviously if you are contemplating a relationship with a specific individual - you may need to be more observant and maybe even enquire in some way.

We don't have an "Un gay" world rugby cup, We just have a Rugby World cup were people of a range of sexualities can play if they have the ability.

If some All Blacks are gay - it is quite probable that their close friends may know or may suspect or maybe they don't. But it is simply NOT normal to run around shouting to everyone "I am GAY" and so if you do - you are simply saying that you are not normal. Just live your life as you see fit and get on with it already. Most of us don't care any more.


- Mairangi Bay
01:57 pm Friday 18 January 2013
You're absolutely right. The problem here are some members of the gay community who need to remove the chip off their shoulders and grow up. They claim that they want to be included and treated equally, when in fact they already are! Ben Cohen and Gareth Thomas both had long and successful careers with England and Wales respectively. They were included! Nobody questioned or cared about their sexuality.

But then you have some people, such as the author of this column, who feel that gay players need to make a big deal out of their sexuality and "come out". And then even though they claim to want to be included and treated equally, they ironically set up their own gay rugby teams and gay rugby world cups. They're the ones creating division, whist the rest of us (judging by the majority of comments here) simply don't care about the sexuality of a player. They're the ones with an "us and them" mentality.

It's as if they're crying out for a Martin Luther King to help them gain equal rights in racist America. Only they already have equal rights, in a non-homophobic New Zealand. The problem is in their heads. The vast majority of straight people don't care and aren't homophobic.


- Hastings
01:56 pm Friday 18 January 2013
So many people in this country interfering in the lives of others. We need to do this, we need to do that. These nit picking pin brained busy bodies just can't leave it alone. So how about if there are Catholics in the All Black team, Green Party supporters and so on. Why don't we have a full blown inquisition just like in the good old days. And if these people wont confess they should be made to by whatever means.

Gay All Blacks my ass, what next. Whoops sorry....I didn't mean it like that.


- Onehunga
01:56 pm Friday 18 January 2013
1. The important question is; would you have treated him differently if he was openly gay at that time? It's the fact that people are treated differently when they are openly gay that is the problem. When this point is addressed in all facets of society (elite sport included), we will really be making inroads into reducing bigotry.

2. "Every peer" he had at that time. Really? Obviously I was the odd one out.

Kiwi Mike

- Vietnam
11:49 am Friday 18 January 2013
I don't see the need.
That is their private life, I'm only interested in what they do for Rugby on or off the field.


11:49 am Friday 18 January 2013
You are missing the point by a sea mile. Have you not read the responses here? Most people just don't care. Whether a gay person should or shouldn't come clean is not an hot topic, and, quite frankly, is yesterdays news. If you, like many other PC buffs push for human rights, etc. then you should be first in line to raise your hand in support of gays choosing to remain "in the closet". If they expose themselves, it is their choice, and has nothing to do with the media or social pressure, as you would have us believe. Wouldn't a gay Black Fern be a lesbian?


- Glendowie
11:49 am Friday 18 January 2013
I just don't get the whole discussion?
Are homosexuals actually wanting a quota system ?

Dr Ian MacDonald

11:49 am Friday 18 January 2013
If a Pakeha AB had a Maori girlfriend, we wouldn't expect him to lie about it in order to be more acceptable to the rugby public and selectors.

Dean Knight isn't suggesting for a moment that anyone should be forced to come out for political reasons. Commentators making that point are just deliberately misrepresenting his views. What he's saying is that no-one has the right to expect others to live in shame and denial, while pointing out that existing ABs players already absolutely trade on their identity (including sexual identity) for personal, professional and commercial reasons.

Many assert there hasn't been a gay AB. Anyone who followed the debate about WMD in Iraq will understand that's an impossible point to make with confidence. It's philosophically impossible to prove the absence of something with evidence. All we can say with certainty is we just don't know about that yet.

What we do know is that until Gareth Edwards started acknowledging his sexual orientation publicly, we weren't aware that the Captain of the most prestigious rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere, the Lions, had already been a gay man. Now that's all old hat. Which is exactly the point.


- Remuera
11:48 am Friday 18 January 2013
Nice wind-up...

"...the reality is that having an out gay All Black is important and overdue."

That speaks of ridiculous tokenism.

Perhaps we should have a quota system, like South Africa had for Black players...

Wikipedia - The Demographics of Sexual Orientation identifies a 2002 Australian study of almost 20,000 respondents, 1.6% of Men identified as gay, 0.9% as bi-sexual.

On this basis an AB squad should of 32 have 0.50 players who identify as gay and 0.29 players who get warm fuzzy feelings in the showers occasionally.

Nothing against having an "out" gay player(s) in the AB's, provided they are the best in their position, but the idea that it is "important and overdue" to have a gay player is a limp-wristed argument.


11:48 am Friday 18 January 2013
Give us a kiss... and we'll tell.... is that OK?


- Onehunga
11:47 am Friday 18 January 2013
Why are there no "out" A.B's?

Well to my way of thinking, the tone of the majority of the posts above explains why. Ironically the tone of these posts supports Dean's argument (at least my take on it), that we don't have "out A.B's", because the "expectations" surrounding elite athletes do not support them being open about who they are.

I think Dean has written a very well reasoned rebuttal.
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