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Campbell Johnstone: ‘My story has rekindled people’s love for rugby’
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Campbell Johnstone: ‘My story has rekindled people’s love for rugby’

On a midweek lunchtime in Hawke’s Bay you would not instantly single out Campbell Johnstone as a former New Zealand international prop. Standing outside a local cafe near the beach in Napier in his checked shirt and dark blue gilet, there is nothing much to differentiate him from any other passing Kiwi. Unless, that is, you happen to be aware of his unique place in All Black history and the courageous personal path upon which he has embarked.

As the first – and only – All Black to come out as gay, Johnstone is better placed than anyone to say whether professional men’s rugby still has a way to go in terms of inclusivity. Once upon a time he was best known for being the 1,056th man to pull on the sport’s most famous jersey, playing against the British & Irish Lions in 2005 alongside legends such as Sir Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. It may be that the value of his legacy outstrips both of theirs.

To judge from the messages from as far afield as the United States, the UK, Scandinavia and China since he made his announcement in January last year, his testimony certainly struck a major chord. “The most humbling have been from people who had given up playing a sport they loved because they didn’t feel they fitted the whole environment,” he says, softly. “They say my story has rekindled their love of the game and they’ve gone back to it.”

Nor is it just rugby players who have expressed respect and gratitude. Having spent some time in Europe – he had spells with Biarritz and Ospreys – Johnstone has also spoken to professional footballers in awe of his decision. “I won’t name the players but I coached in Spain and had friends who were football players. They said they were perceived across Europe and South America in a similar way to the All Blacks. Tough guys, can’t show a weakness. They said they couldn’t even fathom coming out because of the backlash or the messages they’d get.”

It is precisely those macho man perceptions that Johnstone, now 44, would like people to revisit. Like other New Zealanders of his era, he was brought up to regard the national team as iron-clad supermen. “Making the All Blacks was incredible … it was a dream come true.” Internally, though, he was awash with self-doubt, having known he was gay since his mid-teens.

If he played poorly, he would even tell himself it was because he was gay. “Self-hating, negative motivation is not ideal. But it forced me to train and work harder. It wasn’t until later that I realised I needed to be more positive, rather than kicking myself when I was down.”

He won three Test caps as a loosehead prop but never felt the coaches treated him differently. “You’re clutching at straws if you say: ‘They dropped me because I was gay.’ I don’t think anybody would do that.” Leading his “double life”, though, became hard. “I guess I reached a fork in the road when I was around 23 or 24. I was thinking: ‘Man, this is getting heavy.’ The only options I saw were to stop playing or to tell someone. And there was no way I was going to give it up. Rugby gave me so much joy and fun. So I was like: ‘Right, I’d better tell someone.’”

Informing his parents – “They were probably more shocked to find out I was an All Black” – was the easy part. But would his alpha male teammates be similarly understanding? “The biggest thing they want to know is that you’re still on board with the direction in which the team wants to go – winning and being the best. During that period my happiest and most relaxed times were when I was with the team. It’s only when you have downtime that you start dwelling on things and the anxiety builds.”

Campbell Johnstone of the Junior All Blacks runs with the ball during the Pacific 5 Nations game between the Junior All Blacks and Samoa at North Harbour Stadium in June 2006.View image in fullscreen

His longest-standing rugby friends, though, were always supportive. The current All Black attack coach Leon MacDonald, a close mate from their Crusaders days, will be attending his wedding this year to Ben, a former champion showjumper, and admires his old pal immensely.

“Campbell has always been a bundle of fun,” says MacDonald, who played 56 times for the All Blacks. “He was a very shy guy initially and a man of very few wordsuntil he had his second pint. Then he would come to life a little bit.

“It’s been a bit of a journey for him to make that big step. And it has been a huge step. New Zealand’s a small place and he was very brave to be the first to come out. We were all just a bit sad and sorry that it took him so long. We wished he’d done it earlier.

“It’s been a fantastic thing for the gay community to have a role model. His goal was to make it easier for other people and I’ve no doubt he’s done that.”

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While an active player, though, Johnstone felt unable to take that leap. Some of us still recall the day he was put up for an impromptu post-training chat with a few of the travelling British media before the 2005 Lions series. The man from the Independent heroically tried to ask him about scrummaging but it ranked among the most monosyllabic rugby interviews of all time. Little did we know the reason why. “So many friends I played with will know about my ‘stranger danger’ policy,” says Johnstone, chuckling at the memory.

“We all laugh about it now but it was also a defence mechanism. I was genuinely quite a shy, private person but that was compounded by what I was trying to hide.”

Might he have felt differently now, in more enlightened times? “I wonder that as well. But the biggest issue I had was coming to grips with myself. I’d built up this whole idea of what an All Black should be. No one said: ‘An All Black is straight’ but that was the environment.”

Which provokes a wider question: is the men’s professional sporting environment changing fast enough? The “elephant in the room”, to use Johnstone’s phrase, is still there, not least in New Zealand where new-age coaches such as the national head coach Scott “Razor” Robertson are still viewed sceptically by some stern-faced old timers.

The good news is that Johnstone, who is a property consultant and valuer, has sensed greater empathy among the young players he meets when addressing Super Rugby and provincial teams about inclusion and diversity. “Kids now have a much greater awareness of the words coming out of their mouths. In my day I think every third word was a swear word.”

So could a modern-day Test player grasp the nettle sooner than he did? “If there is somebody out there, they’ll be received warmly. My advice would be to come to grips with it as fast as you can. And realise it’s not as big a deal as it once was – or maybe ever was. We all build up things in our heads when in reality they’re not actually that big.

“If we can just help one person that’s fantastic. If there are people who are bothered about that, they’ve probably got too much time on their hands. Look up ‘athlete’ in the dictionary and it doesn’t mention race, religion, sexuality or sex. What I hope is that younger kids are saying: ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.’ If you love a sport and excel in it, go for it.”

Source: theguardian.com