On Monday 30 January, Campbell Johnstone, who played for our national rugby team in 2005, became the first ever All Black to publicly come out as gay, making headlines around the world. A week later he caught up with Oliver Hall to discuss the impact of his announcement and where rugby goes from here.
What’s the reaction been like for you since the interview?
It’s been huge. We didn’t imagine it would go as far as it has. We naively thought it might be a talking point in New Zealand and possibly Australia in the wider rugby community. But the reality is it carried right through across the world. I didn’t realise how powerful the All Black brand is. It’s a real credit to NZ Rugby and New Zealand for how they’ve made that legacy.
So what does that impact feel like for you? The interview goes out at seven o’clock. It’s done by 730, is your phone blowing up?
Yeah, the phone was ticking over. Thousands of messages coming in. We just sat there going through them, taking the time to read them, because they’re really touching and quite humbling… people telling their stories and sharing what they had gone through, it highlighted that this has actually helped so many people.
Were all the comments positive?
There must be some negative comments, everyone has their own opinion. But I didn’t see any.
Can you tell us a bit about what led up to the Seven Sharp interview? Obviously, it’s a long time on from when you played in the All Blacks or The Crusaders.
Jo Malcolm (All Blacks Communications Advisor) had been a friend for a long time. She had worked with me at The Crusaders. We’d always talked about it. There was so much talk in the media about ‘is there a gay All Black’ and friends always said, ‘you know this could actually help people and be worthwhile’. Naively, I thought, ‘but it’s only little old me. They can’t be right.’
My sexuality had always been a private point for me, particularly when I was part of the rugby scene, so coming out has given me some closure as well. When they eventually convinced me that it would inspire some people to continue their dreams and show that goals don’t distinguish between sexuality, race or anything. The amount of determination and the effort you put into that is what will be rewarded. It has no bearing on whether you are gay or straight, it’s all in your mind.
Why now in 2023?
I had made peace. I was comfortable enough with myself. Accepting myself was a big thing and it took time. You can’t really help anyone unless you’ve sorted yourself out first.
When was the first point you ever came out to somebody?
Originally, I came out to my parents, and then my family. That was just the way that felt best for me. My parents were the greatest parents one could hope for. So easygoing. Whatever we wanted to do, they’d always support us, and when we got sick of that, they’d say ‘okay you’re not going to do that anymore. What’s your next thing?’ And support us 110% with that. So I was very fortunate.
Did you tell them before you played for the All Blacks?
Yeah. A long time ago.
Was there ever a fear that someone might unintentionally out you when you were playing as an All Black?
No. Not fear, but I guess it was always in the back of my mind. It’s a testament to how respectful everyone has been, even after my career. NZ Rugby has been so loyal to me, as have all my friends. There are so many times they’ve been called and asked, ‘has there ever been a gay All Black?’ I’ve got so much admiration for the way they respected my privacy because I have always been a very private person.
So when you were playing with the All Blacks, would any of your teammates have known you were gay?
Probably not during the tests but after, yeah, a few that were also in The Crusaders.
Between your time in The Crusaders and in the All Blacks, did you hear much homophobic talk in the locker rooms or on the pitch?
No. There was always banter and all that, but it came from a place of love, not hate or malice. I never felt threatened or scared or even restricted in my thoughts because of those comments.
If you had been ready and wanted to come out when you were playing in 2005, do you think the club and your teammates would have supported you?
Yeah, 100%. The conversation would have probably gone, “are we still gonna play rugby? Are you still going to try and win the game? Well come on then, let’s play!” It’s all focused on winning and achieving our team goals.
So in 2023, if a professional male rugby player was ready to come out as gay or bisexual you believe they would be supported by the team, the sponsors, and the fans?
Definitely. Supported, and it would be life is normal.
Would you see that being the case at all levels, including club rugby, professional and international?
I believe so. I can only really comment on my past experiences at international and club, but from what I’ve seen from international and Super Rugby it would be the same. I can’t really comment on what club rugby around the country would be like because I haven’t been involved in that for a long time, but when I was, I didn’t hear any derogatory comments in the area of sexuality, and I think everyone is a lot more grown up and accepting now. I believe it’s a good space.
What do you think needs to be improved in rugby, if it were up to you?
Rugby is a great game and what makes it that, is the new people that keep coming in and recreating its culture. You look at The Crusades, that environment has changed, since I moved on and is so much more caring and progressive. It’s a process and I don’t think we should try and change anything at a million miles. We’ve just got to let it slowly keep changing as long as we’re heading in the right direction.
If an active professional male rugby player called you tomorrow and said, ‘you’ve really inspired me, I’m going to come out.’ What do they need to expect and what would be your advice for them?
Make sure you’re in a safe place and you’ve got some support around you to do it. And just do what’s right for you. There are no rules to coming out. You don’t have to do it. If the time feels right to them, and they feel safe, happy, and at peace – they should do it.
It sounds like there’s no doubt in your mind that New Zealand fans are ready to have an openly gay All Black representing us at the World Cup.
Yeah. They’ll be more concerned about how good the player is, that they’ve been selected on merit, and are the right player for that position. They will support a player 100% as long as you’re playing well. It’s sport! [laughs] Everyone is very supportive when you’re playing well!
Photos | Juliette Capaldi / Etta Images.