Former All Black Campbell Johnstone praised after publicly coming out as gay

<span>Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock

The former New Zealand rugby player Campbell Johnstone has become the first All Black to come out as gay, saying he hoped to “take away the pressure and the stigma” of doing so publicly.

Johnstone, 43, said in Seven Sharp TV interview that he had told friends and family “a long time ago” that he was gay. But he had kept the matter private during his playing career, leading a “double life” and “living a lie” because his sexuality did not fit with his image of an All Black, he said.

“Within myself, I was never really comfortable with the whole concept,” said Johnstone. “My dream was to be an All Black.”

His vision of a player for the national side, he added, was someone who was “manly, strong … possibly had a wife, kids”, and he blamed his sexuality when he played poorly.

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The former prop played three Tests in 2005 – with his last match against the British and Irish Lions. Between 2002 and 2012, he made 38 appearances for the Crusaders, 72 for Canterbury and 105 for the French side Biarritz.

Johnstone was “a little bit sad that we are actually having to do this”, he said in Monday’s interview.

“But if I open up that door and kind of magically make that closet disappear then we’re going to help a lot of people,” he added.

“The public will know that there is one in amongst the All Blacks.”

New Zealand’s sports minister, Grant Robertson, who is also gay, said Johnstone had blazed a trail for the national team – which is dominant on the world stage, venerated at home and has become a multi-billion dollar global brand.

“There is still a long way to go, but feels like a very significant step,” Robertson wrote in an Instagram post.

In a message posted on Twitter, Mark Robinson, the CEO of New Zealand Ruby and a former teammate of Johnstone’s, said the former player’s “strength and visibility will pave the way” for other players.

“We know that there are people who have not always been comfortable to be who they are in rugby,” Robinson wrote. “We want to be clear, no matter who you love, rugby has your back.”

Johnstone said other players should not feel pressure to come out.

“But the idea of an ideal rugby player … is an honest, strong person,” he said. “If you can make yourself stronger by relieving anxiety and stress, the you will fit that mould.”

Johnstone is not New Zealand’s first international rugby player to come out. The Black Ferns – the national women’s team – has multiple openly gay current and past players, including Louisa Wall, a former member of parliament who was part of the winning side at the 1995 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

But it has been much rarer for men in the sport’s top echelons to come out publicly. In 2009, the former Wales captain Gareth Thomas became the first openly gay professional rugby union player in the world.