Out gay rugby players are few and far between but there have been some groundbreakers
The 2023 Rugby World Cup is underway. Not only will many of us be glued to the screens to watch the outcome of these games, but some of us will also be watching for the on-field talent!
There’s no doubt the sport of rugby remains a largely macho one (especially in South Africa), but things are changing, with some strides being made to make the game more inclusive.
And while out LGBTQ professional stars are few and far between, there have been several gay rugby players that have made a splash in the sport (although many only came out after they left the game).
Here are nine groundbreaking players we thought worth highlighting!
A former All Black prop, Johnstone came out in January 2023, making him the first openly gay former or current All Black. Johnstone played for the All Blacks in 2005 as well as for several teams in New Zealand, France, Russia and Wales. “If I can be the first All Black that comes out as gay and take away the pressure and stigma surrounding the issue, then it can actually help other people,” he said at the time.
Former Wallabies rugby star Dan Palmer was praised in 2020 as the only the second male rugby union player to come out as gay to the public. Palmer, who played for the Waratahs and Brumbies in Super Rugby, revealed that he’d struggled with his sexuality. “The battle for me was primarily with myself rather than with obvious external pressures or discrimination,” he said.
Thomas was one of the world’s first openly gay professional rugby players. A former British Lions captain and the most capped Welsh rugby player in history, Thomas came out as gay in December 2009. He announced his retirement from rugby in late 2011. He was also widely applauded for revealing in 2019 that he was living with HIV and became a role model for many people who live with the virus.
Roberts takes credit for being the first rugby league player to come out of the closet, which he did all the way back in 1995. “I enjoyed the actual moment. It was empowering to be out. All the confusion that had been part of my life suddenly vanished. When the whole world knew I was gay, I wasn’t angry anymore,” he said in 2007. After the British-born Australian player left rugby league in 1998, he pursued an acting career.
Jennifer “Jen” Kish was the captain of the Canadian women’s sevens team that were runners-up at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia and won the bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She has done some work as a sports broadcaster and is married to Mohawk singer and performer, Shawnee.
Potter was an American rugby union player for more than a decade after first coming across rugby as a student at the University of New Mexico. She captained the USA Olympic Rugby Sevens team in 2016. She met her wife, Carol Fabrizio, through rugby. She is a survivor of both breaking her neck and cancer and lives in Indiana, USA.
Wall represented New Zealand in both netball as a Silver Fern and rugby union as a member of the Black Ferns. When she first played rugby at the age of five, she was banned from the field. After playing elite netball for four years, she went on to become a pioneer in women’s rugby. “I was born in a particular time; an era when men played rugby and where women washed the jerseys and provided the after-match- function food and hospitality. The notion that women could play this physical sport wasn’t even a consideration,” she said in 2022. After leaving the sport, she pursued a political career and spearheaded the bill that made same-sex marriage legal in New Zealand in 2013.
The burly Mark Bingham played for San Francisco Fog RFC, which was a gay-inclusive team. Bingham was a powerful second-row man. He died on September 11, 2001, a victim of the 9-11 attacks on the United States. It is believed he was among the men who tried to wrestle control back of United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed into a Pennsylvania field. A biennial gay rugby union tournament, the Bingham Cup, was created in his memory and held for the first time in 2002.
Stanley was the first English rugby union player to come out as gay. He was also a UK Sevens player and came out in 2015. Two years later he married his partner, whom he had met on a dating site. Stanley said he feared that being openly gay would ruin his rugby career. “You are so worried about what people will think and I thought I couldn’t be a macho rugby player the way I was, and there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life.” Happily, his coming out was well received by friends, family and his teammates.
Let’s hope that one day a South African rugby star will join this list!