Sport and sexuality, Bill Hastings

Broken Play
Nicholas Sheppard
RSVP, $35.00, ISBN 9780994140814

Grant Robertson, our minister of finance, has a picture in his office of a rugby team called the Krazy Knights. The photo was taken 20 years ago. He is in it. All of the young men in the picture are smiling, a bit sweaty, and glowing with physical exertion. They are happy brothers-in-arms, enjoying the camaraderie of a match well played. All but two are gay.

Why does that last sentence seem to bring the previous paragraph to a screeching halt? It is as though the font changes, or a large gap has opened up. Why is it so difficult to bridge the gap between sport and sexuality? Why is the heterosexual presumption so strong in sport, particularly men’s sport? Why has the Australian Rugby Union done nothing about Israel Folau’s homophobic ranting? Why Is There No Gay All Black? (That question should be asked in full caps, but I will leave that to the editor.)

The way that question is framed reveals the problem that Nicholas Sheppard explores in this eloquent novel about bridging the gap between sport and sexuality. It’s not that there hasn’t been a gay All Black. There is nothing about the ability to play rugby well that would include or exclude people on the basis of their sexuality. Athletic skill, fitness, being a team player and having a strategic or tactical mind, are what matter. There probably have been gay All Blacks. It’s just that no one will ever know until they tell us. But why should they tell us?

They should tell us because society has invested so much in the All Blacks. The All Black concept is a powerful defining cultural force. Who wouldn’t want to be an All Black? They are athletic, good-looking, smart, kind, and world-leaders in their sport. So is Alec Haudepin, the novel’s protagonist. He has dreamed his whole life of becoming an All Black. He plays provincial rugby and is on the verge of selection as an All Black. He has the rippling abs, he has the intelligence, he can read a game, but he also has the hots for boys. A teacher once told Alec to act more manly, because he overheard some students question Alec’s sexuality. His father tells him no good ever came of someone revealing he is a homosexual when Alec tells him about a boy who has been bashed for being perceived as gay. It’s better just to keep it to yourself.

I thought at first that Sheppard dodged a bullet by having Alec come out after he is selected as an All Black, and after he plays very well in three tests. Sheppard gives Alec the added protection of All Black invincibility that makes his coming out much easier. Thinking about it again, though, the book could not have been written any other way. This is about an individual coming to grips with the sporting world’s implicit and explicit promotion of discrimination. It is not about the sporting world acknowledging homophobia and doing something about it. It would be difficult to suspend one’s disbelief if Alec had been selected after coming out. I’m happy to cut Alec some slack and let him have his day. Even though the message is “Don’t come out until you’re an All Black” (which is not a very inclusive or hopeful message to send our youth), you can do a power of good to come out once you’ve made it. Perhaps Alec reads life as well as he reads a match.

Sheppard brings us into Alec’s mind, but also into his body. He writes sparely and with elegance about the pleasure Alec takes looking down on his washboard abs during a sexually pointless visit to a sex worker. He tells us how good Alec feels when his muscles are warm and limber from exertion. He writes about the intricacies of rugby which, to this lay person, are convincing. He also writes a good sex scene. It made me wonder whether narcissism is maybe the first step on the road to discovering one’s innate homosexuality. 

Describing what is in Alec’s head is Sheppard’s tour de force. It is the descriptions of little things that reveal the great depths of Alec’s agony and shame. Finely noticed details of the physical environment in which Alec finds himself give context to his constant internal second-guessing about how his immediate decisions might affect how others think of him and, of course, his life’s goal to be an All Black. There is a lot of packing and unpacking, unwashed dishes, boxes of books, shifting flats, exercise, and, of course, a rugby tour, before Alec is selected, comes out, and moves in with the young man with whom he has fallen in love. A settled and happy man, comfortable in his own finely tuned body, makes for a better All Black. Who would have thought?

Every rugby player should read Sheppard’s cracker first novel, Folau especially. It belongs on Robertson’s bookshelf, below the picture. And to the gay All Blacks: come on out, fellas – you will be powerful role models for our young keen rugby players, who should not have to put up with stigma and prejudice barring the achievement of their dreams. It might hurt a bit at first, but you’ve got the power and protection of the brand. And, as Sheppard’s book reveals, it gets better – for everyone. 

Bill Hastings was the first openly gay person to be appointed a judge in New Zealand.

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