When Gus Johnston posted a video on YouTube talking about being gay in sports on Sept. 13, he became the highest-level male field hockey player in the world to be publicly out. The video featured Johnston talking for 12 minutes about his feelings on the discrimination that kept him in the closet for so many years.
It’s something he’d been thinking about for 13 years. One of the impetuses for producing the video this year was a sports initiative from the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission. The program, titled “Fair go, sport,” is designed to promote sexual and gender diversity in field hockey. With an advertising background, Johnston felt the program was a little lacking.
“Part of me doing this video was a response to that campaign, which I found a little frustrating because I saw how limited it was and how little it was scratching the surface of what needed to be talked about,” Johnston told Outsports over the phone from Melbourne.
The YouTube video in which he came out was titled, “The reality of homophobia in sport.” Yet Johnston says he never faced overt homophobia in all his years playing field hockey.
“I would be lying if I said I was the recipient of direct, aggressive acts of homophobia,” Johnston said. “It’s about this kind of fog that spreads through the sporting culture that is there. It’s almost this unwritten idea of masculinity and machoism and all those things that exist around it. Being a homosexual, in a cliched sense, contradicts those ideas.”
Johnson says he never experienced homophobia on the field. It was largely what he calls the “ingrained attitudes in sport” and his own personal, emotional struggle coming to terms with his sexuality, that kept him closeted for so many years.
“Although people don’t actively discriminate, they also don’t actively create an environment that’s inclusive,” Johnston said. “And that’s not just about homosexuality, but it can be in relation to race and gender as well.
“There wasn’t homophobia directed at me personally, but I was still witness to that behind-the-back sneering and rude remarks directed at other people. And that’s why I felt complicit in that, because I hadn’t actively stood against that. If I were a young gay guy and in the closet and my mates were making jokes about somoene wh owas gay, then that would be enough to scare me, to make me think, ‘I don’t want people talking about me behind my back.’”
When he made the video during the summer (rather, his winter), he doubted whether anyone would notice, whether anyone would care. Johnston, a field hockey goalie, isn’t exactly a household name, even in his hometown of Melbourne. While Aussie Rules Football, cricket, soccer and swimming dominate the sports pages, field hockey is likely akin to lacrosse in the United States.
Still, Johnston played at the most elite level of his sport within the state of Victoria at the southern tip of Australia; Victoria is the country’s second most populus state with about 5.5 million people. He was on scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport for seven years. And while he didn’t make a living from his sport, he spent about 20 hours per week practicing and competing during the season, which runs during the Australian winter from March to September.
Hockey Victoria’s CEO Ben Hartung was effusive in praising Johnston’s decision:
My personal respect for Gus was elevated even further on Monday of this week when he contacted me to notify me that he had produced a video to highlight his personal challenges and experiences in relation to his sexuality and that he would like me to watch the video. I am very grateful for the opportunity that Gus provided me because the video that I watched was extraordinarily powerful and thought provoking. In the video, Gus declares that he is a gay man and courageously he relates his personal journey in reaching this declaration.
Towleroad’s Brandon Thorp called Johnston’s video “emotional” and “erudite.” The Good Men Project’s Kile Ozier called it “a powerful conversation and exploration of manhood / masculinity / sexuality / sport…and gripping; for me, at least.”
As the overwhelmingly positive Internet response grew, and the hundreds of lauditory emails filled his inbox, Johnston realized his story was hitting home.
“It doesn’t matter that I’m not famous, it doesn’t matter whether I’m a superduper professional athlete or not,” Johnson said. “What matters is that I’ve got a story and I want to share it. And if people find value in it then fantastic. The most important thing to me is that young people who are in a similar situation to me see my video and think maybe they can be who they want to be. Every time I think that a young person might be pushed away from sport because of their homosexuality, it breaks my heart.”
You can follow Johnston on Twitter.