#RoleModelReading: An interview with Gus Johnston

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

Angus “Gus” Johnston, pictured above on the left with his partner Andrew (photo by Kevin Truong), is in his late thirties, thin in the face, with a slim, athletic build, clear sharp eyes and a neatly clipped red beard. He has had and is still having a successful career in the advertising industry, and is an art director, filmmaker and writer. In 2011, after years as a professional hockey goalkeeper, having represented his state of Victoria and been vice-captain of Essendon’s club team, Gus came out in a video on YouTube.

It was both public and intimate. Gus was making himself the first openly gay professional hockey player in Australia. And yet, the fact that he was gay was unknown to many people close to him, so the video served in some ways to democratise his coming-out: it was at once a public statement and an intimate admission. He is aware of this tension – it heightens and lends authenticity to his vulnerability, and the great care that went into making the video is palpable.

Since making that video, in itself courageous, Gus has worked as an ambassador for issues of mental health and written numerous op-eds in support of equality and sexual diversity in the world of sport. Homer contacted Gus after watching his coming-out video, still today a moving and essential bit of viewing, to discuss sport, aggression, vulnerability, humility and, ultimately, Camus.

Who was your first role model, and do you remember why?

I think we all unconsciously adopt role models from a pretty young age. Whether it’s our parents, that older kid up the street who had a cooler BMX than everyone else, our teachers, or in my case, the many sporting coaches I’ve had throughout my life.

Photo by Kris Washusen.
Photo by Kris Washusen.

The one thing I think I’ve always been innately good at is identifying worthwhile role models, or at least surrounding myself with them. Although, as I say that now, it occurs to me that maybe it was just luck and circumstance, a product of my surroundings, that landed me in the right places at the right time. Maybe a bit of both. That being said, none of us really actively choose our role models, we’re just drawn toward them, I suppose. It’s a magnetism.

When I came out at the age of 32, I became acutely aware of the power we all have as role models in one another’s lives. We always think of authority figures, celebrities or sporting stars when we talk about role models. But just in the way we don’t really ‘choose’ our role models, no-one really gets to choose the mantle of “role model”. You can choose whether to call yourself one, but we’re all role models. Your friends, your siblings, the man you pass on the street, they all form a model for you to emulate in one way or another.

Before I played (and fell in love with) hockey as a sport, I played soccer for a number of years. I remember I had a coach named Terry Roberts, I was probably eight or nine years old at the time, but my memory of him now (and even then) is of a man of compassion and empathy. He saw ability in individuals and nurtured that. Or allowed it to run free. I saw and sensed something in him that I wanted to see in myself, I think.

And that’s the thing about emulation, isn’t it? We all look at one another and seek to see some version of ourselves. To see our own face in their reflection, perhaps. And when we do, I think those people become our role models.

You can choose whether to call yourself one, but we’re all role models

Suffice to say, many young men, and women, are regularly presented with the same types of people as versions of a role model. As I mentioned before, when I came out, I had to sudden and stark realisation of how few gay male role models were visible to me growing up. Not just in sport, but life generally.

I suppose that’s when I realised, “Oh, wait, I’m a role model. We all are.” Which is why everyone should tell their story, share their experience, be open and honest about who they are. Because there is so much we can all learn from one another.

When you think of the years that were truly formative to your sense of self, be it to your younger self or the man you are now, where do they fall in your life? What roles did school, sport, family, personal choice or society have to play?

It wasn’t until I started playing hockey at the age of twelve that I think I started forming a true sense of self, of who I was and what I was capable of. Not as an athlete, but simply as a man. I think perhaps it was that I liked who I became as hockey player. And for me that took on a very literal kind of transformation. Before hockey, everyone called me Angus. When I started playing hockey, I immediately became Gus. Not through choice, that was just what people wanted to call me. And so Gus is the name I go by now. It carried with it all the things that made me feel empowered as a hockey player.

So sport has had an immeasurably large and positive impact on my life. In defining me. Not that it was a definition that came easily. The flipside to all the positivity I associate with sport is that it was also an escape. That “Gus” became a suit of armour for me, protecting me from confronting my sexuality and my deeper truth. So that was and has been a struggle, reconciling those two opposing forces.

But certainly what I loved about team sport and what it gave me was an opportunity to just be great at something. To be brave. To be bigger than I felt. To be courageous. And yes, it’s just sport and it’s not life and death. But when you’re in the moment, it is. As a goalkeeper, every day I was called upon to throw my body in the line of fire, to defend my team’s position and do my job with unbridled conviction. All of those things were, in the truest sense, character-building for me.

Outside of sport, I was extraordinarily lucky and privileged to attend an exceptional school: St Michael’s Grammar, in Melbourne. They had really great teachers and a really robust culture. And, even better for me, it was a school that didn’t place sport at the top of the educational pyramid. It was a part of our journeys, but drama, the arts, languages, outdoor education, all of these things were as much a sport as sport itself.

It’s quite humbling to think about the sacrifices any parent makes in shaping their child’s life. And my parents are no exception to that idea

And I should point out that I often focus on the external influences in my life, namely sport and school. But my family are so much a part of who I am that it’s hard at times to distinguish where that line of influence begins and ends. Genetically and environmentally.

It took me about thirty years to realise two things. The first being that my mum and dad are two of the most interesting people I have ever met in my entire life. They are curious, ravenous minds who care about the people and world around them. They’re both terrible at expressing that care. But it’s there.

I can’t say I’ve ever met a more capable woman than my mother. I suppose all sons think that? But the thing I love about her the most is she has no idea how extraordinary she is. And that’s what makes her so fascinating to me, the wondrous nature of her potential, she could have been anything she wanted to be.

The second thing? Simply that my parents are and always will be my greatest role models. It’s quite humbling to think about the sacrifices any parent makes in shaping their child’s life. And my parents are no exception to that idea.

What symbols, values or behaviours do you remember being encouraged to aspire to or live out in order to become or be a man?

I was unashamedly aggressive on the sporting field. Not outside the rules, but I was definitely intense when I kitted up for a game. A man possessed, if you will. But what this actually taught me was the idea of balance. As a man, and as a person, we need to be many things, at times strong, stoic and masculine and at other times vulnerable, sensitive, quiet, compassionate or feminine.

Being so aggressive on the sporting field actually allowed me to be less aggressive away from the field. I suppose in a traditional sense you would call this “an outlet”, but however you frame it, I learned balance from my experience in sport.

Do I think that’s the outward projection of what sport teaches men? Well, unfortunately, no. I think at times it can be hard to draw that distinction. We see hyper masculinity being lauded on a sporting field and in other walks of life and it’s very easy to be misled by that, to believe that is who a man should be and how they should behave in every aspect of their life. Because society seems to reward it.

And that idea of balance probably took me a long time to realise. I probably had to work that out over time, through making mistakes, and behaving badly.

I think sexuality, also, is often linked too closely to the idea of manhood. Specifically heterosexuality. In most walks of life there is simply a sort of “guilty until proven innocent” kind of expectation that young men and women are heterosexual.

Part of the process of becoming my true self has been reconciling or separating the idea of being a “man” from being a “gay man”. I often use the parallel comparison of being a “man” versus being a “sportsman”. Encouraging young men to first define themselves as good men. Because I think good men make great sportsmen.

What is or was your perception of the way society encouraged you to think and act, as opposed to the way hockey did? How distinct were they?

The reason I am such a huge advocate for sport being a part of everyone’s lives is because I think the sporting stage is simply a rehearsal for life. There is so much good to be gained from sport. Particularly team sport. Consequence is a big theme. Every action has an effect. There are winners and losers. Success and failure. Joy and heartbreak. Community and belonging. But there’s no denying the hyper-masculinity or aggression required to excel. Any sporting pursuit can bleed the boundaries in a negative way. Great coaches, in a sense, should also be equipped to maintain that context for their athletes. To help guide them and understand where the guard-rails lie.

Every athlete should read, watch films, look at art, travel – stretch themselves and their world view. Having balance and understanding, having different perspectives, is how I’ve muddled my way through life

I suppose this raises a big difference in professional sport as opposed to amateur, community-based sport. If your only influences are from within the world of sport and the only demands placed on you come from within that world, then it’s clear how those boundaries can become very foggy. It’s why every athlete should read, watch films, look at art, travel – stretch themselves and their world view. Having balance and understanding, having different perspectives, is how I’ve muddled my way through life. And even then, I know my view is limited.

Photo by Kevin Truong.
Photo by Kevin Truong.

What has been your experience, since you came out, of society’s response to your generosity and vulnerability in that act?

Until I came out, I never really contemplated the power of vulnerability. How opening yourself up to the world creates some kind of otherworldly bond between you and whoever is exposed to that vulnerability.

Coming out in a public forum like YouTube opened me up to the entire world in a very literal way. People from every walk of life and every corner of the globe seemed to connect with my message, or rather my story. When I sat down and shared my experience in that video, I never really set out to convey a specific message. I wasn’t asking for anything, other than perhaps that people might just listen. Maybe I just needed to talk. But also I think instinctively I knew it was something people needed to hear. What they gained from listening and watching wasn’t for me to determine. There was certainly an enhanced sense of understanding. People for the first time got a raw insight into the struggle and experience of a homosexual man in sport. Which five years later seems like less of big deal. But when I came out in 2011, there was still very little narrative around a gay sporting man’s experience. The hurt and isolation that is felt. The fear of ostracism. But also a lot of people, older heterosexual men included, simply connected with my honesty, my vulnerability. They saw a man dropping his guard and what they saw wasn’t weakness, but an unexpected strength.

The whole experience of coming out in the way I did was extraordinarily humbling. Not least for the thousands of emails I received, in many cases giving their senders an outlet for their own catharsis. But that in turn empowered me to continue telling my story.

I think when anyone comes out as gay or bisexual or shares with the world a deep personal thing about themselves, that sense of a ‘weight lifting’ is universal. But I don’t think it’s because that weight disappears, per se, but rather the burden is shared. And I was fortunate to be able to share it with many, many people. Some who I knew and loved and somewhere complete strangers on the other side of the world. We all have our own struggles and own inner journeys. Some are tougher than others. But sharing the journey is always easier.

I never really contemplated the power of vulnerability. How opening yourself up to the world creates some kind of otherworldly bond between you and whoever is exposed to that vulnerability

That, for me, is never more evident than on the many occasions over the last five years when young men have contacted me and shared with me horrific stories that have led to them contemplating suicide. And that my story, my experience, my little ol’ YouTube video has had such a profound impact on their state of mind that they’ve chosen a different path. That they found a resolved sense of hope. It’s hard not to feel humbled when you read messages like those.

What kind of structural changes would you like to see made to the way people are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to view sexualities and gender?

In the sporting world many governing bodies have gone a long way in recent years to encouraging conversations around the value of diversity. And namely sexual diversity. We see this trend popularly spreading through many facets of society. But for me, it’s important that we don’t limit those conversations to the positive spin. Flying rainbow flags and proclaiming it’s okay to be your true self is wonderful and worthwhile, but it’s naïve not to overtly address the specifics of homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discriminatory language, behaviour and attitudes.

Creating awareness is brilliant, but it can often create a false sense victory. An issue becomes highly visible and people start believing it’s no longer an issue. That we’ve moved forward. That we should stop talking about it. We see how naïve this is when you examine the prevalence of racism in the world. It’s sort of mindboggling that people are still racist, right? Like, what the fuck? But sure enough, given an ounce of airtime, we see racism continually rear its head. You needn’t look further than the current presidential campaign in the United States. One of the two candidates is openly racist on a daily basis. Yet racism is one of the most talked-about, visible issues in the history of humankind.

The most important thing for me in any kind of educational environment, be that in a school or on the sporting field, is that young people are exposed to a variety of role models. People with different stories, different sexualities, different upbringings, different perspectives. Diversity is everything in rounding us out as humans and giving us each the time and space to find our own selves and identities within the crazy spectrum of humanity and sexuality.

What do you value most? What do you love?

I love the truth. I love people who know themselves and rock it. I love artists, musicians, sportspeople and filmmakers who uncover their talent and just work it, regardless of what the world thinks. That’s truth to me, an honesty with oneself. Not in limiting your scope but milking everything you’ve got. Those people who are prepared to spend it all and die with empty pockets. That’s what I love.

Who would you have encouraged yourself to look up, whose behaviour to aspire to, if you were a boy or teenager today? Whose words would you give yourself?

I love this quote by French philosopher Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” I hope that’s not too simplistic a response? But the truth is, I wouldn’t change my journey, we each confront joy and sadness in varied doses throughout our life. And right now, I just feel compelled to share my journey and my experience, in the hope that it might spark in others that extraordinary light that shines within all of us. Oh man, I hope that doesn’t sound too heady? But you know what I mean.

You can follow Gus on Twitter @gusjohnston and find out more about him at his website, gusjohnston.com.

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