Keegan Hirst becomes first British Rugby League player to come out as Gay
As Keegan Hirst led his team out at the Fox’s Biscuits stadium in Batley, West Yorkshire, he did so as the first British rugby league professional to come out as gay.
The Batley Bulldogs captain announced his sexuality in an interview with the Sunday Mirror, saying he hoped it would encourage other rugby league players to feel they could speak openly about their emotions.
“I had a wife and kids. I’ve been a builder, doorman, worked in factories, I play rugby. I tick every macho box. How could I be gay? I’m from Batley for goodness sake. No one is gay in Batley,” the prop said.
His decision to go public prompted a wave of support from teammates and fans, many taking to social media to praise the 6ft 4in Yorkshireman. “Respect to Keegan Hirst for coming out as gay. Couldn’t have been easy to announce in our sport. Proud to say I know you mate!” tweeted the Hull KR player James Green.
Alex Walmsley, a prop forward with St Helens, wrote: “Nothing but respect for my good friend and old front row partner @KeeganHirst.” Another message, from a fan, said: “changes nowt pal. #TopLad.”
Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, the sport’s governing body, congratulated Hirst but said he hoped that one day it would not be considered exceptional for a player to announce they were gay.
“Our sport prides itself on being open and accessible to all communities and I’m almost tempted to say that it’s not that remarkable,” he said. “I feel it’s hardly an issue worthy of comment because why shouldn’t a player come out and say that they’re gay?
“Particularly with a sport that is as expressive and tough as rugby league, I think there is a presupposition that would suppose that people who were gay would not be playing it, but that’s just not right.”
Hirst also took to Twitter to thank his well-wishers for their support, saying it was humbling to have received such a positive response.
Hirst follows in the footsteps of the Australian player Ian Roberts, who came out in 1995. The Welsh rugby union star Gareth Thomas, now retired, is the highest-profile rugby player to have said he was gay while still playing the sport. He came out in 2009, saying he wanted to lift the lid on “years of despair”.
In Hirst’s candid interview, he described the inner torment of struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. At his lowest, he said, he contemplated taking his own life.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin, probably for the first time ever,” he said. “I’m not withholding anything and there’s not that sense of dread. I suppose the stereotype of a rugby player is that you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to be macho.”
Hirst, who recently parted from his wife with whom he has two children, said he thought he would be disowned by friends and family. He summoned the courage to tell his wife he was gay a few weeks ago after realising that she blamed herself for their breakup.
“People keep saying I’m brave. I don’t feel brave. I’m just talking about me. There might be other players in the same position I was. If there are I’d tell them to just be honest with themselves,” he said.
Hirst admitted he was taken aback by theencouragement he received. “The support from my team-mates and other rugby league players has really surprised me, it’s all been positive,” he said. “These are tough blokes. We go out on the field together and it’s 26 blokes knocking seven shades out of each other.”
The 27-year-old captained his Batley Bulldogs side against their local rivals, the Dewsbury Rams, on Sunday. Paul Harrison, the Bulldogs chief executive, said he was surprised when Hirst told him two weeks ago that he was planning to come out, but said it was “no massive story really”.
“I didn’t know it’d escalate as big as this, but the club is there to support him,” Harrison said. “Gareth Thomas did it in rugby union and I think it makes it better if people feel they can come out and they’re not going to get ostracised. Hopefully if there’s other gay players out there – which I’m sure there are – if they have the courage to do it then it’s a good thing.”
The Rugby Football League became the first governing body of a major sport to sign up to Stonewall’s campaign against homophobia in 2008, when logos proclaiming “Some people are gay. Get over it!” were published in programmes and fanzines at grounds up and down the country.
Matthew Hodson, the chief executive of the gay men’s health charity GMFA, described Hirst’s announcement as a significant moment for a sport considered one of the most macho in the world.
“It’s clear for him that is was a real struggle,” he said. “I think it’s really important that for other people who have come from very traditional backgrounds, and have that expectation of ‘this is what a man is’, to find out that rugby players, builders, other sportspeople are gay.”
From The Guardian