Keegan Hirst is now Britain’s first out Rugby League player.
Speaking to the Sunday Mirror, the 6-foot-4 captain says that being open about his sexuality has been a relief.
“At first I couldn’t even say ‘I’m gay’ in my head, let alone out loud,” Hirst says. “Now I feel like I’m letting out a long breath that I’ve held in for a long time.”
Raised by a single mother on a council estate in Batley, Hirst struggled with his sexuality for years.
“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,” Hirst said.
The Yorkshire native, who recently split up with his wife, says that he came to terms with his sexuality this year and his journey to come out started when he saw what his being in the closet was doing to his wife.
“I finally told my wife I was gay a few weeks ago. She blamed herself when we separated but I knew she’d done nothing wrong. I couldn’t bear it any more, the guilt of it all, of her not knowing why I left. It was eating me up."
“I couldn’t get the words out, I felt like I was going to be sick. But I managed to say it. She didn’t say anything at first. I explained why and how I felt, it was very emotional. We were both in tears... We haven’t told the kids yet, they’re too young to understand. I’m not sure how I’d explain it.”
Though it was initially nerve-wracking, Hirst says he’s all the better for it.
"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.”
His decision to go public was met with overwhelming support, from both family members and fans.
"I thought I’d be disowned by friends and family but I haven’t been. 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. The support from my teammates and other rugby league players has really surprised me, it’s all been positive."
“These are tough blokes. We go out on the field together and it’s 26 blokes knocking seven shades out of each other. But on the other side of it, you go through blood, sweat and tears together — and they’ve been there for me when I needed them most.”
Keegan first began feeling same-sex attractions when he was a teenager. “I had girlfriends on and off, but at about 15, I started feeling attracted to guys too.
“I was having conflicting feelings, but it was something I suppressed. It wasn’t the done thing to admit it. By the time I was 18, I was in complete denial, hoping it would go away. It was inconceivable to tell anybody how I was feeling. I didn’t have it right in my own head, so how could I tell anybody?”
Hirst and his two younger siblings grew up in a working-class council estate (Britain's version of public housing) in Bately. They were raised by their mother, Keegan's father having walked out on the family before he was born. Hirst began playing rugby when he was 11, and he quit school to pursue the sport, starting on a scholarship at Huddersfield before joining Bradford Bulls’ under-18 academy.
“Society dictates that when you’re a 16-year-old lad you have a girlfriend, you sleep with her and that’s how it is. Especially as a rugby player and a lad who grew up on a council estate. You go out, go drinking, carrying on — that’s what you do. I convinced myself, no way could I be gay, it was inconceivable.”
While working as bar doorman, he met his wife, who was working behind the bar. They started dating when he was 19. They had their daughter a year later and married in 2011. Their son was born in 2012.
“The day I married her I thought I was going to be with her for the rest of my life. I loved her and was glad I was marrying her.” However his wrestling with his sexuality was wreaking havoc on his life at home he explains: “I was playing matches on a Sunday and then I’d go out and get in some ridiculous states. I was drinking anything and everything, pints, shots. I was drinking 20 pints-plus every time. I’d roll in at 5:30 on a Monday and have to be up for work at 6... My wife would ask why was I out till all hours, who was I with, what was I doing, where had I been? Sometimes I couldn’t answer because I just couldn’t remember — but I do know I was always faithful, I’ve never cheated on her... It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy with her, it was that I wasn’t happy with myself... I feel bad for what I’ve put her through, but hopefully it’s a case of better late than never. She’s got the chance now to get on with her life, to find someone new to be happy with. She deserves that.”
Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
When things became darkest, Hirst considered taking his own life. “On the worst days I’d think, ‘I can’t do this, I’d rather be dead than for it all to come out.' "
“I never got as far as actually tying a noose or having tablets in my hand. But I thought how I would do it, where I would do it, when I would do it."
Hirst follows in the footsteps of the Australian player Ian Roberts, who came out in 1995.
Besides his family, friends, teammates, and fans, the higher ups in the Rugby League have also congratulated Hirst on his coming out.
“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,” says Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, the sport’s governing body. “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.”
Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas is the highest-profile rugby player to have said he was gay while still playing the sport. He came out in 2009, and he officially retired from the sport in 2011. He has a memoir that will come out later this year.
The Rugby Football League has made major steps toward inclusiveness in recent years. It was the first governing body of a major sport to sign up to Stonewall’s campaign against homophobia in 2008. Logos reading “Some people are gay. Get over it!” were published in programs and magazines at rugby grounds across the UK.
Having come to terms with his sexuality, Hirst is ready to begin his new life out and proud.
“One day, a few months ago, I just thought, ‘You know what? Actually, this is who I am. I’m gay. I felt I could finally be honest with myself... I haven’t been out as a gay guy on the pull yet, so that’ll be a new experience. I don’t know yet how these things work.”