Posted Mon, 17 Aug 2015, 12:03pm by Ian Watson
The 6ft 4in captain of West Yorkshire side becomes the first British professional rugby player to come out.
“At first I couldn’t even say ‘I’m gay’ in my head, let alone out loud. Now I feel like I’m letting out a long breath that I’ve held in for a long time.”
Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Mirror, the dad of two opens up for the first time about coming to terms with being gay; respected prop, Keegan Hirst says:
“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 only time I felt free of the torment was when I stepped on the rugby pitch. Now I feel free.”
Rugby, one of the world’s most “macho” sports, has of recent times also become one of the world’s most accepting sports. In March of 2015, World Rugby, the international governing body for Rugby competition, joined with Internatioal Gay Rugby, an organization that promotes LGBT inclusion in the sport, and runs the Bingham Cup tournament, to develop new policies and educational programs to help wipe homophobia off the pitch.
Keegan isn’t the first openly gay professional player in the world, but with very few out players, it’s still a tough and emotional go.
“The support from my team-mates 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.”
Coming out isn’t just on the pitch. The Yorkshireman, who started his career at Bradford Bulls Academy, had a wife and two children.
In his interview with the Sunday Mirror, he recounts the emotional journey.
“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."
His mum Wendy brought him and his two younger siblings up on a working-class council estate in Batley.
His dad had walked out on him and his mother before Keegan was born.
He started playing rugby at 11, and quit sixth-form college to pursue his rugby dreams, starting on a scholarship at Huddersfield before joining Bradford Bulls’ under-18 academy.
“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?
“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.”
He was working as a doorman when he met the girl he was later to marry, who then worked behind the bar.
They began dating when he was 19, and had a daughter together a year later. They wed in Wakefield in November 2011, and 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…
“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 six.
“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.
“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.
“Thankfully I have friends and family I love and was able to talk myself out of it.
“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.
“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 went to her and asked if I could have a word. My stomach was in knots. We sat at the kitchen table and I said, ‘There’s something I need to tell you’. 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.
“She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but she was supportive. She was totally blind-sided. She’d had absolutely no idea.
“It was incredibly tough, but for me it was a weird situation because it also felt liberating.
“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.”
You can see the whole Sunday Mirror interview here, including the video sit-down.
With files from the Sunday Mirror.
Photo Credit: Andy Stenning/Sunday Mirror