Rugby player Keegan Hirst received widespread praise for publicly coming out in August last year
, and has now shared what the reaction has been like from his teammates.
The 27-year-old Batley Bulldogs captain and Attitude Award winner received support from across the sporting
and entertainment world after his announcement, with Sir Elton John
, Emma Watson
and Stephen Fry just some of the voices to add their encouragement.
“I thought I’d be disowned by friends and family but I haven’t been,” he said at the time.
“The support from my teammates and other rugby league players has really surprised me, it’s all been positive.”
But as the only openly gay rugby player in the country’s elite divisions, Hirst told ITV News
he first confided in Alex Rowe and Joe Chandler, who he considers his two closest friends in the team.
“To be honest, I was happy,” said Chandler. “I felt good that you viewed us as good enough friends to tell us. It meant a lot to me, to be the person for you to come out to. ”
When asking his teammates if they had ever suspected anything, Chandler adds he had a “little bit of an inkling”.
Hirst's head coach at Batley, John Kear, agreed it might have been a much different climate for the star to come out 20 years ago.
“I think the reaction would have been massively different, yes, I just couldn’t see it happening 40 years ago, 30 odd, [or] 20,” he said.
“People such as Gareth Thomas and yourself are very brave to be trailblazers and rightly so, you should be honest with yourselves, and honest with the people around you, because that’s the only way you’ll be happy.”
In the weeks following Hirst’s decision to come out, his wife Sara spoke of her difficulty
with the news, but added she was “proud of her husband”.
And while Hirst added “rugby league has had its problems over its years”, including homophobic slurs from Zak Hardaker and fines to Castleford Tigers fans, diversity was becoming a greater priority, with Phil Stewart establishing the Leeds Hornets an an-inclusive club that welcomed gay players.
“From the start, we’ve marketed it as an inclusive side, so there’s straight people, there’s gay people, it’s just another way of getting people into sport who might be discouraged from joining an established team,” said Stewart.
Hirst said an ideal future would see no need for all-inclusive clubs, with younger generations of players integrated enough to not consider one’s sexuality an issue.
“It took me so long to tell me teammates because I didn’t know how they were going to react - if they were going to say, ‘we don’t want you here no more’, or ‘we’re not going to play with you no more’."
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