UK

First openly gay rugby league player hails 'overwhelming' support

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Media captionKeegan Hirst says it was "inconceivable" for him to think he could be gay

The first British rugby league player to come out as gay says he has been "overwhelmed" and "humbled" by fans' and fellow players' support for him.

Keegan Hirst, who is separated from his wife, said the time had come "to be true to myself".

The father-of-two told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire show he did not want "to go on some kind of crusade".

But the Batley Bulldogs captain said he hoped his decision to come out would "help break down stereotypes".

Hirst announced his sexuality in an interview with the Sunday Mirror, hours before playing in a match against local rivals Dewsbury Rams.

The 27-year-old prop said the reaction at the game had been fantastic.

'Bit of stick'

"There's not any gay people in Batley, not that I know of," he told the BBC. "I thought it would be a bit of a taboo, a bit of an issue, but it wasn't at all.

"There was nothing but support and well-wishers yesterday at the ground from fans, players, the club. And then social media's gone mad. It's really overwhelming and quite humbling.

"You expect a bit of stick from fans, from players - you get it whether you're gay or not - but there wasn't any of that."

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Image caption Hirst said he hoped other players would feel able "to be who they really are"

Hirst said he only recently came to accept he was gay when his marriage broke down.

"I suppose there's been feelings there for a while but I was convinced it would go away.

"I just thought it was a phase - it was inconceivable for me to think that I could be gay.

"I lived my life normally as society says we should - have a girlfriend, have a wife."

Hirst - who started his career at the Bradford Bulls Academy - said his behaviour changed as he struggled with his identity.

"I'd go out for days at a time. I didn't act like a good husband... like a father should act. It was never a conscious decision... maybe thinking back it was a bit of escapism."

'Their own skin'

Very few professional rugby players have chosen to come out.

In 1995, Australian Rugby League player Ian Roberts, then aged 30, became the first high-profile player to publicly reveal he was gay.

Welsh rugby union star Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 aged 35 and switched to league the following year.

Hirst added: "I suppose in sport it's still a bit of a taboo, but judging by the feedback I've had it's not as big a taboo any more.

"I don't want to go on some kind of crusade, but pave the way for other people to be able to come out, to feel comfortable enough in their own skin to be who they really are."

Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, told the Guardian the sport was proud to be open to all.

"I feel it's hardly an issue worthy of comment because why shouldn't a player come out and say that they're gay?"

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