Keegan Hirst: “When people make any change that works out well, they wish they could have done it sooner.”

This article features strong language.

Of the growing number of LGBTQIA+ athletes in the United Kingdom, Keegan Hirst’s story is relatively well known.

He fell into Rugby League, never being a sporty child and even being taken unawares by a coach coming to his door claiming to have spoken to his mum about getting him along to a practice. Despite that arguably sounding like the start of a story that would dominate news headlines for months, thankfully, it was entirely true.

Even then Hirst never felt like he was particularly good at the sport until his teens. From there he kicked on, earning a place in the Bradford Bulls academy and forging a career in sport that he never felt was possible as a kid.

Hirst played over 100 matches for hometown club Batley Bulldogs, and despite being married with two children he had something of a reputation when it came to nights out.

What was not known to his teammates, and the public, at that point was that Hirst was seriously struggling with his sexuality. With hindsight he believes he knew he was gay at around 14 or 15 years old, but after years in deep denial he sunk into a depression to the point he had suicidal thoughts.

By his own admission, he was not particularly good to live with while he was leading a double life, but he did eventually come out, and from there his life changed.

LGBTQIA+ athletes, especially in men’s team sports were rare, and Hirst was immediately grouped with the likes of Welsh Rugby Union legends Gareth Thomas and Nigel Owens in blazing a trail for queer people in rugby.

Now, he speaks extremely highly of sport’s impact on him personally. He believes it gave his competitiveness a productive outlet to focus on, helped improve his self-confidence and energy levels, as well as helping him develop an all-important ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Perhaps the sport also played a role in him being comfortable in leading the way. He was, after all, given the captaincy at times in his career, and that meant he did not shy away from being the first British Rugby League player to come out.

“Representation is massive, that was a big aim,” Hirst explained.

“For me, being gay and looking like I look – even if you take all the sport out of it – I didn’t think it was a thing. I’ve talked about that before, I did not relate to Elton John – who I speak to semi-regularly now – I wasn’t Louie Spence, I wasn’t Elton, I wasn’t those kind of people.

“I’m very aware that I’m 6’4 and have a thick West Yorkshire accent. You’d be surprised at how much you try not to be 6’4 when you’re younger. You don’t want to stand out as much as possible, and it’s literal tall poppy syndrome.

Keegan Hirst stands out again now as a rare example of an out Rugby League player.

“I think that was a big part of it, but saying that even when Gareth Thomas came out, there was nothing where I went ‘oh right, I could do that’, because I was so far in denial at that point.

“This is an opinion, but as much as people like to say they want to be leaders, they’re not willing to put their head above the parapet and risk being shot at with their neck on the line. That is often what leaders have to do, they have to be the first into the breach. Nobody wants to be the first to do something in case it goes wrong.

“That’s why I think representation is so important, to know that somebody else did it and they didn’t get shot down. I explicitly said at the time I do not want to be a role model, but I’m very feet first – if I’m doing something I’m doing it. We got a dog last year, my partner said let’s do it and within a week we had a dog. If I’m doing something, I’ve committed, I’m doing it.

“I had come to terms with being gay, got my head around it, and it wasn’t like I started shouting it from the rooftops but when I was asked about it, I remember that split second that felt like an eternity where I thought ‘what do I do? Do I tell them?’ I just thought ‘fuck it, go for it and let the cards fall where they might’.

“Once you’ve done it once, the cat is out of the bag really, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so that was it. I’ve always said if you’re going the wrong way, do it with purpose so at least there’s conviction to it. That has always been me – I once brought a trombone home from school and my mum said I can’t learn how to play that, and I did it basically just to spite her, practicing every day. If I’m going in, I’m going all in. That’s just me I guess.

“I didn’t come out because I thought there’s a gap in the market because I suppose at the time I didn’t think there was. Gareth had done what he did, and I wasn’t aware of the impact of what him coming out had on me, kind of paving the way, and at the end of the day I thought I’m just a Championship rugby player in the middle of nowhere.

“I didn’t think there was going to be a big reception or anything, I absolutely did not think it would get the reaction that it did, I just did it because I needed to know that I had gone the whole hog.”

The immediate aftermath of Hirst going public with his sexuality certainly did see a reaction in and out of rugby. He was suddenly mixing with famous faces, being asked to do interviews and photoshoots, but he remained matter-of-fact about it all with the help of his teammates making sure he remained with his feet firmly on the ground.

As is often the case with athletes who come out in the middle of their careers, Hirst hit a new level on the pitch by signing for top-tier Super League outfit Wakefield Trinity. In retrospect, he can’t help but wonder if he could have reached that level earlier under different circumstances, but he has no regrets about the path he took.

“There was no difference on the pitch playing against other teams,” he insisted.

“That sounds like there was with my own team, but only in the sense that it was something else to take the piss about, and not in a malicious way.

“On the field, I never heard anything from any of the players. Literally nothing changed. I remember saying to the lads that I was surprised nobody had ever said anything, and they just said that people respect me, I’ve had a good career and I’m not an arsehole – that goes a long way.

Hirst saw no backlash in response to his coming out.

“Nothing changed on the field, which was a very, very pleasant surprise, and I felt like I was like a million percent better. It wasn’t a conscious thing really, I was more energised, I was more focused, and that was when I went to sign for Wakefield.

“I had flirted with Super League a couple of times, but it just never lined up properly. Then Wakefield came in and I carried on playing well and playing regularly in that team after stepping up.

“Yeah, I 100% played better. I felt a lot more comfortable, not that I ever felt uncomfortable before but I felt more comfortable. That might sound odd, but that’s the best way that I can describe it.

“I do feel like I could have achieved more if I had come out earlier. I remember speaking to friends at the time, people who came out a little bit older – I was 27, it’s not like I was 60 – but people always wish they had come out earlier because it wasn’t that bad. When people make any change that works out well, they wish they could have done it sooner.

“I don’t know if I would have been able to deal with things the way I did when I was younger though. I don’t know what my relationship with my kids would have been, if I even would have had them, so as cliche as it is everything happens for a reason.

“I obviously wasn’t ready. I did go through a time when I beat myself up thinking I could have come out earlier and played Super League earlier, had a bigger career, who knows where I could have been if I was in that environment for longer? I’m proud of my career, and I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve done to go from where I was at the beginning as a 13-year-old who hated sport to playing at the highest level in the northern hemisphere.

“I’ve done alright, so I’m okay with the way it happened. I do think everybody goes through that ‘what if?’, but who’s to say that if I had gotten to Super League four years earlier I wouldn’t have broken my neck? We’ll never know.”

Hirst had that support network around him that allowed him to excel, but while he appreciated Rugby League’s governing body reaching out to him to offer assistance if needed he is not sure how effective they would have been as his sole support option.

Hirst hung up his boots at the end of last year and moved into personal training.

Any goodwill that may have arisen between him and the league ended up being wiped out last year anyway when Israel Folau’s move to Catalans Dragons was ratified despite opposition to his signing after a string of homophobic comments.

“Rugby League in and of itself, the game as a whole – fans, teams, everything – I would say were supportive,” Hirst reasoned.

“Because it is such a small sport in the scale of things compared to Union and football, funding wise as well as scope and viewers, Rugby League will take anyone. They don’t care if you’re black, white, gay, straight, as long as you can do a job on the field people are not really bothered.

“When I came out Batley were amazing, but I don’t think the RFL really knew what to do. I think I got a message saying if I needed any outlet, they were there, but I had it all from the club. I had a good network around me, so I didn’t need it. If I had needed it and I’d have been in a state, I don’t know how well equipped they would have been at that point.

“I was always happy to talk about it and I was always happy to do the ‘gay rugby player’ schtick. Rugby League is an inclusive sport, it’s good at getting minority groups involved in the game at some level whether that’s coming to watch, playing or whatever it might be. I was proud to be part of that, I was proud to be in a sport that championed that.

“So when they let Israel Folau come in, that really put a bitter taste in my mouth. That really made me realise that it was all lip-service, and when push came to shove and they actually had a hill where they could make a stand on everything that they’ve said, they didn’t do it.

“I had gone out on a limb talking about how inclusive Rugby League was, so it felt like a massive slap in the face. I told them as much before he signed, and it still went through. I had numerous conversations with people quite high up, and it really put me off Rugby League if I’m honest.

“I really felt disillusioned by the whole thing. The message it sent out was that people like me, people who are new and like me, they didn’t really give a shit about you and they welcome people like Israel Folau into the game.

“It really fucked me off that they did that for somebody who only actually came and played a handful of games. I think they thought sponsors were going to come in on his tail and throw money at him, but then he lied to get out of his contract and went to Japan to play for more money. It just sums the guy up.

“The fact that the RFL sided with that rather than with me, and what that said to LGBT+ people, I felt really, really let down by that. I would say that was a big part in me retiring, because I wasn’t willing to put my body on the line for these people any more.

“I’ve had two ankle reconstructions, I would like to be able to walk when I get to 40 and I’m not willing to risk that for an organisation who literally could not give a shit. It was a real sour note at the end of my career I guess.

“Rugby League has got it’s head up it’s own arse so much, its always looking in and not looking out at how it can expand. I do genuinely believe that it’s an incredible sport to watch. If you put that on in front of someone who likes sport, they will enjoy watching it. They will be able to pick it up relatively easily, it’s fast-paced with lots of contact, end to end, it’s everything you would want.

Hirst wanted to help take Rugby League to a whole new audience.

“I always imagined opening it up to a bigger audience of people who had not heard of it or been interested before. Without being big headed, I always thought that it could be something gay people could get behind with representation there, but they cut all those people off doing that with Folau.

“I suppose we will see when another player comes out how they are treated, how the RFL stands behind them. There’s nothing that they could say to me that will put that right, but actions speak louder than words, so we’ll have to see what they do when given another opportunity, because they were given an opportunity with Folau to put their money where their mouth is and they didn’t.”

Hirst took the decision to retire at the end of the 2020 season, and has now moved into personal training full time. Looking back over his career, there is disappointment at how it ended – under a cloud after the Folau saga and during a global pandemic that meant fans were not allowed into grounds to watch matches – but he is proud of what he has accomplished and believes he has made a tangible difference to people’s lives.

“I look back and I played over 320 games, I’ve played in literally every professional league in the country, I made 80 Super League appearances over three years after making my debut at 29, I played in a couple of Grand Finals, I got relegated – I did most things,” Hirst added.

“I look back and I’m really proud of what I managed to get in, a lot of it while being part time.

“I suppose legacy-wise, will I always be remembered as the gay rugby player? Yeah, probably. If you had said that to me before I would have been disappointed that that was what I had been reduced to, but after understanding how important representation is and knowing the impact that it had on people with all the messages and letters I’ve gotten since coming out, it’s something I’m really proud of. The fact that it has helped people, I can say I did a good thing.

“At first I think I probably was surprised nobody else came out after me, but now I can look back with a bit of perspective and distance, I came out because I was ready to do it. It was a really personal thing and a lot of people are not necessarily ready.

“It’s difficult enough coming out to your family when you are Joe Bloggs on the street and have 20 family or friends. We’ve got a club, we’ve got the fans and the rest of the game, so you might be coming out to 10,000 people.

“Ultimately, you’re putting a bit of yourself on the line that you can’t change. If somebody doesn’t like it for whatever reason, which hopefully is happening less and less, you have put yourself out there for that. I think a lot of people say they don’t need to. They can get by with playing and feeling like they are doing alright. I was at such a low point that it was shit or bust for me. I was just ready to do it.

“I think what we’ll see as we go through time is just people coming out really young, or never even being in. Maybe they come out in the academy, because I do think there is a big difference between the younger generation now and what their perception is of what it is to be gay compared to my generation of players, which is definitely a good thing.

“Hopefully it will just be a thing where it’s part of life and someone just sticks something on Instagram with their boyfriend. That would be nice wouldn’t it?”

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