Yesterday, as Keegan Hirst led his team onto the pitch, he became the first British rugby league professional to do so as an openly gay man.
And the Batley Bulldogs captain was cheered on by a hugely supportive crowd in the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium in West Yorkshire, ahead of a narrow loss to local rivals the Dewsbury Rams.
The deafening cheers at the Sunday afternoon game came just hours after Hirst had publicly revealed his sexuality in an interview with The Mirror. He discussed his hopes that other rugby league players would now feel like they could speak openly about their emotions.
In the moving interview, Hirst said:
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.
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.
I thought I’d be disowned by friends and family but I haven’t been. The support from my teammates and other rugby league players has really surprised me, it’s all been positive.
Support and congratulations continued to roll in yesterday from Hirst’s fellow players, as well as former Welsh international player Gareth Thomas, who came out himself back in 2009.
— Gareth Thomas (@gareththomas14) August 16, 2015
— alex rowe (@alexrowe85) August 16, 2015
— James Green (@james_green43) August 16, 2015
Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, also congratulated Hirst on his historic announcement, but added that he didn’t believe it should be considered such a big issue.
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. 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.
— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) August 17, 2015
Both Keegan and Wood make a great point – it shouldn’t be taboo nowadays for a sports star to come out as gay.
I'd just like to say a big thankyou to everybody who's taken the time to send all these best wishes.It's very humbling and much appreciated.
— Keegan Hirst (@KeeganHirst) August 16, 2015Advertisement
Also I'm genuinely humbled by all the great messages today from people and through social media. It's been fantastic. Thank you all so much
— Keegan Hirst (@KeeganHirst) August 16, 2015
Hopefully Hirst’s revelation shows gay sportsmen and women that they can now hopefully be open about who they are, without fear of backlash from their peers or supporters.