Batley Bulldogs captain Keegan Hirst says he finally “feels free” after becoming the first openly gay professional rugby league player in Britain.
Hirst, 27, told the Sunday Mail of his secret torment of dealing with his sexuality while carving out a career in one of the world’s most macho sports.
“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 for the first time about coming to terms with being gay, he 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.”
Hirst told the Sunday Mail he first felt he might be gay as a teenager.
“I had girlfriends on and off, but at about 15, I started feeling attracted to guys too,” he said.
“I was having conflicting feelings, but it was something I suppressed. It wasn’t the done thing to admit it.”
Hirst 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,” he said.
“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.”
After years of battling his feelings, Hirst finally started to come to terms with his sexuality earlier this year.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Keegan has played 199 professional games for Batley, Featherstone and Dewsbury, including two grand finals.
The father of two said he knew he had to be honest with his wife after he realised she blamed herself for their marriage break-up.
“I finally told my wife I was gay a few weeks ago,” he said.
“She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but she was supportive. She was totally blindsided. She’d had
absolutely no idea.
“It was incredibly tough, but for me it was a weird situation because it also felt liberating.”