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SPORTS Life out of the closet for pro rugby player Keegan Hirst
by Gary L. Day
2016-03-30

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We have reached a point in our culture where it has become so commonplace for entertainers to come out of the closet that to do so hardly raises a ripple in the news media. For example, actors Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons live as openly gay men with a happy family life, and no one has ever made a fuss about it.

The world of men's professional athletics is a whole different story, particularly in team sports where the culture is hyper masculine, the money involved is sometimes monstrously large, and the athletes are often under pressure from teammates and management to stay closeted. So, despite persistent rumors that homosexuality is widespread among team sports such as baseball and football ( in America ) and soccer and rugby ( in Britain and Europe ), relatively few athletes have come out, at least during the active phases of their careers.

Keegan Hirst is the captain of the Batley Bulldogs, a British professional rugby league team he has played for since 2012. He was married to woman, had two small children and had a promising professional career ahead of him when he came out as gay in an August 2015 interview with the Sunday Mirror. This makes Keegan the first professional rugby player in Britain to come out. Australian Rugby League player Ian Roberts was the first internationally, coming out in 1995, and Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 while playing for the Welsh rugby union.

Unsurprisingly, the media frenzy in Britain was immediate and widespread. In the short months that followed Keegan gave countless interviews, became the cover subject of Attitude, Britain's leading gay magazine, and was hired to become an underwear model. Of course, when the modeling shots were released, Keegan became Britain's newest gay sex symbol.

But how has life been for him now that the initial press frenzy has cooled off? Well, for one thing, he has had an amicable separation from his wife ( who gave interviews of her own in support of her husband's coming out ), though he still shares custody of the children. And the new rugby season is starting, so Keegan is facing normal life as a gay man on the field.

Keegan was kind enough to answer some of my questions how life has been since his coming out, via email from his home in England.

Gary L. Day: Were you surprised that your coming out made such a splash with the media?

Keegan Hirst: Yes, I was surprised. It hadn't been too much of a big deal for my friends and family and teammates, so I honestly didn't think it would be a big deal. The response I got was amazing.

GLD: Were you prepared for the attention?

KH: How could I have prepared for that? The amount of support I've had has been brilliant. Knowing people took time out of their busy lives to send letters and emails was very humbling.

GLD: Have things calmed down in the time since?

KH: Things have calmed down a little, yeah—although the season has started and I have the kids, so I'm always busy with something!

GLD: Has your relationship with your teammates changed?

KH: It hasn't changed at all, really. I was terrified it would do before I told them, but they've been nothing but supportive. I suppose there's the odd bit of banter flying around, but everyone gets that for one reason or another. Everything has become an innuendo, though—"Pass the balls, Keegan," etc.

GLD: Pro sports fans are known to be frequently homophobic. Has any homophobia been directed at you from the fans?

KH: I haven't heard anything. It's rare you can make out what individuals in a crowd are saying when you're concentrating on playing, but nothing has got back to me about [anybody] in the crowd saying anything. I think, by and large, rugby is a family or a community game, and it prides itself on being inclusive to everyone. I guess I'm an example of that.

GLD: How do you feel about becoming an overnight celebrity, cover boy, underwear model—a gay sex symbol?

KH: I wouldn't say I was any of those things. Am I? No, I get the odd look as if people recognize me from somewhere, but if people consider me any of those things nobody told me!

GLD: What is your relationship, if any, with Britain's overall gay community?

KH: I don't know, really. I guess you'd have to ask them. I've had nothing but support from them, so I guess it's good. I don't particularly hang around in the gay community. I don't get much time to myself with playing and training and having two young kids, so I don't venture out much. And when I do it's usually with the rugby lads so we'd go to our local pub. I try to get to big events, like I went to the Attitude Awards last year, and Manchester Pride. It's nice to see people and talk about their experiences too.

GLD: Are you dating? Is there someone special in your life?

KH: As if I have time for that!

GLD: Are you planning for life after rugby?

KH: To be honest, I haven't thought about it at all. I'd like to think I've got a good few years left playing, injuries permitting. Who knows what could happen in that time? Maybe when I get to 30 [he's 28] I'll start thinking about it.


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