The Wakefield prop is keen to play a role in Super League’s Wellness Round as it highlights issues in men’s mental health
Four years removed from the day that changed his life forever, Keegan Hirst is still committed to making a difference. “No matter who you are and what you do, being gay shouldn’t get in the way,” he says. “I’d like to think I’ve shown that.”
In 2015, Hirst became the first openly gay rugby league player in Britain – Gareth Thomas was playing union when he went public on his sexuality – while playing for Batley and since then, his life has changed in ways he never imagined.
“When I came out, I was clear that I didn’t want to go on a crusade and be a gay icon, a pin-up,” Hirst says. “I just wanted to be me – but almost immediately, I was getting messages from guys who were married but knew they were gay, people who played sport but stopped because they were gay and didn’t want it to come out. You then realise you’ve got a position of responsibility you should deliver on.”
Hirst dreamed of becoming a rugby player from a young age but becoming a role model for gay people was never his intention. Before coming out, the very thought of being open about his sexuality in a sport such as rugby league was unbearable. “I just didn’t want to think I was gay for quite some time,” he says. “It was buried deep down inside me. You eventually learn to accept who you are and doing that is a big first step. Instead of being a weakness, it becomes a strength. When I started, rugby had an attitude where you were mocked for not playing on with an injury. Sharing stuff like that wasn’t even on the radar.”
Hirst admits that the struggle surrounding whether to reveal his sexuality took him to a dark place. He considered suicide as he dealt with the potential implications for his family if he came out, but also how he would be perceived in the sport. “I’ve been candid about how bad things got,” he says. “I had to consider my ex-wife and children, whose lives I thought I was going to destroy if I told people. But after a game in 2015, I just sat down and told the lads at Batley. Their reaction was fantastic and I haven’t regretted anything since.
“When it went public, it coincided with a day when Batley were playing in a one‑off pink kit to promote breast cancer awareness. You couldn’t make it up. I honestly thought I’d cop some stick somewhere but there’s been nothing.
“I wasn’t really speaking to my family because of it, though, and started wondering if it was a mistake. But John Kear, my coach at Batley, just said: ‘It doesn’t matter to me if you’re gay, you’re my captain and that’s all that matters.’ Then I knew I’d done the right thing.
Hirst’s career has gone from strength to strength since coming out. He has spent the past four seasons in Super League with Wakefield and this weekend he is one of the names helping to promote their Wellbeing Round. The competition has linked up with several leading charities to attempt to highlight pressing issues in men’s mental health, with leading players including Hirst sharing their own struggles to encourage others to be more open.
He played for Wakefield on Friday and will be a guest at another game on Sunday, as lower-league Keighley commemorate 50 years of the Pride movement. It is a far cry from the life Hirst envisaged when he came out but it is clear he would not have it any other way. “Did I think it would be like this? No,” he says, smiling. “But I’m proud to be me, I’m proud to be a rugby league player and I’m proud to be gay.
“I didn’t set out to be a role model or anything like that, but I’m very happy to be that for someone if that’s how they see me. If it makes a difference to just one person, then great. Seeing us big brutes sitting down and talking about our problems … hopefully that helps to prevent just one suicide. If it does, we’ve done our jobs.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.