Keegan Hirst becomes first rugby league player to come out as gay

The Batley Bulldogs prop received an outpouring of support from fans

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The Independent Online

A British rugby league player who has become the first professional in his sport to come out as gay received an outpouring of support from fans and his fellow sportsmen.

Keegan Hirst, 27, a prop who captains Championship side Batley Bulldogs, played in a match just hours after news of his sexuality broke.

The married father of two posted online ahead of the game: “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.”

Revealing his sexuality for the first time, the prop said in an interview with the Sunday Mirror: “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.”

He added: “The only time I felt free of the torment was when I stepped on the rugby pitch. Now I feel free.”

Batley Bulldogs players have taken to Twitter in support of their captain. Fellow teammate Scott Leatherbarrow said: “Massive respect for @KeeganHirst. Brave thing to do but nothin but support from the lads. Great bloke”. While another Bulldog, Alistair Leak added: “Nothing but respect @KeeganHirst great captain, great bloke, great film knowledge.” Another player, Alex Bretherton wrote: “Changes nowt pal”.

Lou Englefield, director of Pride Sports, which campaigns against homophobia in sport, congratulated Hirst. She said: “We’re talking about a predominantly northern sport that’s very macho… in that environment it’s particularly tough to come out.”

Ms Englefield said Hirst’s decision came after rugby league had done “more than any other sport in the UK” to tackle homophobia over the last five years. In 2011 the Sheffield Eagles became the first major sports team to play in a kit emblazoned with the slogan “Tackle Homophobia” to mark LGBT history month. All clubs have also been issued with a guide to gay inclusion in the sport.

 

Despite this, when former Wales International Gareth Thomas made the shift from rugby union to rugby league shortly after coming out, he was subject to homophobic heckling from Castleford fans.The club was fined £40,000 for the incident, though some was of this was later handed back when they took action to combat homophobia amongst fans.

Martin Owens, co-founder of the world’s first LGBT rugby league club, the Manchester Canalsiders, said of Hirst: “I think it’s great that he’s come out, especially for younger people identifying as LGBT because they can look up to someone like him and see they can play sport and don’t need to hide who they are.”

Meanwhile in America, David Denson became the first openly gay baseball player on a team affiliated with the sport’s Major League over the weekend. The Milwaukee Brewers first baseman said he had the support of his team: “The outcome was amazing. It was nice to know my teammates see me for who I am, not my sexuality.”

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