‘There were a couple of times when I thought about killing myself,” Keegan Hirst says as he remembers how, as a gay rugby league player unable to reveal the truth about his sexuality, he faced the darkest moments of his conflicted life. “I got to a point where I was thinking: ‘How am I going to do it? Where am I going to do it? When am I going to do it?’”
On a quiet Wednesday afternoon in Featherstone, in the cold dregs of winter and under a slate-grey sky, Hirst’s voice echoes in an empty room overlooking a battered old rugby ground. Hirst has just finished training for the day with his Super League club, Wakefield Trinity. The 29-year-old believes he is close to making his debut for Wakefield – to become the first gay English rugby player to reach the heights of Super League.
Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 and played Super League for Crusaders the following year; but the Welshman brought the gravitas of 100 caps for his country in rugby union as well as having captained the Lions. Hirst has followed a different path as a gay sportsman for, until he signed for Wakefield in August last year, he had supplemented his part-time rugby career by working on building sites as a joiner. He was married and had become a father to his first child, his daughter Taylor, when he was only 20. Hirst and his wife Sara also became parents to a son in 2012.
Working outside in bitter Yorkshire winters, while playing Championship rugby league for Featherstone or his home-town club, Batley Bulldogs, Hirst felt tormented. He believed people would think it impossible that anyone from Batley, let alone a powerful prop forward, could be gay.
“I went through bad phases,” Hirst says. “I was always professional, so I wouldn’t drink before a game. But, sometimes, after a game on the Sunday we’d go out and I’d get in a state. I’d roll in at 5am Monday morning. I’d have to be up at 6.30am for work, so Mondays were a write-off and Tuesdays I was struggling. I’d train like a sack of shit. Each time I’d feel worse and I was arguing a lot with Sara.
“Somehow we managed to get to a [Championship] grand final with Featherstone in 2014 but we lost to an all-conquering Leigh Centurions at Headingley. The year before I’d been in the grand final with Batley, against Sheffield, and lost that one as well. If you weren’t winning and things weren’t great at home, it all got on top of you. Those where the times when I was really conflicted about everything.
“You start to think: ‘Right, if you’re going to do it, and end it all, just do it.’ But then I’d see the kids and they would help snap me out of it. I would think there was a better option. I guess the thing that always stopped me was the thought of who is going to find me and why have I done it? No one knew I was gay and so they wouldn’t know why I’d killed myself. They’d think: ‘Have I done something wrong?’ I didn’t want to pass my guilt on to them – even in my darkest hour.”
Hirst looks up and, then, he smiles. It is a bittersweet smile that captures his pain then and, in contrast, his pride and happiness now. He begins to relax. “Even then, I got lifted up by rugby and having the lads around. It was always an outlet for me. Something would happen at training where everyone falls about laughing and suddenly the world is not as bad a place. And when you’re in training, doing contact and a 20-stone man is trying to knock your head off, I could focus on that and put my real problems to one side.”
Of course those problems would return once he was away from the refuge of rugby league. Did he have anyone he could talk to before he came out? “I never spoke to anyone about it but that’s why I found solace at rugby. People have this misconception that men don’t talk. I’m not saying rugby players sit around having book clubs but some people would talk about things at home. You could vent and unload: ‘I’ve fallen out with Sara. She said this, I said that.’ Or you could just listen to someone else having a tough time. There was always some solace at rugby.
“But I still avoided the truth about me. When you’re in denial the power of it is pretty astonishing. I just kept pushing it down. Now that I’m out, people have said I’m brave. But I don’t feel brave. I envied the lads who were brave enough to come out when they were at school. Those kids who got beat up at school, the more effeminate lads. I always think they’re the brave ones who were getting dished up at school for being honest about who they are. I just bottled it up for so many years. They didn’t. So, for me, they’re the unsung heroes.”
It still takes great courage for a sportsman, especially in a world as macho as rugby league, to tell the world that he is gay. Hirst nods and explains how he came out 18 months ago. “My relationship with Sara deteriorated [to the point where they were living apart]. I realised it wasn’t fair to her. I owed it to her to be honest. I was captain at Batley and I just thought: ‘Fuck it, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ve been in darker places.’
“But it was a slow revelation and really hard to tell Sara. I went to her house, we sat down and I told her. She was shocked and I didn’t really feel the relief I was expecting. And then I told a couple of my team-mates at Batley – Alex Rowe and Joe Chandler. We’d been for a few beers and gone back to my house for a few more. One of them said: ‘What are these rumours about you being gay? Are they true?’ Obviously, they expected me to go ‘No’.
“I remember thinking: ‘I’m going to take the plunge here.’ I said: ‘Yeah, they’re true.’ They were shocked. And then we had a conversation about it and I felt the relief. They were cool about it and allayed all my fears. I couldn’t have asked for two better blokes to tell. They said: ‘What do we do if someone asks us?’ I said: ‘It’s all right. Tell the truth.’
“At the next training session everyone at Batley knew. Some people came over to me and we spoke. It was good. Some lads aren’t talkers but no one’s attitude towards me changed. I then rang up my coach, John Kear. I’ll never forget what he said. This came from a 60‑odd‑year‑old man who, if you cut him open, you’d see rugby running through him like a stick of rock. John said: ‘You’re a rugby player and you’re my captain. Whatever else you are is OK by me.’ I knew then I was going to be all right.
“Within a week it had gone all over the game. Rugby league players are like old women and they love a gossip. I was getting text messages off players I’d played with before. I was getting phone calls off people. I got a letter from one of the Whitehaven directors saying: ‘Well done. Good for you.’ I then came out publicly and I was glad that the rest of the world could know.”
When Hirst tweeted a link to his public revelation his Twitter feed went crazy. The tweet received almost 2m likes after Elton John, Stephen Fry and Emma Watson praised his bravery and candour. “I was a rugby league player and it’s a small sport,” Hirst says. “I wasn’t a Super League player but it just took off. I suppose when you analyse it there are lots of reasons why it worked. I didn’t want to suddenly be this spokesman but I got lots of tweets, emails and letters from people who were gay and had not told their team. Or people who had stopped playing sport because they were gay – or from gay men who were married. It touched a lot of people in ways that I didn’t think it would. I decided if you’ve got an opportunity to do some good you must take it. I now do a bit for Stonewall, I go into schools, I try to help.”
Hirst is also supporting a campaign called I Conquered – celebrating people who have overcome adversity to become a success in business or sport. “It’s made me feel proud. I remember having a conversation with Taylor, who was seven at the time, about Daddy being gay. She said: ‘Why are you in the paper?’ Kids in the playground had heard. I showed her some of the letters and told her about helping people. She’s a smart kid and she said: ‘If you can help people, Daddy, you should do it.’ Kids say it as they see it.”
Hirst had his best season last year, captaining Batley, and he says: “I played uninhibited rugby in a good team. I felt kind of free.”
Those performances led to his Super League contract with Wakefield. Hirst is currently recovering from an ankle injury but he would love to make his Super League debut this Friday night at St Helens. “That wouldn’t be a bad place to start, would it?” he says with a grin. “I’m hoping I’ll be available for selection. But even if it takes longer I’m quietly confident that once I get in and playing regularly then I can cement my place in the team.”
Hirst is hopeful he can play Super League rugby for five years – and he promises not to make any more appearances on reality TV. “I ended up doing First Dates [last summer] because it’s a nice show. It was a great experience but I wouldn’t do it again. The guy who was my date took terrible stick on social media.
“I actually didn’t remember how many cheesy lines he’d said. We were together two hours but they edited all his bad jokes in quick succession. I remember watching it from behind a pillow and I thought my phone was going to explode. People were kind to me but I got absolutely rinsed by the team.”
Once his rugby career ends Hirst has a deeper ambition in mind than celebrity television or going back to his original job. “The joiners I worked with were great when I came out. We always had a good laugh. But I don’t want to work outside any more. I’m sick of being cold. I’d actually love to do an English degree.”
The prop forward nods thoughtfully and then he laughs. “It would be nice to work somewhere warm but the real reason is I always wanted to be a teacher when I was younger. So maybe I’ll explore that. It would be good to teach and pass on a little about everything I’ve learned.”
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Helplines in other countries can be found here.
This article was sourced from http://thenewsgramonline.com