This afternoon, on Towleroad, I read about an English rugby player who has just come out. He’s a nice-looking guy, but it wasn’t anything I needed to read about—I’ve read about athletes coming out before—and I was about to move on, when I stopped for some inexplicable reason and clicked on the arrow to see what he had to say for himself. I’m glad I did.
His name is Keegan Hirst. He’s the captain of the Batley Bulldogs, and he’s the first professional English rugby league player to come out. In the link, he is being interviewed by a woman named Naga Munchetty on a program called Victoria Derbyshire. I think you’d enjoy taking five minutes and watching this. Hirst is 27, has two children ages 2 and 7, married but separated, whose wife, he says, just needs “time” to come to terms with this. He is charming in a halting, inarticulate, very male way, about what you might expect an English rugby player to be like, even if you’d never considered what an English rugby player would be like.
The most interesting thing he says is, “It was inconceivable for me to be gay.” I know about that. He looks in the mirror, and he sees that the guy staring back at him doesn’t look like a gay man. He doesn’t think he fits the stereotype in any way. Besides, he plays rugby. How could he be gay? He lives in a little town, and all the gay people he’s ever heard of in this little town have the same characteristics, those of a gay man. And he doesn’t have any of those characteristics. He says now that he’s never met a gay man. How could he be one?
Why now? It was the feelings, he said. He thought they were going away, that he’d grow out of them, that it was a phase. Then they didn’t, and he was growing up, and things started to fall apart. First his marriage, and then his sense of himself as a straight man.
Apparently, everybody is being good about this. His coaches, his teammates, the fans, the townspeople. And Hirst thinks he’s going to end up being a role model, breaking down stereotypes. This is a good thing, he says, and I agree.
There are other things to be noted here, about this story. Every time we begin to feel complacent about our place in the world—we, and the English and much of Europe and industrialized nations everywhere that have marriage equality—we read about some other story of people who have found it really difficult to come out. Several years ago it was Tyler Clementi, who found his world so difficult to come out into that he jumped from the George Washington bridge. We have just been told that Michael Sam is leaving football after not having been able to find a decent place in football. I never thought my feelings for men were a phase. I knew they weren’t going away, but I also thought I was strong enough to deal with them. And when things started to fall apart, I found myself in the middle of a local and family scandal when I did mine—that is, when I came out—in 1983. Keegan Hirst has done his this year, in 2015. We ought to be able to say, things are really better, now. But in thirty-five years, the difficulty hasn’t entirely gone away. If it had— if it had been easy to look in the mirror and say, “That’s a gay man”—nobody would be paying any attention to Hirst. If it had—if things had really gotten better—he would never have gotten married to a woman and had children. And yet he did. Now he’s trending on twitter, which means that it is still a big deal when a major athlete comes out. The world changes, but slowly.