As a rugby league player who grew up on a council estate in Batley, Keegan Hirst told himself in his formative years that it was “inconceivable” he could be gay.
But the father-of-two suffered years of torment, starting from the age of 15, as he suppressed his true sexuality, leading to his marriage breaking down and him even contemplating suicide.
This weekend, the Batley Bulldogs prop was described as sending out an “extremely powerful message” as he became the first British professional in his branch of the sport to come out as gay.
In an interview with the Sunday Mirror, the 6ft 4in captain of the National League One rugby league side said: “At first I couldn’t even say ‘I’m gay’ in my head, let alone out loud. Now I feel like I’m letting out a long breath that I’ve held in for a long time.”
The 27-year-old, who has played 200 professional games for Batley, Featherstone and Dewsbury, and is also a former builder, revealed that he recently told his wife to alleviate guilt she felt about their break-up.
Hirst was in the line-up for his side to play local rivals Dewsbury Rams yesterday, and speaking before the game the club’s coach John Kear said he did not think the revelation would change the “brave” player in any way. He said: “It is a big step for him personally but also a big step for rugby league. It shows how inclusive and all-embracing we are.
“I think he will be able to carry on as normal. It has not changed Keegan Hirst as a lad.
“He is a very humble, hard-working lad. It won’t change him one iota.
“We have known about this story coming out for a week or so. The players and club have been very supportive.”
Hirst’s announcement made him the first British player to come out as gay while still playing rugby league and he said he was prepared to handle any abuse from fans in upcoming games.
His coach said he hoped the player’s decision to talk openly about his sexuality would encourage others to do the same.
“Having spoken to Keegan and been around him this last week, he feels as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders,” he said. “Other individuals in the sport, if they feel similar, it will benefit them as well. If Keegan has done something as a trailblazer, it shows what a brave lad he is.”
A spokeswoman for gay rights charity Stonewall said: “We’re delighted Keegan Hirst has decided to speak openly about his sexuality.
“We know from our research that attitudes in sport need to change before everyone feels free to be themselves, both on and off the pitch.
“One way of creating change is to have more visible lesbian, gay, bi and trans role models, and so Keegan coming out as the first openly gay professional British rugby league player sends an extremely powerful message.”
Hirst started playing rugby at 11, and quit sixth-form college to pursue his rugby dreams, starting on a scholarship at Huddersfield before joining Bradford Bulls’ under-18 academy.
He said he first felt he might be gay as a teenager, but pushed his feelings back and convinced himself it couldn’t be true. “I tick every macho box. How could I be gay? I’m from Batley for goodness sake. No one is gay in Batley.”
After the story was published, Hirst posted a message thanking well-wishers for their support.
Cross-code international Gareth Thomas was previously the only openly gay British rugby player after he came out while playing for rugby union side Cardiff Blues in 2009.
Thomas, who captained Wales and the British and Irish Lions, went on to play for league side Crusaders before retiring.
In 1995, Australian Rugby League player Ian Roberts, then aged 30, became the first high-profile player in the world in his branch of the sport to publicly reveal he was gay.
In February 2013 former Leeds United footballer Robbie Rogers announced he was gay - and he remains the only openly gay professional footballer playing. A year later former Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first Premier League player to reveal he was gay. He waited until after his retirement to make the announcement.
Olympic diver Tom Daley came out as gay last year.