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Batley rugby League player Keegan Hirst has becomes the first British professional in the code to openly say he is gay, writes Patrick Hill.
The 27-year-old prop has revealed the secret torment of dealing with his sexuality while carving out a career in one of the world’s most macho sports.
And this afternoon he will play his first match as an openly gay professional rugby player when he captains his team against local rivals Dewsbury.
And the dad-of-two has talked of the moment he finally found the words to explain to his wife the reason they could no longer be together – but has been supported by both her and his rugby team-mates.
The 6ft 4in Batley Bulldogs captain 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.”
He added: “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.
“The only time I felt free of the torment was when I stepped on the rugby pitch. Now I feel free.”
Keegan hopes his decision to be open will help others in the sport who might be fighting with their emotions.
The Yorkshireman, who started his career at Bradford Bulls Academy, said he knew he had to be honest with his wife after he realised she blamed herself for their marriage break-up.
“I finally told my wife I was gay a few weeks ago,” he said. “She blamed herself when we separated but I knew she’d done nothing wrong. I couldn’t bear it any more, the guilt of it all, of her not knowing why I left. It was eating me up.
“I went to her and asked if I could have a word. My stomach was in knots. We sat at the kitchen table and I said ‘there’s something I need to tell you’.
“I couldn’t get the words out. I felt like I was going to be sick. But I managed to say it.
“She didn’t say anything at first. I explained why and how I felt, it was very emotional. We were both in tears.
“She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but she was supportive. She was totally blind-sided. She’d had absolutely no idea.
“It was incredibly tough, but for me it was a weird situation because it also felt liberating.”
For now, he says, all they have told their two children, aged seven and two, is that they have split up. He said: “We haven’t told the kids yet – they’re too young to understand. I’m not sure how I’d explain it.”
Keegan says he first felt he might be gay as a teenager.
He said: “I had girlfriends on and off, but at about 15 I started feeling attracted to guys too. I was having conflicting feelings, but it was something I suppressed. It wasn’t the done thing to admit it.”
His mum Wendy brought him and his two younger siblings up on a working-class council estate in Batley.
His dad had walked out on him and his mother before Keegan was born.
He 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: “By the time I was 18 I was in complete denial, hoping it would go away. It was inconceivable to tell anybody how I was feeling. I didn’t have it right in my own head, so how could I tell anybody?”
Keegan has played 199 professional games for Batley, Featherstone and Dewsbury, including two Grand Finals.