Keegan Hirst: Life after coming out

Batley Bulldogs captain Keegan Hirst might be the first player in over two decades to come out in rugby league but this season has been just like any other, according to the 28-year-old.

“All of my team-mates have been nothing but supportive and it is rarely brought up which for me is the best form of acceptance,” he told Love Rugby League.

“No one has ever said anything negative and if we do have a team night out everyone turns up.

“The fact they all leave it alone is great because it allows me to play rugby and focus on winning matches.”

Towards the back end of last season the father of two children,decided that enough was enough and he wanted to stop suppressing who he truly was.

“It was in the run up to the local derby against Dewsbury Rams where it dawned on me. I was fed up and just wanted to be myself.”

That weekend, he would lead out the Bulldogs knowing full well he could be the victim of abuse from opposition supporters.

Despite suffering a narrow 28-22 defeat, Hirst admitted the reception was warm and the game didn’t feel any different to the one just seven days previous.

“During the match and afterwards I got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of good luck messages.

“Support was flooding in from within rugby but also from outside the sport.”

The Yorkshireman was “humbled” that people cared and were taking time out of their lives to appreciate the decision he had made.

Even now when we are approaching the business end of the 2016 season, Hirst admits that the large majority of opposition supporters throughout the past year have welcomed his decision.

“99% of fans have been supportive and have embraced the fact that I have come out.

“Most of the time it is not even spoken about which means there is no interference when it comes to playing rugby.”

For some people a decision like this could have a major impact on one’s performance throughout the campaign, not Hirst.

The prop admits that it’s not even been a conscious thing.

The last player to come out within rugby league was former Wigan Warriors star Ian Roberts back in Australia in the 1990s – something which says a lot about attitudes within Rugby League according to Hirst.

“The fact that he came out then and nobody has followed suit in all these years seems to suggest people might be anxious about sharing it with the world.

“It seems hard to believe that there is only one Rugby League player before me that has come out.

“He deserves a lot of credit and should be highly respected for his actions because it was probably much harder to do in 1995 than in 2015.”

Hirst, who juggles being a Championship player with a full-time job as a plasterer, has recently met all sorts of big personalities following his decision to come out, including Lords of the Ring star Sir Ian McKellen.

“It was quite surreal when I first met him because he is a bit of a legend and I couldn’t believe I was talking to him.

“We spoke about various things. He asked about the family as well as rugby and he was nothing but nice.

“In the end it is just another bloke you are having a chat to.”

Away from the rugby pitch, life has continued to go on as normal during the day for Hirst on the building site.

“All the lads know and they are fine about it. There might be a bit of banter on occasion but nothing that is out of line.

“Work during the day is very similar to the locker room I share with all my team-mates at Batley Bulldogs. Everyone is great.”

Hirst has seen the Bulldogs rise to third in the table, which is something he would never have expected at the start of the campaign. Bately have snared a number of high-profile scalps and are eyeing a position in the Middle 8s.

“If you told us we would be where we are now at the start of the season we would have been more than happy with that.”

He admits that as the side have climbed the table, attitudes in and around the club have changed about where they should finish come the end of the season.

“Of course expectations change throughout the season but I think it is key that we stay grounded and just focus on each game.

“There was a patch where we lost four on the spin but before that I think we had been in relatively good form.

The Bulldogs are currently on a three-match winning streak, most recently securing an important victory over bitter rivals Dewsbury Rams at Summer Bash.

“It is good to win whoever you are playing but with it being a derby the victory was just that little bit sweeter.

“I am relieved that we managed to hold on and get all two points because we made a poor start.

“I thinks the lads were a bit nervous and felt slightly overwhelmed by the occasion.

“The only disappointing thing was that we couldn’t put on more of a show what with it being on TV.”

Hirst revealed how Batley head coach John Kear has made big strides with the club since joining back in 2011, narrowly losing out to Sheffield Eagles in the Grand Final a few years ago.

“I think he has had nothing but a positive impact since arriving at the club,” Hirst said.

“After Karl Harrison got the team to a Northern Rail final people thought that sort of moment might never happen again.

“When we walked out on to the pitch in 2013 against Sheffield Eagles it was hard to believe because no one had ever expected Batley to get near a Grand Final.

“This year we are up near the top and the team have started signing lads on two-year deals so everything is looking positive at the minute.”

Hirst’s decision is one which warrant a huge amount of admiration.

In today’s society where acceptance is becoming more commonplace, let’s hope it is not another 20 years until a player decides to relieve the burden on his shoulders and be totally honest with the people around him.

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