Keegan Hirst on playing return and representing gay community

James Gordon
Keegan Hirst

Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWPix

Keegan Hirst will step out on to a rugby league field in a competitive fixture for the first time in nearly three years when Batley open the Championship season at London Broncos.

Hirst, 34, made history in 2015 when he became the first British professional rugby league player to come out as gay.

It propelled him in to the limelight and it’s a responsibility that he takes seriously.

He said: “I do have a bit of notoriety for coming out and being a rugby league player.

“I do see it as a bit of responsibility and a bit of a duty, but it’s something I relish. It adds a bit of meaning to it, it’s not just for the club, for the game, for myself, for my family, it’s also for the LGBT community and things like that.

“The world is moving on but representation matters across sport, in life, in politics, in everything. Keighley coming in to the competition is great with the owners and everything. How good to have representation on the field and at board level in the Championship.”

“Hopefully it’ll be easier for the next guy”

Keegan Hirst announced his retirement after the 2020 season, which he had started at Halifax, was cancelled due to coronavirus.

The same year, Catalans had created controversy with the signing of dual-code Australia international Israel Folau, previously sacked by Rugby Australia for making homophobic comments on social media.

Now retired Super League referee James Child spoke publicly about being gay and the homophobic abuse he had received in 2021, while in the NRL, there was big controversy when some Manly Sea Eagles players refused to wear pride-themed jerseys. Ex-Wigan and Manly forward Ian Roberts remains the only Australian professional rugby league to come out as gay.

Despite that, Hirst says that he hasn’t been treated any differently by players or fans.

“Absolutely not. There are all sorts of people, characters and backgrounds that play rugby league. I’m relatively sane compared to most of them! So I think the fact that I am gay is just by the by really.

“It’s not an issue for players, I don’t think it’s an issue for fans either. I think the reason it gets the attention it gets is just because it seems so odd that there’s such a small number. There’s lots of reasons why that is or could be the case.

“Who was the third person on the moon? You don’t know. I don’t either. I suppose it’s the thing of someone sticking their head above the parapet and then it’s a lot easier to do something when you know someone’s done it before. Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile, then suddenly every ran one.

“I don’t know what the future holds with regards to gay representation in rugby league, but hopefully it’ll be a bit easier for the next guy.”

Reaching a personal milestone

The former Bradford Bulls junior, who played in Super League for Wakefield and has also represented Hunslet, Dewsbury and Featherstone, had hoped to return mid way through last year.

But having been training with Batley, they had left him unregistered, only to find out when they needed him to play that they had missed a registration deadline.

He has already racked up 314 appearances and says hitting the 350 milestone is a target.

Keegan Hirst added: “I’ve still got some left in the tank. It’s coming up to three years since I threw a ball in anger. Obviously COVID happened and my business kind of did really well away from the game so I just didn’t have the time to do it justice.

“I fell out of love with it being in it with a long time and the Israel Folau thing really got under my skin.

“Having a bit of time away and cooling off, Batley were always close to my heart and I was planning to go back after COVID but with work it didn’t quite work out.

“I was going to get down and play last year but missed the registration date, so it’s kind of been the longest pre-season ever! It was a bit frustrating.

“I just want to play as many games as I can. I think I can hit 350 professional games which would be a nice marker to hang my hat on.

“On a club level, we have had an amazing run over the last decade. It’s just about building on that last year. There’s not a stand out team in the league this year, I think it’s going to be a lot more spread out.

“People will be looking to knock us off, we were Grand Finalists last year, so I think a big thing is not to be a yo-yo team that does well and then has a few years off. It’s about building that consistency over time, so that’s the big goal for us this year.”

Representing rugby league

It’s now more than seven years since Keegan Hirst made the brave step to come out. He says his mental health is in a lot better place as a result, even with the increased attention around him.

He added: “It’s just part of the gig. For me, every time I’ve done an interview or something for TV or whatever, it’s an opportunity to represent rugby league as a sport.

“We are a small sport, we are a localised sport, and I do genuinely think we’ve got a lot to offer and it’s been mismanaged, mismarketed and everything other the year, and my little bit of limelight is just an opportunity to go it’s not full of idiots who want to break people and haven’t got a word to say.

“There are smart guys who want to play a tough, exciting sport who’ve just not had an opportunity to showcase that. It’s an opportunity to show you can be gay and play sport, and for a purist sport fan who don’t know what’s going on, they don’t have to be two things that exist separately of each other.”

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