IAN LAYBOURN looks at how the prop is now in the spotlight after coming out
A LITTLE over 48 hours ago Keegan Hirst was a run-of-the-mill rugby league player who was little known outside the Heavy Woollen area of West Yorkshire.
His brave decision to declare his sexuality to the world changed all that and now he will forever be remembered for his actions away from the rugby field.
In coming out as gay in the most macho of sports, the 27-year-old Batley prop has suddenly found himself in the spotlight.
And, if the separated father of two felt baring his soul, initially in a frank and moving interview in the Sunday Mirror, put him at risk of ridicule and abuse, his mind was quickly put at ease.
Hirst was cheered by the Batley fans as he led the Bulldogs out for their derby match against his old club Dewsbury within hours of the revelation and he was quickly trending on Twitter.
Diver Tom Daley and top-flight rugby union referee Nigel Owens, the latter who made the same decision to come out as gay in 2007, tweeted their support as actors, politicians and high-profile sportsmen rallied behind Hirst.
There was a ringing endorsement from cross-code international Gareth Thomas, who came out while playing for rugby union side Cardiff Blues in 2009.
Hirst is not the first rugby league player to come out publicly while playing the game, for another rugged front-row forward, Ian Roberts, had been a pioneer 20 years earlier.
London-born Roberts, a player with South Sydney, Manly and North Queensland who had a spell with Wigan under Graham Lowe in the 1980s, kept his sexuality secret for the best part of his career until going public in 1995.
He was vilified from some sections of a society yet to come to terms with homosexuality and gay rights but also received thousands of letters of support and went on to enjoy a career as an actor after hanging up his boots in 1999.
Hollywood might be a long way off for Hirst but his life will never be the same. In radio and television interviews, he has come across as genuine and sincere and a real credit to rugby league.
It may have taken two decades for a player to follow in the footsteps of the standard-bearing Roberts but, in a more enlightened age, Hirst’s bold move may help others to come out.
Rugby Football League chief executive Nigel Wood added his support to Hirst’s actions but expressed the hope that one day it will not be considered exceptional for a rugby player to announce he is gay.
“Our sport prides itself on being open and accessible to all,” Wood said.
He may not get to play in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley or a Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford but whether he realises it or not, Hirst has made a major impact on the sport’s culture.
He told the BBC he did not want “to go on some kind of crusade” but hoped his actions would “help break down stereotypes.”
“I thought it would be a bit of a taboo, a bit of an issue, but it wasn’t at all,” he said.
“There was nothing but support and well-wishers at the ground from fans, players, the club. And then social media’s gone mad. It’s really overwhelming and quite humbling.”