When Keegan Hirst was growing up he did not see gay people on television – not that he knew of, anyway – and there certainly were not any gay people in his hometown.
After all, he thought, gay people were effeminate and they would stick out in Batley.
But in 2015, aged 27 and captain of Batley’s rugby league team, Hirst decided to tell his secret.
“I didn’t want to be gay – I was so deeply in denial – and I kept telling myself it was just a phase,” he explained.
“But when my marriage broke down it was a light-bulb moment, there was no need for the pretence.
“Even then I found it hard to vocalise because I was struggling with the shame of it, or the perceived shame. I had a lot of guilt about marrying someone and perhaps messing up my kids’ lives.”
So he told his family, then his friends and team-mates, and then the Sunday Mirror, who billed him as the first British rugby league player to come out as gay.
Speaking to Press Association Sport as part of a series of stories to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Hirst said: “I didn’t set out to go on a crusade or be an activist – I was going through a divorce, I had no money, no home and I was scared of what might happen.
“But I got so many messages after that article, some of them were heart-breaking. I got letters from married men who were living with it, men who had quit sport because they could not cope with it and I remember one from a 70-year-old guy who had kept it secret all his life.
“That made me think I had an opportunity to do something positive.”
Fast forward four years and he is “playing the best rugby of my life” for Super League’s Wakefield Trinity and has a better relationship with his ex-wife and two children than he did when he was pretending to be someone else.
“I was just so caught up in being Keegan the rugby player who couldn’t be gay, but I have more freedom now that I’m just Keegan the gay guy who plays rugby,” he said.
Hirst was fortunate, though, in that he came out at a time when society was becoming more tolerant of difference and in a sport that had moved with the times.
Working with mental health experts DOCIAsport and the Sport and Recreation Alliance, Edge Hill University recently conducted a survey of the UK sports industry and it found that three in four LGBT+ respondents – athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers – had experienced a mental health issue, compared to one in two among heterosexuals.
While the sample size for LGBT+ people in the Edge Hill research was small, the results did mirror several surveys of the general population.
“Elite sport is a results-based business and I know if I have a bad game I could be dropped or shipped out next week – that pressure is the same whether you are gay or straight,” said Hirst.
“But it is pretty well-documented that the LGBT community is more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the straight population and that’s not a big surprise when you think about the anxiety most of us have before we come out, and it’s something you have to do again and again.
“You worry about be rejected and letting people down – there is a lot of shame. And then you have to deal with homophobia, overt or casual: there is lots to deal with.
“But I can honestly say I have been very lucky. Rugby league embraced me with open arms and I can count on one hand the number of negative comments I’ve heard from the crowd or seen online.”
Lou Englefield is the director of Pride Sports, the UK’s leading organisation for LGBT+ people in sport, and she explained that Hirst’s story is fairly typical but far from universal.
“It’s to do with minority stress,” she said.
“You have to remember that LGBT+ people have only had protected status in law since the 2010 Equality Act – that’s relatively recent.
“So while the situation has improved massively, and we can get married and so on, the experience has not always been this positive. It is still a very mixed experience for lots of people.
“Coming out can be very isolating and that is compounded in sport. If you think about most high-performance sport, particularly team sports, the athletes tend to have been scouted and come through the academy process.
“This can be hard for a young gay man because all they are likely to have heard is that gay is bad – homophobic language is used routinely. Now people will say it’s just banter but if that’s all you hear, what is it going to do to your sense of identity?”
Set up in 2006, Pride Sports is trying to address this by tackling discrimination, increasing participation and satisfaction in sport for the LGBT+ community, which it does via partnerships with academics, councils, funding agencies, governing bodies and international bodies.
Englefield is confident the overall situation is moving in the right direction but still worries that sport, particularly at school, can be an ordeal for too many LGBT+ people.
For Hirst, part of the solution to this will be something he lacked: visible role models.
“It’s not important that we know who footballers or rugby players are sleeping with, but it is important that people can see that people like them can be whatever they want,” he said.
– Now in its 19th year, Mental Health Awareness Week is organised by the Mental Health Foundation and it runs from May 13-19.