“Rugby League Player Keegan Hirst – First British Professional To Openly Say He Is Gay,” the news headlines say. They talk of the outpouring of support he’s been getting. He tells of his past denial regarding his sexuality. “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.”
Now I don’t want to be that guy who takes anything from Keegan Hirst’s coming out story, or from him. His achievements are remarkable. No doubt he is a wonderful person. Whatever this moment means to him, it is his moment. He doesn’t need my or anyone else’s permission to do that. And of course, he’s in the UK and hasn’t got a clue that this piece is being written.
But I’ve run out of credit to give to these big athletes coming out.
When the straight-acting, white, beautiful white male rugby player comes out, what actually changes? We’re still celebrating the fact that his world has not disclaimed him. He’s still the hero on that world’s terms. So what’s changed is that the matrices of dominance – male hegemonies and the bro code – have expanded to include gay people who, in essence, don’t look or act different from everyone else, and therefore don’t disturb the equilibrium. The most importants part of the package he represents as a brand have not changed.
He is still the promise of physical prowess and machismo and coolness. Nobody actually has to see what he does in his bedroom anyway, so the “important” bits are still there.
What changed in Uganda when Keegan Hirst came out? Did something improve in the situation of the township lesbian in South Africa who has been brave enough to live her life as authentically as she could from the start despite the overwhelming risk? Why did Duduzile Zozo have to die for me to find out who she was?
How can I share and celebrate the coming-out story of a highly-paid athlete who has sacrificed – what? a shot at one endorsement but the greater prospect of that other one instead now that there’s a story to sell? only he and God and those close to him know what he has sacrificed – when all it is, is us convincing the same power-brokers and gate-keepers that the brand, the surface appearance, the thing that people like and buy into and find familiar, can accommodate a homosexual orientation?
How is that bringing about fundamental change in a world that is desperate for more than just a cosmetic face-lift?
What are we trying to do as consciousness-raisers? Convince the same people within the same structures that we’re just like them, or critique their structures completely?
Another example. I’m tired of hearing people say, “Wow, I like this new Pope.” Why do we want the Pope to have an epiphany about gay people when we should want for gay people to have an epiphany about themselves and stop trying to get that system, that establishment, that institution, to “accept” them? The question shouldn’t be whether that establishment can accept gay people. The question should be – how in God’s name can gay people forgive and accept these establishments. This Stockholm Syndrome business has got to end. This sucking up business, this thing of believing the Oppressor’s narrative about his superiority or the order, the security and the stability of the world he’s selling, has got to come to an end. It is religious establishments that need diversity and gay people, not the other way around.
So I ask you again: what changed for the sensitive, artistic gay kid who is being bullied in school? He won’t be called “faggot” but the underlying attitude will still be there. The words change. The intent behind them doesn’t because all that’s happened is that “faggot” got shifted from the “insults” column to the “we don’t call people that anymore because some macho rugby players are gay” column. That’s what political correctness will do. But the underlying contempt for difference and femininity and vulnerability is still there, fundamentally undisturbed. I can’t, in good conscience, play along any longer.
So congratulations, Mr Keegan Hirst. Whatever this moment means to you, take it in and relish it. You don’t need my or anyone else’s permission to do that. You have every right to be proud of yourself, and the people around you have a right to be proud of you.
But you could be the among the last sports’ stars to be celebrated for coming out. It’s achievement that’s been done to death – and I do mean to death – by heroes whose names will never make as many news headlines. Their stories were just not as glamorous, I guess.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.