The only gay on the pitch
After a failed attempt to kill himself, it took guts for professional referee Nigel Owens to come out in the rough, tough world of rugby. But, he tells Patrick Barkham, he was surprised by the reaction
Early one morning, Nigel Owens scrawled a note saying he "just couldn't deal with it any more" and crept out of his parent's house. Fat, lonely, bulimic, addicted to steroids and secretly gay, Owens climbed high above the Welsh valley where he grew up and waited for the sleeping pills to take hold. He has no memory of being saved but was spotted and taken to hospital by a police helicopter. If his rescuers had arrived half an hour later, he would have been dead.
Nearly 13 years on, Owens is not fat, or bulimic and certainly not on steroids. Most notably, his sexuality is no longer a secret. This is a big deal because Owens is an international rugby union referee. Being a referee is a lonely job; being the only professional - player or ref - brave enough to be openly gay must be lonelier still on rugby union's pitches. And Owens is not just an exception in rugby; apart from the tennis player Amélie Mauresmo, virtually no international gay or lesbian sports star still playing has publicly discussed their sexuality. The few who do, such as basketballer John Amaechi and footballer Justin Fashanu, who later killed himself, only came out after retiring.
|Being open about his sexuality has done Owens no harm. Enjoying his 21st season as a ref, he is a television personality in Wales and has just published his autobiography in his native Welsh. "When I came out, it took a lot of weight off my shoulders that I was accepted, that I was gay and it made no difference," he explains, sounding and looking like any of the casually dressed sportsmen who pad around the country house hotel near Cardiff where we meet. "My refereeing improved because I was happy and my career took off." |
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