Rugby star Keegan Hirst has met one of the cast members from Coronation Street to help with the soap’s homophobia in football storyline.
Hirst, who in 2015 became the first openly gay rugby league player in the UK, met Nathan Graham, whose character, James Bailey, is hiding his sexuality amid fears it could affect his football career.
As part of his research into the storyline, Graham talked to the rugby star about how it felt to speak publicly about his sexuality.
Hirst, who currently plays for Championship club Halifax, also told of his experiences of working with the FA to combat discrimination of the LGBT+ community.
The meeting came ahead of a “dramatic series of events” in Corrie, which will leave James forced to decide whether to go public about his sexuality or continue to live a lie.
Fans of the soap have known that James is gay for some time, but in the programme only his family are aware of it, and they are panic-stricken and concerned about his career, his safety and his life.
He is also worried about the press coverage that would follow were he to come out, and the reaction from fans due to suspected homophobia in the sport.
There are currently no openly gay professional players in the top tiers of men’s UK football.
Hirst said: “Being able to say that I am gay out loud was difficult for me to do for a really long time, I couldn’t say it.”
Praising the soap’s storyline, he added: “To have someone on TV who is representing what you might be or want to be is really important; there was no-one like me to look up to when I was growing up, and maybe if there was, I would have thought a bit differently about what it is to be a gay man.
“It’s about educating people and suddenly this starts to dispel all the stereotypes.
“It’s also about making that environment safe; if people know homophobia won’t be tolerated in this environment and everyone is welcome then that message is hammered home and people can see that and then that empowers people to be their authentic self.”
Graham said: “This storyline is important because it is clearly an issue as there is no-one currently playing professional football who is openly gay.
“After talking to Keegan Hirst, I can see that, in football, homophobia is not seen as being on the same level as racism so it is good to spark that conversation and then hopefully it will educate people that discrimination is discrimination no matter what it is – race, religion, sexuality.
“If a sportsperson is gay, it doesn’t take away from their ability, and, with any type of discrimination, until people are educated then nothing will change.”
The soap star added: “If someone is going through this struggle, I hope they see themselves represented and they know that it is OK to own who you are.”
– James’s story continues on Coronation Street on Monday at 7.30pm on ITV.