The Australian former rugby union player Dan Palmer says his decision to come out as gay was, in part, motivated by a desire to break down often contradictory stereotypes associated with being a ‘rugby player’ or a ‘gay person’.
In the week since his powerful column was published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Palmer has received hundreds of emails and messages from around the world, including from many people who have encountered similar struggles with their sexuality.
His own brutally open recount detailed the mental health issues and drug problems he experienced, including feelings that “my own death felt preferable to anybody discovering I was gay”.
The 32-year-old, a prop who played one Test for the Wallabies in 2012 and domestically for the Waratahs and Brumbies between 2008 and 2015, joins Welshman Gareth Thomas as the only other male professional rugby player to have come out.
In his column, Palmer wrote he had always felt comfortable in the rugby environment, categorising his battle as one “primarily with myself rather than with obvious external pressures or discrimination”.
To Guardian Australia he described the issue as complicated, recognising the paucity of male players to have publicly identified as LGBTQI despite wider societal progress. The former Wales captain Thomas revealed he was gay in 2009, while still playing. However, there are currently no openly gay active male players.
“The progress we see in society is certainly evident within sport as well – rugby isn’t separate from the wider community, it is part of it,” Palmer said. “I think it is important to challenge the idea of what it means to be a ‘rugby player’ or a ‘gay person’.
“It can certainly be difficult, particularly for younger people, to integrate such seemingly contradictory views of themselves. By breaking down these stereotypes we might be lucky enough to normalise a level of diversity in rugby and make it easier for people to be themselves.
“Although I think that people coming out and becoming more visible in a space where there are so few would help to challenge established stereotypes, coming out is a very personal journey and it is important that people do it in their own time.”
Palmer also cited “the ignorance of Israel Folau”, and the damaging impact of the sacked Wallaby’s social media post claiming “hell awaits” gay people, as a key driver in his resolve to speak out.
Retrospectively, that gnawing feeling of responsibility to say something has been replaced by a sense of relief.
“I am absolutely glad to have done it,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy decision and is something I was quite anxious about.
“I really don’t like being the centre of attention, and I knew the whole thing could be a little overwhelming. But this apprehension was ultimately outweighed by the positive impact I hoped the piece would have.”
The article prompted a public outpouring of support led by former Brumbies teammate David Pocock, who said Palmer was “one of the best men” he knew. Palmer, who retired in 2015 and is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, said the message had spread far further than he anticipated.
“I have had hundreds of emails and messages from people right across the globe,” he said. “Many have been incredibly open about their personal experiences or those of their loved ones. It is very humbling to think that my story has touched so many people. I hope that it has helped in some way.”