The mental health toll of hiding one’s homosexuality in sport came under scrutiny recently.

Retired Wallabies and Super Rugby prop Daniel Palmer revealed the toll hiding his homosexuality from his teammates and opponents took on his mental health during an illustrious playing career.

Palmer made 46 Super Rugby appearances for the Waratahs and Brumbies — becoming a vice-captain for the latter side — and played a Test for the Wallabies against Scotland in 2012.

Palmer is one of a handful of male professional rugby union players to come out worldwide, the highest profile being former Wales, and British and Irish Lions international Gareth Thomas in 2009.

In this day and age, it remains incredulous that an individual is fearful of the consequences of revealing their sexual preference.

Palmer said he was “incredibly frustrated, angry and desperately sad” during his career, adding that he was “trapped in a false narrative and could see no way out”.

“I fantasised about disappearing, changing my name and starting my life all over again,” Palmer wrote.

“I was incredibly frustrated, angry and desperately sad. I despised myself and the life I was living. I was trapped in a false narrative and could see no way out. Most nights, I cried myself to sleep and routinely numbed myself with a heavy cocktail of opioids.”

Disturbingly, Palmer said “It is not an exaggeration to say my own death felt preferable to anybody discovering I was gay.”

This is despite the significant effort in sport and the evolving social standards to promote an atmosphere of inclusion, respect and tolerance of each other’s belief systems and rights.

“After overdosing on painkillers and waking up in a pool of the previous day’s food, it was clear to me that I was rapidly self-destructing and that something had to change.”

Palmer flew to London to see a friend and spoke about his sexuality.

“He was the first person I told that I was gay in my 25 years on the planet,” Palmer said.

“Telling him removed a weight I had been carrying for as long as I could remember. I am forever grateful that he was there for me that day.”

Palmer retired soon afterwards in 2014, attending university to study following his time at French rugby side Grenoble. He briefly played for the Brumbies 2015 trip to South Africa before permanent retirement.

Palmer has since completed a double degree in science and psychology at the Australian National University in Canberra, and achieved first class honours in neuroscience.

He is now working on his PhD.

Importantly, Palmer emphasised that he never felt directly discriminated against during his career, and that “the battle for me was primarily with myself rather than with obvious external pressures or discrimination”.

Palmer said he was inspired by Thomas’s public statements.

“If this piece can prompt a conversation, make space for people to feel more comfortable being themselves, or can help someone better understand what a loved one may be going through, it will have been a success,” he said insightfully

Clearly, Palmer’s position is the antithesis of former Wallaby Israel Folau’s religious views on homosexuality. Folau made a number of controversial Instagram posts, including one proclaiming hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators”.

“To me, what is more important than the damage he [Folau] has caused rugby is the deep impact he has undoubtedly had on kids who looked up to him, and who struggle every day with understanding their sexuality,” he stated.

“He will never see the impact he has had on these young people, but if he could, I doubt he could live with himself.

“Thankfully, from my experience in rugby, views like Israel’s are the exception, not the rule.

“It is a slow grind, but we need to build a culture, both in and out of sport, where people are comfortable being themselves, whatever that may be.” Another former teammate, recently retired Wallabies back rower David Pocock, took to Twitter to offer his support to Palmer.

“I believe sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive,” he tweeted.

Pocock said Palmer’s article was a “good reminder of how much more work there is to do” to encourage inclusivity in sport.

Erik Denison, a researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences, has conducted research on homophobic language in rugby union and the impact on players struggling with their sexuality.

Mr Denison said Palmer’s experience was similar to what Thomas went through during his playing career prior to revealing his sexuality.

He said sporting organisations around the world needed to address the issue of why some athletes feel “unwelcomed and not safe to come out”.

“I think the fact that all these stories are the same year after year over literally the last half-century, that should be a bit of a wake-up call for those in sport that something’s wrong here, we need to change something,” Denison opined.

He hoped Palmer’s decision to write about his experiences would help athletes who were struggling with their sexuality.

“Hopefully this might be the piece of the puzzle that helps them not take the step that he did where he tried to take his own life,” he said.

 

Image via theguardian.com

« Back to Articles