Sam Stanley became the first professional English rugby union player to come out publicly when he spoke to the Sunday Times last month. Chris Godfrey caught up with the England Sevens Star about the reaction to his interview and the difficulty gay professional sportsman face coming out.
Hey Sam, so I know you publicly came out last month but you’ve actually been out for a while now, haven’t you?
Yeah I have! I told my family last February  and I was overwhelmed by their support. I thought that would be the hardest thing to do when it came to it, and then coming to it I was like Jeez this is such a great feeling, my family still
love me, but now I have to do this to my team mates. I thought the family thing would be the hard part and this was gonna be easy but it turned out to be the other way around.
I kept putting it off again for another year, but then I finally just thought what am I doing, this is who I am, if the rugby world can’t accept it then so be it. So I just did it, I sent a whatsapp to the people I wanted to know. Initially I was going to tweet it and just get it out there, but my other half convinced me otherwise and looking back I was glad he did because it was probably the right decision to let the people that mattered to me know first.
The reaction was great. I was embraced by all my teammates, both past and present. It was just an unbelievable feeling, something I can’t really explain. I was just overwhelmed by their support. I probably had this negative perception of how people are going to react but it was completely different.
And I guess what I now want to achieve is get my story across to people that struggle, that were in my situation. I still find at the same time it’s quite strange people asking me for advice, because I feel obliged to message people back because they’ve taken the time out of their day to message me and I feel I’m going to try and message everyone back. That’s just how I am I guess.
Did you find that being in a team became an extra thing to worry about when you started to come out?
Even though you’ve got huge stars like Tom Daley, for example, it’s kind of an individual sport and I feel maybe if I did that I would’ve been out and maybe it would be easier. Then again, I say that, but if I was in that situation maybe it isn’t easier. I don’t really know.
But I also had to take into consideration all my teammates, the coaches, everyone in the background staff.
I was just like ‘ah man I just can’t do it, what are the coaches gonna think, what if I get dropped, how’s it gonna affect my career.’ You just ask yourself all these questions. You do that all the time and you’re just putting it off. I think I did a lot of reading and a lot is to do with psychology and self-acceptance, self-image and I feel that really helped.
What sort of books were you reading?
So I read this book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which was recommended to me by a friend, and I kind of keep that as my bible. I look back on it and see that if you’re ever in bad situations, if you get the negative feelings and you get a bit emotional – and the team selections can play a part – you don’t worry about what everybody else thinks. This is you and there are always gonna be people who could support you. And that’s 100% what I found and I just regret not coming out earlier. Which is I guess every single gay men will
Do you think professional rugby is set-up favourably for gay players?
Yeah and I think what’s been really encouraging was over the last Autumn internationals when Nigel Owens had homophobic abuse, he didn’t actually hear it but someone in the crowd pointed it out and now that man is banned for life or something. It’s extremely encouraging to see as a gay man, that it’s not tolerated in rugby stadiums. And that’s great to see from the RFU.
What I found especially is that rugby players are a lot more open minded than I thought. I messaged a load of my college mates from Saracens who I grew up with through in their academy with – the likes of Owen Farrell, George Cruise and Jamie George – they all replied their support. And that meant a lot to me. They’re all just teammates but you see them as quite good friends as you see a lot of them since you were 13/14. I think the game is getting a lot better – it’s a lot better than imagined.
Why do you think English rugby now has two out gay players and football still has none?
Football stadiums – having been to games in the past – they can be hostile environments. I personally didn’t take the crowd and the fans into consideration. I just thought this is the best thing for me to do. For me personally to finally be myself and be true to myself. Maybe within football, because racism is still a big thing, maybe they put homophobia on the same sort of figure – if they see a gay player that’s a great target for fans to get into them about and put them off their game.
Do you worry about being targeted by fans during the game?
I know my mum was a bit worried about it, but I spoke to someone at Ealing Trailfinders who said if you have any trouble with the crowd or anything it will be dealt with by them. So that’s really encouraging, just seeing how Ealing will deal with it, even before I’ve played for them. With football though it’s such a difficult one. I’m sure they’ll get abuse but like I say there’s always going to be more support because love will always win and there’s always going to be people that will back you up and support you. I’m sure if there was footballer who came out they’ll get so much support it will be unbelievable. It’s just waiting for that person to take that step.
“Hopefully this will be even stronger because it will help show other people that you don’t have to be a huge star to encourage people to be themselves.”
Obviously Keegan Hirst came out shortly before you, did that have an impact on your decision to come out publicly?
He had a huge influence on mine. I saw the reaction that he got and I was like ‘how encouraging is that’. But it took me a few weeks. I think I’ve been happy with myself for a while now.
I guess being reasonably young, 23, up and coming, I felt I wasn’t in a position to do it as well. But you know, I had the encouragement from Ben Cohen and hopefully this will be even stronger because it will help show other people that you don’t have to be a huge star to encourage people to be themselves. That’s something I had to contemplate: whether I can be that person. I guess the reason I hadn’t done it was because I was waiting for someone similar to me to do it. And I thought you know what, I’m ready. Whatever happens, happens.
How has your other half been throughout your coming out?
He’s been there and he’s always encouraged me and was always going to be behind me. Obviously I struggled with myself when I told my parents, but when I did it he was right behind me and comforting me when I was struggling. So he’s been great.
When we met he’d been married for a good 20 plus years and had two kids and he’d just moved out of his home.
So we kind of relate to each other in a way. It was almost good that we were in a similar situation; we could talk to each other about everything that was going on.
And he’s found courage himself from what I did [coming out] in February to my teammates; he told a load of people at work, and probably if people have read the articles they would have seen stuff about him, so this was also a big thing for him as well. And he’s taken it really well. He’s obviously behind me and we’re just supporting each other through it.