When rugby referee Nigel Owens came out as gay in 2007, he said it was “a big taboo” to be LGBT+ in his line of work.
Owens, who recently announced that he is retiring from refereeing international matches, admitted that he was afraid of coming out publicly because he didn’t want to jeopardise his career.
In the 13 years that have passed since he publicly came out, things have changed radically in the sport. Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas later came out as gay, and other players have opened up about their identities too.
“You don’t have to hide who you are in rugby,” Owens tells PinkNews. “I’ve proven that.”
As he announces his retirement, Owens reflects on his incredible career working as a referee – and tells PinkNews what’s next for him.
You recently announced that you were going to be retiring from refereeing international matches. What motivated that decision?
There were a couple of things that helped me come to that decision. I don’t think people realise how much of a commitment it is – not just physically and mentally, and training and everything like that – but also the travelling, the commitment to be away from home and your loved ones… Obviously, I’m getting older as well, so it’s getting more difficult to obtain the level of fitness that’s required at the top level, and although I’m still fit enough and my performances are still good enough to do it – there comes a time when you need to move on. From the World Rugby point of view, they played a part in that decision as well, because they need to bring in the next generation of referees.
I always wanted to make sure that I got out at the right time, that I wouldn’t go on and performances start dipping, and people are talking about you in a negative way instead of a positive way. I was still able to perform and still on top of my game. I’m still carrying on refereeing the PRO14 competition and Wales domestically, but on the international stage, now was the right time to go when people still want more and expect more from you.
Did you encounter much homophobia after coming out as gay?
I didn’t to be honest. I can count on one hand the amount of negative comments I would have heard, and there probably would have been comments that I wouldn’t have heard. But on the odd occasion – on the very, very odd occasion that there were homophobic comments shouted at me from the spectators – it was heard by other people and it was reported to the relevant bodies and they managed to deal with the situation. They dealt with it and the people involved were banned from the stadium for a couple of years and had to pay a fine too.
On the whole, rugby is certainly an inclusive and diverse sport, and there is a place for everybody in the game. That’s certainly what I’ve found, and that’s down to the ethos of respect that’s in rugby.
Do you have any advice for any LGBT+ people who are starting out in rugby or in the sporting world, or any advice for athletes considering coming out publicly?
You don’t have to hide who you are in rugby. I’ve proven that – [so have] Gareth Thomas, Sam Stanley – Craig Maxwell-Keys is refereeing in the English premiership as well. Rugby has allowed us to be who we are, so nobody could say that rugby is a homophobic sport. You shouldn’t be afraid of being yourself in the sport because you can be, there is no doubt about that.
There are a minority of people in all walks of life – and there’s a minority of people in rugby – who won’t like somebody because of their sexuality, the colour of their skin, whatever reason. And that is society, unfortunately. But you should never be afraid to be who you are in rugby because you can be who you are.
A huge part of rugby is the camaraderie – it’s the leg-pulling, so don’t take yourself too seriously as well… There are things that are totally unacceptable – of course there are – you should stand up and call them out, we all should – but also, have a smile on your face and be able to take a joke. If you can make the joke with another person, make sure you’re able to take the joke yourself. I do think that what does hinder a lot of equality and diversity in society, and in sport and in the workplace today, is too many people look for a reason to be offended when there’s nothing there to be offended about.
Have things changed for LGBT+ people in sport and has it become more accessible?
It certainly has, things are different today to how they were 30 years ago. It’s a massive, massive difference. What you do have today is an acceptance, a tolerance in society – people respecting people who may be different to who they are, and that is the same in sport. There’s a lot of work to be done again, of course there is, and society is certainly a much more tolerant place to be. It’s not about tolerance, it’s acceptance really that’s key.
Society is very different today, with social media and all the huge positives around that… Social media has a huge positivity around it, but it also gives a platform to some negativity and some really horrible, nasty people as well. What you do have today, which is very different to years ago, is that the minority of people who might not like somebody for whatever reason have a platform in social media to voice that hate, and to me that’s the sad thing about it.
The key thing going forward is we all need to buy into an understanding that equality means equality. You shouldn’t be treated any better, you shouldn’t be treated any worse. You shouldn’t be ticking boxes. Equality means equality and I think that is hugely important. We want a society that is fair for everybody… What you want is to have a good place for people to be themselves, and never forget to have a joke and a laugh as well.
Political correctness has gone to the extreme. I hear people now, a minority of people, not happy with the “Fairytale of New York” song because of the word “faggot” in it. Now, “faggot” in that song is used in context of what it was written at the time, that’s been explained, so nobody should take any offence at the context of that word in the song now. If you are, you’re looking for a reason to be offended, and this to me loses the support of other people.
You mentioned recently that you and your partner were thinking of starting a family. What would starting a family mean to you?
Yeah, it’s certainly something we’re discussing. It’s something that I’ve thought more about in the last few years as I’ve been getting a bit older – it wasn’t something that I thought much about when I was younger. I was always very jealous of people who had a very “normal” life, so to speak, whatever normality is or perceived to be. It is something that I would be very proud to have and very excited to have. It’s an ongoing process and we need to sit down and discuss in more detail whether we go down the surrogacy route or the adoption route. I believe that the both of us can give a child or two a very loving home, and whether that would be through surrogacy or adoption remains to be seen.
Can you tell us about your work with Street Paws, the charity set up to support homeless people with their pets?
I didn’t really know anything about Street Paws and the work they do until it was brought to my attention and I was asked if I would be willing to support them as an ambassador in their campaign to feed homeless dogs this Christmas season. It’s hugely important to me that I can help raise awareness around the great and vital work they do. Nobody has thought about looking after the homeless dogs, which are a hugely important part of the homeless people’s lives on the streets, so it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I’m very pleased to help raise awareness around it and get more people supporting Street Paws.
Something I wasn’t aware of is that only one in 10 shelter homes allow dogs into them, so a lot of people who would have been able to sleep in the shelter will decide to sleep on the street because they don’t want to leave their dog on the street alone. That’s something we can hopefully raise awareness on, and hopefully we can get more shelters to accommodate the dogs as well, which is vital.