“I fantasised about disappearing, changing my name and starting my life all over again. It is not an exaggeration to say my own death felt preferable to anybody discovering I was gay.”
These are the words of Dan Palmer, the Australian former rugby union player, who came out as gay in a powerful column published by Sydney Morning Herald.
Palmer became the first Wallabies player and just the second men’s international to come out as gay. Former Welsh Gareth Thomas is the only other male professional rugby player to have come out.
Palmer revealed the struggles he faced throughout his career, during which he contemplated ending his life rather than have people discover his sexuality.
The 32-year-old played for NSW Waratahs and ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby and also had a stint with French club Grenoble, earning one cap for Australia in 2012 against Scotland. Palmer, who retired in 2015 is currently a PhD candidate at ANU, was widely lauded for his bravery. His former Brumbies teammate David Pocock led the plaudits, saying he was “one of the best men” he knew.
Palmer’s decision was spurred in part by homophobic comments by sacked star Israel Folau.
In a column for the Sydney Morning Herald he revealed the struggles he faced throughout his career, including contemplating suicide.
“I was trapped in a false narrative and could see no way out,” he said in becoming only the second international to publicly acknowledge he is gay after former Wales captain Gareth Thomas, who came out in 2009.
“Most nights, I cried myself to sleep and routinely numbed myself with a heavy cocktail of opioids,” he wrote.
Despite his demons, Palmer said he enjoyed his time at the Waratahs and Brumbies and never felt discriminated against, insisting “the battle for me was primarily with myself”.
While not feeling able to go public at the time, he said born-again Christian Folau’s explosive comments last year that “hell awaits” gay people and the subsequent fallout spurred him to act.
“To me, what is more important than the damage he 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.
“Thankfully, from my experience in rugby, views like Israel’s are the exception, not the rule.”
Folau, Super Rugby’s record try-scorer who played 73 times for the Wallabies, was fired by Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby after his comments in a move that proved highly divisive. He now plays in France after settling a multi-million-dollar lawsuit over his sacking.
“This article is something I have been very apprehensive about writing. I have not been forced to do this, nor do I seek the attention it may bring. In fact, at this point I feel like I am describing the life of a completely separate person; albeit someone that shaped who I am today, for better or worse. I don’t think describing my experiences in this way is something I am obliged to do, but rather, I feel like it is something I should do, on the off chance it will help someone who finds themselves in a similar position.”
Palmers coming out has brought to the fore yet again the question of homophobia in professional sports. Professional athletes are still worried about discrimination and may perceive that there are additonal barrieers to coming out as an athlete – not being signed by skittish general managers, not being accepted by teammates, being labeled a “distraction” by coaches or the media.