There have been many pivotal moments this year that have progressed the fight for LGBTQ+ visibility in sport. From having the greatest number of openly queer athletes at the Olympic Games, to seeing the first out players in the NFL and NHL – things are certainly heading in the right direction. Ireland’s own Jack Dunne joined the list of history makers this year, when, by publicly coming out as bisexual, he became the first-ever active professional player employed by the IRFU to speak openly about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Dunne, who currently plays in the second row for Leinster, spoke to GCN about his experience coming out within the world of rugby.
His career started when he was as young as four or five, joining Stradbrook Rugby Club and later moving to Seapoint Rugby Club. Things got more serious when he transitioned to playing in secondary school, and he admits he “just loved it from the start.”
A spanner was thrown in the works, however, when in his teenage years he began to discover his sexuality. The revelation at first was not too distressing for the promising athlete, but it was the environment of his all-boys school that caused him to change his thinking.
“It was strange enough. When I originally found out, I was completely okay with it,” he began. “But then, you know, when you’re in a teenage boys’ school, people say things that aren’t the nicest so you kind of internalise them. So then, for about a year or so I really wasn’t happy with it and I wished I wasn’t bisexual at all.”
Like many young people struggling with their sexuality, Dunne’s initial feelings were that he would never tell anyone or act on it. He describes bisexuality as sometimes being both a blessing and a curse in that way, saying, “it’s easier to hide than if you were gay because you don’t have to pretend to like girls, and you don’t have to pretend to enjoy kissing a girl if you’re out with the lads on a Saturday night.”
“I know people would definitely think, ‘Oh I’m just going to hide this forever because that’s what’s easier and I don’t want to face coming out’,” he remarked.
— Jack Dunne? (@Dunners98) June 26, 2021
However, as time went on, and as he became more accepting of himself, the issue of being in the closet continued to weigh on the Dubliner’s shoulders. As he progressed through his final year of secondary school, he made the bold choice to come out, stating “I told one or two people and they took it really well, so I decided I’d tell everyone else then.”
“I definitely had consciously waited until the rugby season was over before I told everyone because I was just worried it would be a thing. But then, the people who I played rugby with, they were honestly the most supportive out of anyone.”
While Jack Dunne had an overwhelmingly positive experience coming out as bisexual to his teammates, this poses the question as to why there is still such a lack of out male athletes, and what makes it so difficult for LGBTQ+ people to feel accepted in sport?
“I can only speak from my own experience, and I’ve obviously only played on maybe less than 10 teams throughout my entire life. But on those teams anyway, there’s been a really good culture there, and it’s all been really accepting.
“Chatting to some people […] who would have been in male sport even in like the early 2000’s, it definitely would have been a different atmosphere.”
“But it is changing, and I think obviously the reputation of something takes longer to change than the culture itself.”
“I’m not saying that all male sports atmospheres are the best thing in the world, because they’re not, and I know there are some teams and some sports which definitely wouldn’t have the best attitude towards it. But from my personal experience, I’ve had a really good ride.”
— Jack Dunne? (@Dunners98) June 26, 2021
Jack Dunne has been out as bisexual for around five or six years now, just not in the media. He reflected on his experience growing up when making the decision to disclose his sexuality, saying, “I think if I was 15 years-old again, I really would appreciate it if there was someone who played rugby that I could look up to.”
“Obviously, Nigel Owens would be a really famous gay referee […] But there weren’t any players that I could really look up to – Gareth Thomas had retired, but there wasn’t any current players. So, I think I would have really appreciated that.”
Being one of the few out elite male athletes in the country, you are immediately seen as a role model for LGBTQ+ youth. The weight of this can be too much for some people, but for Jack, although “it is a bit of an added pressure,” it’s one he’s “happy to accept.”
“In Leinster, we always talk about, you have to wear the jersey 24/7, so everyone’s trying to be a role model to themselves first of all, and then if other people look up to that, then that’s brilliant as well.”
To have an even greater impact, the rugby player was keen to get involved with the LGBTQ+ community. Through Rugby Players Ireland, he was introduced to ShoutOut, who he now volunteers with. Having given a few Zoom workshops, he’s eager to get back into schools and connect with the students face to face.
When asked about the importance of ShoutOut’s work, he explained that for a lot of kids, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments don’t usually come from a place of hatred or malice, but rather ignorance. “If you educate kids and give them information about all these people who are part of the queer community, it’ll probably improve their attitudes towards them.”
Already a great representation for LGBTQ+ sportspeople, Jack Dunne and his decision to come out publicly as bisexual will certainly be significant for young athletes everywhere. What he lacked growing up – a queer rugby role model – he will now be for countless kids.
Being LGBTQ+ should not deter anyone from achieving their dreams. Even in the most stigmatised of environments, there will still be a place for you to thrive.
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