Super League referee James Child has expressed his delight with the reaction to his public revelations over his sexuality.
Child, 37, addressed the subject for the first time on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast in which he revealed he has been the target of death threats and homophobic abuse.
The Yorkshireman, who began refereeing in Super League in 2009 and has been on the Rugby Football League’s elite panel for the last 11 years, says he broke his silence in an effort to educate people and encourage respect and has been pleased by the initial response.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I’m delighted generally speaking that it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Child told the PA news agency.
“I think the worst I’ve seen is indifference, which is absolutely fine.
“I get the view when people say it’s irrelevant because it is irrelevant in many ways. It’s all about what I do on the field.
“I think the message has been pretty well received and I’m happy about that.”
Child, who has a male partner, told the podcast he came out to his fellow referees about 10 years ago but resisted calls to go public until now.
He told PA he recently began working on the RFL’s inclusion and diversity working group and that formed part of the reason for his decision to come out.
“Frankly it’s no-one’s business except my own,” he said. “People don’t have to make an announcement that they’re straight and in some ways I shot myself in the foot but it took a long time for me to be comfortable with my own skin.
“I had a couple of approaches in the past and didn’t necessarily want to do it at that time. But it shouldn’t have been a big revelation and I don’t think for most people it will have been.”
Child says he was prompted to open up to his fellow referees following an incident around 2010 in which he was homophobically abused by a coach and thought he was going to be physically assaulted.
A few years later former Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker, now with Wigan, was given a five-match ban after being found guilty of homophobic abuse, allegedly calling Child a ‘f***ing f*g’ during the Rhinos’ defeat at Warrington, which he later described as a heat-of-the-moment comment.
Child says he has had no contact with the unnamed coach since and, although he told the BBC he did not believe the RFL handled either of the cases well, he thinks lessons have been learned.
He said: “The couple of cases I referred to were a long time ago and in some respects I don’t think I made it easy for them because I wasn’t openly gay and there were details I didn’t necessarily want released.
“But by speaking out publicly, people then can’t use the argument that they didn’t realise. The RFL launched the Tackle It strategy last year and I think they will have learned some lessons.
“But it wasn’t just the RFL, it was the action of the clubs and people involved and how they handled it.
“It would have been preferable from my point of view if they had put their hands up and said they were sorry. We all say things in the heat of the moment which we later regret. That wasn’t what happened in either case.”
Welsh rugby union referee Nigel Owens, ex-Wakefield prop Keegan Hirst and former dual-code winger Gareth Thomas have all publicly expressed their sexual orientation and Child is hoping his comments will encourage more sports people to come out.
Child is also hoping he will be treated fairly by fans when they return to games later in the year.
“I guess the proof of the pudding will be when I go and do a game and make a decision people don’t like,” he said.
“The reaction today was really, really encouraging and I’m confident that when crowds are back in, it shouldn’t be an issue and sure it won’t be. That’s pretty much what I wanted.”
Child’s comments were welcomed by Phil Bentham, the RFL’s acting head of match officials, who said: “James has been an elite referee for more than a decade and has made a major contribution to the game.
“It’s great that he is sufficiently comfortable and confident to have done this interview and we share his hope that it will help in terms of promoting respectful attitudes throughout rugby league.”