Page last updated at 07:02 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Gay referee's 'coming out' ordeal

Nigel Owens
I did not know what these feelings were at first - then realised what they were and thought 'I do not want to be like this'
Nigel Owens on being gay
International rugby referee Nigel Owens believes it would have been much harder to continue his career after revealing he was gay had he been a football official.

Not that coming out as gay in the rugby world was easy.

In his new autobiography, he details the fear he felt before taking the decision and how being gay drove him to attempt suicide as a young man.

Raised in the village of Mynyddcerrig in Carmarthenshire, he made his Rugby World Cup debut last year, and is the first openly gay man to referee at the highest level.

Hanner Amser (Half Time) has just been published, but Mr Owens said he took some convincing to write it.

"When you do a book, especially an autobiography, you've got to be honest about stuff," he told BBC Wales.

"I had an e-mail from a young guy off Facebook who had gone through the same thing I had gone through - he was gay and could not tell his parents.

"But they found out through television that I was gay and their attitude towards gay people had changed.

"He felt more comfortable that he could tell them so he did so and was accepted pretty well."

He told the Jamie and Louise programme: "I felt maybe if it helps someone along the way I would not like people to go through what I went through all those years ago."

Old fashioned

Mr Owens said he was in his late teens or early twenties before he knew for certain he was gay.

"I was brought in a small community pretty much in an old fashioned way. I was not really up to speed about what was going on in the modern world - coming from that sort of community.

"The long and short of it is I did not want to be gay. I did not know what these feelings were at first - then realised what they were and thought 'I do not want to be like this.'

"It was in a time - 10 or 15 years ago - when it wasn't as easy to be a gay person then as it is now. Not that it's easy now, but it is more acceptable."

As well as anecdotes from his upbringing and refereeing career Mr Owens talks about how being gay drove him to take an overdose and how if a police helicopter had not found him he would not be here today.

Nigel Owens
Everybody from supporters to players to coaches to administrators have all been very supportive
Nigel Owens, pictured refereeing England v New Zealand

"I was a person that I did not want to be - that's what got me down. I wanted a normal way of life, to get married and have children and stuff like that.

"Looking back now I could have [told parents and friends] - when I did they were all great about it - but it was in an era when it was a difficult thing to be.

"It got me down so much that I just could not cope anymore. I thought there was only one way out of this and that's foolishly what I tried to do.

"I got up early in the morning - left the house - left a note for my parents - and I walked and walked for ages. I landed up trying to take an overdose."

'Embarrassed and ashamed'

After his parents found the note they contacted the police and he was found in the nick of time.

"I was airlifted to hospital, spent four or five days there, and then coming out I was embarrassed about what I had done and ashamed.

"When I saw my parents crying from what I had done it made me so ashamed to put them through that. When you are in that frame of mind there is nothing you can do - I think the only way out of it is to tell people, talk to people and friends and family can help you out of it.

"I think it was a turning point - it made me realise it's time you grew up, accepted who you were and got on with your life and make the most of it."

But he said it took him several more years before he was ready to tell his parents and friends.

"Actually saying those three little words "I am gay" was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.

"I would rather referee in front of a passionate 80,000 crowd and give a last minute penalty than do that again. I told my mum - we both shed a tear but nothing changed.

Book cover
The book was launched in Pontyberem on Thursday night

"They are obviously going to be disappointed - not disappointed in me as a person but disappointed that I was an only child and the realisation that maybe there would be no grandchildren.

"Obviously it was difficult for them."

The day after, he went to see his boss as a referee.

"If it was going to be an issue or a problem in my work as a referee I would have to make a decision - I would finish refereeing or live a lie.

"It was frightening because it was my career - I did not do anything else - it could have been the end of my career.

"He was very supportive - and the Welsh Rugby Union as well - they have been very, very supportive. I've been lucky to have great employers from that point of view."

Then he sent text messages to all his friends.

"Most all phoned back or sent a text, bar one, who is still friends with me but has not mentioned anything since and that's fine."

He said the response from many was that they had already guessed.

"I did that on a Saturday night. Huw Watkins, one of my colleagues as a referee, had an e-mail from a referee in New Zealand on Monday asking if it was true I was gay.

"It had gone from me texting someone in Pontyberem on Saturday night to the other side of the world within 24 hours."

Good banter

He said he was also daunted by how supporters and players would take it.

"You do get the odd few who shout the odd things from the crowd - but most of that is still in good banter.

"I have been lucky. Everybody from supporters to players to coaches to administrators have all been very supportive.

"There are obviously people who may feel uncomfortable with it but they are very few and far between and you've got to respect the way they think about people as well."

He admits he was surprised how the rugby world did react.

"I think it shows that, especially in Wales, how close a community rugby is. This is not against football in any way because I like watching football.

"But I think when you think of spectators in football - if I was a football referee it would be more difficult to go and referee in football matches than it is in rugby matches."

Hanner Amser (Half Time) is published in Welsh by Y Lolfa

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