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How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News


Dan Palmer made his debut for Australia at the age of 23 but within two years, he had called time on his professional playing career

To achieve his rugby dream, Dan Palmer threw himself into the sport he loved – but the dedication almost destroyed him. 

When the Australian prop made the grade – he was appointed vice-captain of the Brumbies and was capped by his country, all before his 24th birthday – he appeared to be a young man driving forwards with momentum and presence. Yet away from the scrum, all he could think about was disappearing.

Two months ago, Palmer wrote an article that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald detailing his journey of self-discovery since running out for the Wallabies against Scotland in June 2012. Australia lost that game, and around the same time this international debutant was beginning to feel like he was losing himself, a gay man, within the pre-defined persona of what a professional rugby player was supposed to be.

“I was an expert at playing the role expected of me and maintaining the fictional character that had been created,” he writes. “The longer I allowed this to go on, the harder it was to reverse the cycle.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Australia were beaten 9-6 by Scotland in Palmer’s only Wallabies appearance in Newcastle, New South Wales

Palmer could have been consumed by that character – he mentions that there were thoughts of suicide – and even now, when it is thankfully no longer taboo for sportsmen to share stories of vulnerability and their struggles with mental health, his article carries such an emotional heft that it must rank among the most remarkable rugby reads of 2020.

After an injury-ridden stint with Grenoble in France, Palmer quit the sport in 2014. However, within a year he was back working with the Brumbies as a coach and scrum technician, combining the role with academic studies (he has first-class honours in neuroscience and is now halfway through a PhD). In his column, he refers to the act of coming out publicly through a national newspaper as “a very strange thing” and on reflection, he says the reaction has been unexpected too.

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer’s article, headlined ‘My own death felt preferable to anyone discovering I was gay’, was shared widely in Australia and beyond

David Pocock tweeted to say his former Brumbies team-mate is “one of the best men I got to know and play alongside”, while current Australia skipper Michael Hooper described Palmer as “a great bloke, a great Wallaby, a great player and now coach”. Messages from people who the 32-year-old does not know personally meant a great deal to him too.

“My article spread much further than I ever anticipated,” he tells Sky Sports, “and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The rugby community has been incredibly supportive. I’ve had contact from former team-mates and coaches, as well as many others expressing their support and appreciation. There’s lots of goodwill in rugby. People at all levels of the game are aware of these issues and want to create an environment where people are comfortable being themselves.

“But I’ve also heard from people from all walks of life, who have been very open about their own situations. So it’s been very humbling to hear that my story has resonated with so many others.”

A conversation in confidence

Writing in the first person, Palmer serves as narrator and protagonist – but there is a supporting cast member who, even while remaining anonymous in the article itself, emerges as a pivotal figure. He is the trusted friend who Palmer travels to meet and unburden himself to – “the first person I told that I was gay in my 25 years on the planet” – and who by listening and reassuring, helps to set him free.

His name is Mathew Cole. Having struck up a friendship with Palmer during their late teens, he became the prop’s agent. Cole was living in London, forging his own career, when he took a call from his client in Grenoble to say he was flying over. “I knew Dan had been struggling with injury and isolation in France,” he recalls, “so standing there waiting for him at Victoria Station, I was just happy to see my mate.

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer’s friend Mathew Cole now works as a media entrepreneur and senior executive in Melbourne

“He’s not the most expressive person you’ll ever meet, but as soon as we got outside the station, I knew there was something significant on his mind. He was uncomfortable, agitated.” Palmer describes not being able to even make eye contact, such was his distress. Hours before, in his apartment, he had woken “in a pool of the previous day’s food”, having overdosed on painkillers. The two men walked to a nearby restaurant almost in silence. “I could see Dan was needing to talk but I also knew not to force him.

“We sat down and I asked Dan something like, ‘so how are you doing?’ but there was no answer.” Instead, Palmer slid his phone across the restaurant table. “He’d written a message on it, in a very conversational manner. It started by saying, ‘if you are reading this, then…’ And I could see Dan was crying and trying to hold back even more tears. So I was trying to read the message, to digest every word, and console him at the same time.”

For Palmer, all the anticipation, shame and stress that had built up for years was finally starting to be released. “At the time, opening up to someone else felt like a massive step with a lot of risk,” he explains. The circumstances of the two Aussies both being in Europe played its part, but Cole was still carefully chosen. “Mat and I had been through a lot together – he’d been my agent since I left school. Our relationship was built on honesty and I trusted him.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer built a reputation as one of Super Rugby’s toughest props before leaving his homeland to play in France’s Top 14

Cole acted on intuition. “It was clear what Dan was saying in the message and I understood how much of a big deal for him this would be. But to be honest, my first reaction was not to react to the message but more just to make sure my mate sitting opposite from me was OK.

“I think it’s important to understand that for Dan, in this moment, his life changed. For me, relative to Dan, not much changed. I’m still me. He’s still Dan. We’re still mates and will be for many years to come.

“I think I said something like, ‘OK, is there anything else?’. And that was more to try and make him feel like it wasn’t that big a deal for me, to communicate that it changes nothing.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer had been among the guests when Cole and his wife celebrated their wedding day in 2012

Palmer writes that Cole “got it right… I am forever grateful that he was there for me that day”. The ‘fictional character’ version of the strong, stoic prop forward that had gradually taken over his identity had been kicked into touch – he had won some breathing space. The internal tide of insecurity began to turn, says Palmer. “Mat broke down all of these irrational concerns that I had in my head and focused on what actually mattered – we were mates, that hadn’t changed, and he was there for me in whatever way I needed him.”

He stayed with Cole and his wife in London for a few days. There were strolls around Camden Market, and conversations that flowed much more easily – about what Palmer wanted from life, from his career, and “what was likely to be left out in the future”, remembers Cole. The pressure brought on by keeping up a pretence within rugby had affected Palmer’s passion for the sport, and he was recognising that he would have to remove himself physically from that environment, at least for a while.

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer with Brumbies team-mates Clyde Rathbone and Joseph Tomane after a victory over the Reds in February 2013

“I had a lot of trouble reconciling the idea of being both a rugby player and a gay man,” he recalls. “To me, they were incompatible. Being a rugby player was my dream and I thought I could suppress the part of myself that apparently conflicted with this, so I kept my sexuality secret and fitted in with the rugby player stereotype.

“The problem is, once that narrative is created, it gets perpetuated over time and it’s very hard to reverse. Later in my career, I felt that by coming out, the people closest to me would feel deceived. I thought that I would no longer be seen as a trustworthy or honest person and this really bothered me. I felt like a fraud. I still struggle with this at times.”

Yet in that moment at the restaurant table, and in the time since, Cole felt the opposite – the friends’ bond of trust was strengthened. “I’m so glad Dan had the confidence in our relationship that he felt comfortable talking to me. At the end, I hugged him, which is not something we used to do previously, but it felt right at the time.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

We need to challenge both the stereotype of being an athlete and a gay person. We need to create an environment, both in and out of sport, where kids are comfortable being themselves while pursuing whatever dreams and aspirations they may have.

Dan Palmer

Genuine guidance

Even in modern society, coming out is a quandary that still causes much confusion – there are elements of uncertainty, sometimes waves of anxiety, and often for other people, a degree of puzzlement over how this process can be so excruciating and tortuous. In men’s sport, the hesitancy is heightened even more. Meanwhile, agents are expected to provide their clients with stability and to avoid risk. What would be the best strategy for a situation such as this?

Cole’s advice is to firstly listen, and then give the client all the time they need. Grenoble could hardly be described as Palmer’s happy place but returning there from London, to be alone again, was necessary. “The distance allowed Dan to think about how he wanted to tell more people and start to live the life he wanted to,” says Cole. “He had to be very deliberate about making more authentic choices.

“In Australia, surrounded by the same people he’d known all his life, there had been a natural inclination to make certain decisions that you know other people want you to make. Dan now had the space to see things in his life that he wanted, to pursue new areas and interests that would make him happy.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Palmer’s official Brumbies headshot photos taken in 2013 and 2015 – in the intervening period, he had returned to Canberra to take on the role of scrum coach

Palmer agrees – “it was helpful that Mat wasn’t someone who I saw every day. I had to take the next steps in my own time” – and midway through 2014, he flew home to enrol at the Australian National University in Canberra. As life gradually became more fulfilling, he opened up to more friends and family. Having attained a level of confidence that had eluded him for so long, his decision to go public this year was partly attributed to the lingering aftermath of the Israel Folau homophobia saga and his appreciation of the need to break down stereotypes in order to create more inclusive environments.

With that in mind, and while respecting an individual’s right to privacy, Cole has an additional piece of advice – be wise to the changing times. “I can see why, in the past, agents advised their clients to keep elements of their lives secret. If the agent had a perception that someone’s sexuality may negatively impact their commercial value, it would be their professional obligation to advise their clients.

“But I do think this is a very antiquated view. Honesty and authenticity are far more valuable commodities for athletes, and the brands and teams they engage with.” He cites Megan Rapinoe as an example of being impactful and marketable both on and off the field, and how her career opportunities will only improve as a result: “She’d be amazing in public office”.

In men’s rugby, Gareth Thomas – who came out 11 years ago – has become an all-round role model; sevens player Sam Stanley and former Bath winger Levi Davis have gained plaudits for making the theme of good mental health central to their stories of being gay and bi respectively; while within the refereeing ranks, Nigel Owens and more recently Craig Maxwell-Keys have represented the community with enormous integrity.

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News
Nigel Owens shared his coming out story with Sky Sports viewers in the series ‘My Icon: Rainbow Laces’ – watch the episode in full On Demand

Nigel Owens shared his coming out story with Sky Sports viewers in the series ‘My Icon: Rainbow Laces’ – watch the episode in full On Demand

For a lot of LGBT+ people in sport, other athletes coming out and going on to thrive is inspiring, but their visibility can also seem somehow unattainable. ‘Be yourself’ is a simple slogan to say but much harder to accomplish, particularly in male professional team sports. Agents might discourage players from even trying; Cole thinks most tend to say only what they feel their client wants to hear. Yet for someone like Palmer, wracked with feelings of guilt over keeping his sexuality a secret, bottling everything up only made it worse. “I had to self-implode to finally reach out to someone,” he wrote in his article.

Having listened and learned from his friend, Cole – now a senior media executive at a venture capital firm – says agents need to be empowering. “We live in an age where genuine authenticity is a fading quality. If your client is LGBT+ and facing challenges as to how or when to come out, don’t just tell them to hide it. And if your client sets out terms for you on how they want to communicate their news, be deliberate in your approach. It would be far worse that a client is outed or has to live for extended periods being someone they are not.”

How Australia prop Dan Palmer’s first coming out conversation with his friend and agent changed his life | Rugby Union News

Reading Palmer’s story in the Sydney Morning Herald was both ‘heartbreaking and joyful’ for his friend Mathew

Palmer inhabited his role completely, perfecting a sports version of method acting to the point that he did not feel able to step out of character. He says his life now is more liberating than the one he once dreamed of, when he was in denial – “there’s definitely something freeing about coming out” – but what also matters to him is being relatable.

“I hope that being visible in a space where so few people have come out gives me the opportunity to help others in a similar position.” As Palmer’s experience proves, putting faith in a friend makes for an encouraging start.

Sky offers support for our viewers and readers on a broad range of topics, including feelings of distress and despair – follow the link to find out more.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign. If you’d like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.





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