Super League referee James Child has not spoken publicly about his sexuality before – but this is not his ‘coming out’ story.
It’s been a long time since Child was ‘in’ – with his family, friends and refereeing colleagues all aware that he’s gay.
In an exclusive interview for the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, Child has become one of the highest-profile names in rugby league to open up about being gay.
“It’s better to be who you are, and comfortable in who you are,” he says.
Child, 37, was appointed a Super League referee by the Rugby Football League (RFL) in 2010 and officiated the Grand Final in 2017 at Old Trafford.
“The way I’ve lived my life on social media, I’m pretty open about the fact I have a male partner,” he says.
“I don’t necessarily broadcast it but just live my life normally, and that’s the way I’ve chosen to deal with it up until now. And in many ways, my sexuality and my job are completely separate and it’s irrelevant.
“When I run out there and make a decision, it doesn’t matter whether I’m gay or straight. What matters is whether the decision is right or wrong.”
‘If this helps educate others, that’s great’
Child’s decision to talk about his sexuality is driven by a number of factors.
There is still more than a month to go until the new Super League season starts, which means he can share his story without worrying about it overshadowing any action on the pitch.
But there’s also another issue.
Like many elite officials, Child gets plenty of abuse – including some of a homophobic nature.
“I do receive my fair share, including a couple of death threats over the past few years that have been referred to the police,” he says.
“I’m not saying that’s all to do with my sexuality, but I certainly think one, if not two of those, were homophobic.”
Child says he’s also received homophobic abuse during games that has been “specifically directed” at him and not other officials or players.
“By me speaking about this publicly, there can’t then be a situation where somebody is homophobic, but denies knowing I’m gay,” he says.
“I’m not denying people their opportunity to go to a game and shout at me as a referee. By all means, do it! Carry on doing it! I’m used to it!
“But when you start bringing religion or disability or sexual orientation into it, we don’t need that level of personalisation.
“If this will help educate people and get us all to be a little more respectful to each other, then that’s great.”
‘I was blown away by how my grandma reacted’
Child admits he, like many people in the LGBT+ community, took time coming to terms with his sexuality.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more comfortable with it,” he says.
“If this helps give other people a bit of courage to speak to their families or friends or work colleagues, then just do it.
“I’ve never had a bad reaction to telling anybody, and I built it up worse than it actually was in some ways.
“I was blown away by how my grandma reacted, for example. She didn’t bat an eyelid! She said: ‘As long as you’re happy, I still love you.'”
‘It’ll be great to get back out there’
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Child has had a fairly typical lockdown experience.
There’s been baking, TV binge-watching, plenty of long walks with his dog, and a new addition to the family in the form of Pearl – a kitten that Child and his partner rescued from the roadside at the start of the first lockdown.
But like everyone involved in elite sport, the referee is anxious to get back to some form of normal.
“It was strange last year when we started refereeing behind closed doors,” he says.
“Those moments when you walk out of the tunnel and hear the music playing, but there’s no crowd noise, are very strange.
“It won’t feel normal until we start getting fans back in, and hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later but still, it’ll be great to get back out there.”