‘My own death felt preferable to anyone discovering I was gay’
Former Wallabies prop Dan Palmer writes about how hiding his sexuality put him in a downward spiral, and why he hopes coming out will help others confronting the same struggle
By Dan Palmer – October 30, 2020
This article is something I have been very apprehensive about writing. I have not been forced to do this, nor do I seek the attention it may bring. In fact, at this point I feel like I am describing the life of a completely separate person; albeit someone that shaped who I am today, for better or worse. I don’t think describing my experiences in this way is something I am obliged to do, but rather, I feel like it is something I should do, on the off chance it will help someone who finds themselves in a similar position.
In 2012 I was living my childhood dream. I vice-captained the ACT Brumbies during the Super Rugby season and made my debut for the Wallabies. My life consisted of playing the sport I loved and travelling the world with some of my best mates. I had developed many close friendships, both in and out of sport, and had a loving family who were proud of my achievements.
Despite all of this, I was incredibly frustrated, angry and desperately sad. I despised myself and the life I was living. I was trapped in a false narrative and could see no way out. Most nights, I cried myself to sleep and routinely numbed myself with a heavy cocktail of opioids.
I fantasised about disappearing, changing my name and starting my life all over again. It is not an exaggeration to say my own death felt preferable to anybody discovering I was gay.
After a frustrating year of injuries in 2013, I began a fresh rugby contract with FC Grenoble in the French Top 14 competition.
Living alone in a foreign country, while unable to speak the language, forced a degree of introspection that I doubt would have been possible had I stayed in my comfort zone.
As painful as it was, my year in France was the most transformative of my life. After re-reading those last few sentences I realise they may suggest some kind of blissfully enlightened rebirth onto greener pastures – I promise, that is not how it went.
After overdosing on painkillers and waking up in a pool of the previous day’s food, it was clear to me that I was rapidly self-destructing and that something had to change.
That morning is vague to me now, but after what seemed like an eternity of thinking, I booked a flight to London to visit a friend and reach out for the help I desperately needed.
Strange things stick in your memory at times like these. When leaving my apartment, just catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror near the front door was enough to have me in tears over the pathetic figure staring back at me.
I drove to the airport particularly recklessly, quietly thinking that if I slammed into a tree I wouldn’t have to go through with what I was about to do. On the plane, I remember carefully writing out what I wanted to say to my mate and practising over and over in my head, trying to hold myself together amidst the overwhelming anxiety. I remember telling the guy seated next to me to f— himself for politely asking that I stop tapping our shared armrest nervously.
When walking through the gates in London, I remember being unable to make eye contact with my friend and him immediately recognising that something was wrong. I distinctly remember not being able to say a word to him until we sat down at a restaurant where I cried uncontrollably across the table for minutes before passing him the note I had written on my phone.
I don’t remember what he said after reading my message, but I do remember that he got it right. He was the first person I told that I was gay in my 25 years on the planet. Telling him removed a weight I had been carrying for as long as I could remember. I am forever grateful that he was there for me that day.
The next morning, I had changed in a way I didn’t anticipate. I hadn’t realised until then, but this was the first time in my life I had truly felt free. Not long after, I decided I needed to stop playing rugby and begin the next chapter of my life.
My passion for rugby had been waning for a few years by this point and I had a heavy feeling of regret that I was wasting the best years of my life pretending to be something I wasn’t. Even so, the decision to stop playing was scary. I didn’t feel like I had any valuable skills, and I had no formal education or experience in any sector I was willing to dedicate myself to.
But, at the same time, I found it tremendously exciting because it was an opportunity to completely change direction and build a new passion. I have always had interests outside rugby and this was my chance to pursue something that really excited me.
Mid-2014 I left France and started my undergraduate studies at The Australian National University in Canberra. Since then I have completed a double degree in Science and Psychology, achieved first class Honours in Neuroscience and am now about half-way through my PhD where I study cellular mechanisms of brain function.
I don’t have a satisfying answer to why I had to self-implode to finally reach out to someone and make these changes to my life. Still, I think it might be helpful to describe some of the things that concerned me deeply before coming out.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think my friends and family would accept me for who I was, I never had any doubt about that, they were always very loving and supportive. Rather, I thought they would feel like I had deceived them, that I was somehow untrustworthy.
In some sense they would be correct. Even though I rarely needed to directly lie about my sexuality, I never corrected their false assumptions and let them create their own narratives that masked the truth. I was an expert at playing the role expected of me and maintaining the fictional character that had been created.
I had tactics for navigating certain topics and avoiding others. I became aggressive and defensive when I felt like I was losing control of a situation. The longer I allowed this to go on, the harder it was to reverse the cycle. Underlying this was also a deep feeling of shame that is hard to describe.
A feeling of not quite being worthy, regardless of how you act or present yourself – not a feeling of just being different, but being different in a way that somehow makes you less. How such a feeling manifests is anybody’s guess.
Wherever it comes from though, however it is developed or cultivated, it certainly makes one less inclined to advertise their differences.
When I began my rugby career at the NSW Waratahs in Sydney as an 18-year-old it was important to me that I be judged for what I did, not what I was. Playing professional rugby was my dream and I had been given an opportunity to fulfil my ambition straight out of school.
At that time, I thought that if I were open about my sexuality it would have been difficult to let my performance speak for itself. I don’t know whether this instinct was correct, but it was certainly my feeling at the time and it persisted throughout my career.
To be clear, I very much enjoyed my time at the Waratahs and subsequently at the Brumbies, where I am still involved as a coach. There were great people in both organisations, many of whom remain among my best friends today.
I never felt directly discriminated against and I was comfortable in the rugby environment. As I have described, the battle for me was primarily with myself rather than with obvious external pressures or discrimination.
Of course, the self I was battling was partly the product of cultural and societal influences, but as I reflect, it would be too simplistic to identify a specific feature of the rugby environment that led me down the path I have described.
Unfortunately, since then, the ignorance of Israel Folau has emerged. Although it wasn’t the primary impetus for me doing this, the longer the Folau saga dragged on, the more I felt a responsibility to say something. To me, what is more important than the damage he has caused rugby is the deep impact he has undoubtedly had on kids who looked up to him, and who struggle every day with understanding their sexuality.
He will never see the impact he has had on these young people, but if he could, I doubt he could live with himself. Thankfully, from my experience in rugby, views like Israel’s are the exception, not the rule. It was encouraging to hear a chorus of prominent voices from rugby players and officials globally that condemned his position and continue to push for a more accepting and inclusive sporting landscape.
Unfortunately, to date, only a handful of professional rugby players have been comfortable enough to come out as gay. You may recall that Gareth Thomas, one of the greatest Welsh rugby players of all time, came out in 2009. This corresponded with the start of my professional rugby career.
Although I didn’t have the strength to follow his lead at the time, the descriptions he gave of his experience resonated with me and I was inspired by what he had done. It is a slow grind, but we need to build a culture, both in and out of sport, where people are comfortable being themselves, whatever that may be.
It has occurred to me previously, and hits me again now, that the need for me to come out to you like this is a very strange thing. After all, none of my friends have ever sat me down for a serious conversation and declared that they were straight – that would be insane.
Why then do I feel the need to do essentially the same thing? At this point in time it is obviously necessary – I’m not that naive – but when an article like this is as irrelevant as its counterpart, we will be closer to where we need to be.
We’re on the right track, but we are not quite there yet.
I suspect I’m fast approaching both my word limit and the limits of your attention, so I’ll leave it just about here. Although I’ll admit this has been uncomfortable, I have found writing this article to be a useful exercise and have attempted to be as honest as possible throughout.
It sickens me to know that in the year 2020 there are still people torturing themselves the way I was, both in and out of sport – we need to be better. If this piece can prompt a conversation, make space for people to feel more comfortable being themselves, or can help someone better understand what a loved one may be going through, it will have been a success.
Finally, thank you to my family, friends, teammates and coaches – you were there for me the entire time, even without knowing it.
This article was originally published by THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD