LGBT+ History Month: Former Super League referee James Child on the legacy of coming out

James Child's son looks on as he referees the Challenge Cup semi-final in 2022

It’s a photo that James Child treasures.

Captured by husband Steven, it shows their young son watching on from the stands as Child took charge of last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final between Wigan Warriors and St Helens at Elland Road.

“Steven showed it to me on the way home and my eyes filled up,” Child says.

“I couldn’t have imagined a situation like that as a young man growing up.

“I didn’t anticipate getting married, and I certainly didn’t anticipate having a child. Being able to live my life so openly, as a straight person would do, was fantastic and exactly as it should be.”

That openness stems from the decision Child took, two years ago this month, to speak publicly about his sexuality for the first time.

With a Grand Final and three World Cups under his belt, he was already one of the game’s top officials, and his sexuality wasn’t a secret to those who knew him best.

But Child says he struggled with the idea of ​​whether sharing it with the wider world was something he should, or even needed, to do.

“I wrestled with it for such a long time and went through different emotions,” he admits.

“You know – ‘it’s my own private issue, I shouldn’t need to do it’.

“But my decision was helped by the [BBC LGBT Sport] podcasts. I listened to some of the back catalog and struck up a conversation with some of the people who had been on it about what the fallout had been.

“Once I’d collected them and formed an opinion, I decided to do it.”

But he “didn’t anticipate the impact” coming out publicly would have.

Child wasn’t the first man to come out in rugby league.

Batley Bulldogs captain Keegan Hirst did it in 2015, a full 20 years after Australian star Ian Roberts shared his story while still an active player in the NRL. Australian referee Matt Cecchin also came out while still officiating.

But Child’s decision to talk about his sexuality still made him a history-maker, as the first Super League referee to publicly reveal he is gay.

“I thought it would get some traction, but I didn’t anticipate the impact it had,” Child says with a smile.

“To receive messages from across the game was tremendous, and it shows the impact of people being open and talking about their sexuality.

“One or two reached out to me and I was able to have conversations with them, and to this day I still am in contact with people about their struggles or whether coming out is something they should do.

“It certainly would have helped me as a young boy growing up to see somebody out in rugby league circles – a sport that I had enjoyed and admired, but probably felt that I never would be able to play a part in.”

The reaction to Child’s coming out vindicated his decision to do it.

“It was just tremendously positive and, in many ways, life just carried on as normal,” he says.

“Maybe I imagined it, but I felt I got a bit more respect from players on the field. Perhaps I was just a little more comfortable in myself, although I don’t think I changed!”

James Child
Child officiated in 333 Super League games before stepping down in December 2022

The top-level appointments continued to come his way, including his first-ever Challenge Cup Final as referee between Huddersfield Giants and Wigan Warriors at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last May.

“To get the node was in some ways exciting, in some ways a relief – and having my husband and little boy there for it is a memory I’ll treasure,” he says.

“Obviously he won’t be able to remember it, but in years to come I’ll be able to show him the game and hopefully he’ll be able to appreciate it.”

Child was also involved in last autumn’s World Cup in the UK – but by then his mind had already turned to calling time on a refereeing career that spanned more than a decade as one of the sport’s leading officials.

“I’ve been refereeing since I was 11 and I’m 40 this year, so it was a big decision,” says Child.

“To some degree, the motivation was the change in family circumstances. In many ways, the logistics of refereeing make it difficult to plan life and don’t lend themselves particularly well to having a family.”

And so in December, Child decided to hang up the whistle – but that doesn’t mean life is now quiet.

There’s parenting, pursuing a career as a chartered surveyor – and finding a new fitness regime to replace refereeing.

“I’m definitely not missing the pre-season training! It was a means to an end, but I’ve already thought about cycling to work when the nice weather comes,” Child says with a laugh.

“It’s certainly going to feel strange to not be involved [in rugby]. At the moment, the season hasn’t started so I’m not really missing it. But when it gets going, the chances are I might.”

Child is keen to stress that he’s always available to speak with those who may be struggling with their own sexuality.

“I’m more than happy to share my own experiences, and perhaps provide some comfort and reassurance to people,” he says.

“Talk to your nearest and dearest, and to others who have been on the podcast – and I’d encourage anyone who is contemplating it to think about it, and then, why not?”

James Child was speaking to Jack Murley on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast. You can hear new episodes every Wednesday on BBC Sounds.

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