Old Redcliffians' skipper Jed Hooper happy to reveal that he is gay
OLD Redcliffians captain Jed Hooper has become the first Combination player to publicly announce that he is gay.
The 22-year-old back row forward came out to family and friends earlier this year. And Hooper has now spoken exclusively to the Evening Post in the hope that his story can help other young rugby players come to terms with their sexuality.
In recent seasons, former Welsh international Gareth Thomas and top referee Nigel Owens have both broken one of the great taboos in arguably the most macho sport of all.
And Hooper, a fierce competitor who speaks as directly off the pitch as he does in his pre-match team talks, has now also chosen to come out of the closet after years of anxiety connected to grappling with his true identity.
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The decision, he said, was still far from easy. "I met someone earlier this year who said he could not be with someone who was in the closet. That, basically, was the catalyst that I needed.
"Before that, I think I had already told about ten friends and their reaction was very positive so that gave me an inkling of what might happen. And I also thought if the crap really hits the fan then at least there are ten people on my side!"
Even with that knowledge, though, Hooper still agonised over what he knew he had to do. "I was never going to do it bit by bit, that would have been too drawn out, so I decided to text everyone and also put it on Facebook.
"I was horribly nervous. I wrote and rewrote the text four or five times, and I had my finger on the 'send' button for ages before I finally pushed it.
"The text basically said something along the lines that 'I've been hiding it and fighting it for too long, and I can't hide any more. If you can accept me this way then great ... and if you can't then I don't need you and you can get lost!'
"I then cried my eyes out as I was thinking to myself 'what have you done?, but very quickly I must have had 40 replies and all of them were positive."
Instantly, Hooper added, there were feelings of relief. "A massive weight came off my shoulders. If I couldn't accept myself the way I am, how could I expect my friends to?
"No punches were pulled with questions from the rugby lads, that's for sure. I can't repeat some of the things I was asked, but I've always been someone who has been at the centre of any banter flying around, and the only thing that's changed is the type of banter."
Hooper is a proud Old Red having played his first game for the Brislington club at the age of six before joining the Gloucester Academy and also appearing for Hartpury, Cinderford and Newbury, returning home two seasons ago to score a hat-trick in a Twickenham final victory and help secure two successive league promotions.
He said: "Being captain is a huge privilege, so when I made my announcement one of the first people I spoke to at Reds was our then chairman, Ray Massey.
"I said that if the club doesn't want a gay man as its figurehead I would understand and step down. But he was brilliant and said 'you're our captain and this doesn't change anything'. That support was massive to me."
Reaction throughout the Bristol rugby community, in fact, has been overwhelmingly positive. "There has only been one comment on the pitch, at a pre-season tournament, and I had to step in to stop our lads from kicking things off."
Hooper first became aware that he might be gay when he was 14. "Even then I had a bit of a hard man image because of my rugby, and that made me think 'no I'm not gay', but at the age of 15, in my heart of hearts, I was sure. At school, I didn't want to be with a girl and I couldn't be with a boy."
On-going inner turmoil surrounding his double life led Hooper to drink himself into a stupor at different times, while he admits to a short period of self-harming with a knife "because I thought I might be able to cut this out of me."
There was also a six-month ban from rugby in 2009 after being sent off playing for Hartpury and for later threatening the referee, something Hooper still bitterly regrets. "I can't blame that on being gay, but back then I was so angry all the time," he said. "Now I feel like a different person and I wonder why I hid this for so long. It's brought me closer to a lot of people and it's certainly made me happier."
But Hooper stresses that on the rugby pitch nothing has changed. "I'm slightly less aggressive, but I'm still not the nicest customer you'll come across
"I'm a very aggressive competitor, someone who hates losing and has a win at all costs mentality, but I'm a much nicer bloke in the bar after.
"If anyone is reading this and they're in the same situation as me, all I want to say is don't bottle things up because, trust me, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The world's not against you. If my story can help one person then this has been worth it."