Photos by Gianni Cipriano
In the world of English rugby union, Sam Stanley stands alone.
When the former Saracens player came out in a 2015 interview, he became the first active English rugby union player to come out publicly, joining a vanishingly small group of out male professional athletes in the UK.
The 27-year-old, who comes from one of rugby’s most famous families, also revealed he was in a relationship with a man 34 years his senior.
“Horrible, really,” said Stanley. “One was the whole ‘gold digger’ thing and people just jumped on that bandwagon.”
He and his partner Laurence Hicks tried not to take too much notice.
“For us, it’s great to represent relationships like ours. And from my perspective, I hope that it has shown the positivity of being a gay sportsman and showing gay youngsters that they can still achieve their dreams in sport.”
Coming from rugby “royalty” it was almost inevitable that Stanley would become a professional player. The game was in his blood. His brother Michael plays for the Samoan national team and he has three cousins who have all played rugby union at a professional level. His uncle, Joe Stanley, was part of the New Zealand All Blacks team that won the 1987 World Cup.
“From there, my dad was always going to follow in his [brother’s] footsteps and ended up getting his children into rugby,” Stanley says. “I guess it made my dad and his brothers realise that it was possible to make it to that level.”
His Kiwi father and English mother relocated from New Zealand to the UK, where Stanley was born in 1991. By the age of four, he was already a regular at the local rugby club, but as he began to fall in love with the game, he realised he was different to his siblings and friends. He was gay.
“I was hoping it was just a phase,” he says. “Obviously when you’re growing up people use the word gay in a derogatory manner. It was difficult to come to terms with it and try and be a rugby player, thinking that both didn’t suit each other and that I couldn’t do both - I had to be one or the other.”
By the time he was 16, Stanley had moved out of the family home to attend the rugby academy at one of England’s biggest professional clubs, Saracens. It coincided with him trying to come to terms with his sexuality, but being an out gay man in the notoriously macho - and straight - world of rugby in 2007 was unthinkable.
“I was very independent from an early age, which was good because it helped me discover myself, but also at the same time I was weighing that up with trying to socialise with team mates as well and trying to build relationships. I think I probably kind of blocked that, which was my own doing really,” Stanley says.
“I was obviously different but most of the stories and banter on a Monday was who you’d slept with and which girl you’d taken home. And obviously, I tried to avoid that as much as I could. So I didn’t really cement relationships like I probably should have.” Not being able to tell his team mates is now one of Stanley’s biggest regrets: “I felt like I had to tell a lie. Doing one thing but telling my teammates I was doing another, and it just became a massive burden that I put on myself.”
So heavy was the burden of being in the closet, Stanley contemplated suicide, but he eventually confided in his mother. “She wasn’t as welcoming at first,” Stanley admits. “But I think she saw it more from a protective point of view because she didn’t want it to affect my rugby career. So I did keep it quiet for about a year until my ex-girlfriend confronted me.”
Remi, his childhood sweetheart, was the confidante that changed everything. The pair remain best friends. “Looking back I can see where my mum was coming from because she was being protective of me, but if I’d told my girlfriend first maybe [coming out publicly] would have happened sooner,” he says. “Despite telling my family, all it would take is someone higher [at the club] to be homophobic to oust you from the team but in a subtle way. There was always that risk, but ultimately once I’d accepted who I was everything seemed to be a bit easier. And now my parents and siblings are supportive and happy that I came to accept myself.”
After representing England in Rugby Sevens, Stanley came out in an interview with the Sunday Times, a decision he made after turning to another rugby player, former England international Ben Cohen, for advice, as he’d always been a huge ally to the LGBTQ community. “I met up with him and asked about his experience of it with players in the changing rooms and so on,” Stanley says. “Obviously there is banter but they don’t realise the effect it has on people. Ben actually put me in touch with a journalist and got the story out.”
Four years have passed since Stanley went public with his sexuality. But it’s clear sport still has a long way to go in accepting LGBTQ athletes. Our interview takes place just a week after Australian rugby star Israel Folau was sacked from the game for tweeting that “hell awaits” gay people. Stanley was quick to respond on social media, and many of his fellow professional rugby players have spoken up to show their support for the LGBTQ community in light of Folau’s remarks.
However, that didn’t include England star Billy Vunipola, one of Stanley’s old Saracens teammates, who backed Folau’s comments by liking his social media post. He has since received a warning from both the Saracens club and from England’s Rugby Football Union.
“I wasn’t out when I played with [Billy] but I have seen him since,” Stanley says. “At the end of last year I saw him at a game, and we talked for a little bit. Billy is actually such a nice guy and in a way, they are just his beliefs. I think [gay rugby union referee] Nigel Owens put it really well when he said it was just about having respect for humans. Whether you believe this or that, we all do need a purpose of just being and people find that in God and religion.
“But don’t use your religion in order to spread hate. And people do think that being gay is a choice. There are people that ignorant out there who come across as intelligent and have those views, which is worrying.”
Stanley believes the response to Folau’s comments is encouraging, but he admits any homophobia in sport is dangerous because so many young people look up to sporting professionals.
“That’s the point I was making about Israel: He’s a role model, and you’ve got to expect a bit of a backlash if you’re going to make comments like that,” he says.
“Obviously being in the public eye and coming out I had quite a few youngsters messaging me about it,” Stanley says. “But if I was a young athlete and wasn’t out and heard a teammate like Billy make those comments I’d go right back into my shell.”
“Youngsters [complete] suicide because of this, as well in fear of not being accepted, so we’re trying to stop that and allow people to be who they are without prejudice, and those sort of comments can put us back a few steps.”
Right now, Stanley is busy focusing on his relationship, after getting engaged to Hicks in 2017 and getting back on the rugby pitch, playing for Thurrock, in Essex, his boyhood club. “[Hicks and I have] been together almost nine years now,” he says. “There’s always ups and downs, but I think when you love each other so much you get past it and get over them.”
“There isn’t a rulebook for gay relationships, like whether you do or don’t want kids. Lawrence does have two kids so there are always things to think about as he’s a lot older than me. Is it worth us having kids? We’ve always talked about it. It’s something we’ve approached.”
“I took a bit of time out from rugby the last year and a half just to get over injuries,” he adds. “I picked up quite a few early in my career and that always kind of plagued me. At the minute, I wanted to come back as I missed rugby too much. But this season has just gone. I’ve been playing again for the team I started with as a youngster. It’s been a bit of an emotional time.”
Despite the occasional setback, Stanley hopes that his legacy will prove that you can be out and proud and be involved in sport at a professional level. “Hopefully I would have left that behind,” he says. “Knowing that I was still able to do that and accomplish things being out as an openly gay rugby player and influencing youngsters who may be in a similar situation.”
This article is part of HuffPost’s Proud Out Loud project, which profiles the next generation of LGBTQ change-makers from around the world.