I’ve received homophobic abuse and death threats, reveals referee James Child

Ian Laybourn, PA
·5-min read

Leading Super League referee James Child has spoken publicly about his sexuality for the first time and revealed he has been the target of death threats.

In speaking to the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, Child has become one of the highest profile names in rugby league to open up about being gay.

Child, 37, who began refereeing in Super League in 2009 and has been on the Rugby Football League’s elite panel for the last 11 years, says he has broken his silence in an effort to educate people and encourage respect.

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“All my family and friends know and my colleagues know,” he said. “I came out to my colleagues probably about 10 years ago now so it’s not really a surprise.

“The way I’ve lived my life on social media, I’m pretty open about the fact I have a male partner.

“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.

“In many ways, my sexuality and my job are completely separate and it’s irrelevant.

England v Argentina – Pool C – 2019 Rugby World Cup – Tokyo Stadium
Former rugby union referee Nigel Owens came out as gay at the height of his career (Ashley Western/PA)

“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.”

Child says he was prompted to open up to his fellow referees following an incident in which he was homophobically abused by a coach, who he does not name, and thought he was going to be physically assaulted.

“I do receive my fair share of abuse and had a couple of death threats over the last few years which were referred to the police,” he said.

“I’m not saying that’s necessarily all to do with my sexuality but certainly one, if not two, of those were homophobic in content.

“The reason that prompted me to come out to my colleagues was that I was involved in an incident where I was homophobically abused by a coach.

“There was a disciplinary case that probably set me back in some respects around my level of confidence to come out and speak publicly about it.

“It was the only time in the last nearly 26 years when I thought I was going to be physically assaulted. I wasn’t but I felt I was at the time.

“Similarly a few years later, there was another high profile incident where homophobic abuse was directed towards me (by a player).

Rugby League – Championship Shield – Super 8s – Batley Bulldogs v Dewsbury Rams – The Fox’s Biscuits Stadium
Keegan Hirst was the only Super League player to come out (Richard Sellers/PA)

“I didn’t particularly think the RFL handled either of those situations particularly well – it’s not easy to say because I’m an RFL employee – and neither did the clubs involved.

“Very few people actually asked how I felt about the incident.”

Former Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker, now with Wigan, was given a five-match ban in 2014 after being found guilty of homophobic abuse, allegedly calling Child a ‘f***ing f*g’ during the Rhinos’ defeat at Warrington, which he later described as a heat-of-the-moment comment.

A spokesman for the RFL said: “Rugby league recognises that its players, match officials and others involved in the game have been targets for abuse and discrimination.

“This is unacceptable. Rugby league has developed a far-reaching action plan, TACKLE IT Rugby League versus Discrimination, which launched in October and sets out how the game will extend its reach and appeal, diversify its talent pool, improve its culture and actively deal with all forms of discrimination.

Gareth Thomas Handout Photo
Gareth Thomas came out during his Wales rugby union career (James Robinson/PA/Beat Media Group)

“TACKLE IT is a sport-wide commitment by the RFL, Betfred Super League, Betfred Championship and League 1, Rugby League Cares and RLWC2021.”

Welsh rugby union referee Nigel Owens, ex-Wakefield prop Keegan Hirst and former dual-code winger Gareth Thomas have all publicly expressed their sexual orientation and Child is hoping his comments will encourage more sports people to come out.

“It’s telling that we’ve only had one professional player that’s come out as gay,” Child said.

“Not that I know whether there is or there aren’t any more but statistics suggest there is.

“It’s great that Keegan Hirst came out publicly and been representative of rugby league on that front.

“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’m not denying people their opportunity to go to a game and shout at me as a referee.

“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.”

Child’s interview has been welcomed by Phil Bentham, the RFL’s acting head of match officials, who said: “James has been an elite referee for more than a decade and has made a major contribution to the game.

“It’s great that he is sufficiently comfortable and confident to have done this interview and we share his hope that it will help in terms of promoting respectful attitudes throughout rugby league.”