The toughest test for 6’4’’ Rugby League prop Keegan Hirst didn't come on the pitch, but off it, when he came out as gay.

The former Bradford Bulls Under-18 Academy player, now captain of Batley Bulldogs, is thought to be the first professional Rugby League player to declare that he’s gay.

Statistics suggest he won’t be the only gay Rugby League player, but whether others follow suit and make it public will depend on how quickly the traditionally glacially-paced progressiveness of today’s world of sport moves with the times.

Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, said he felt it “hardly an issue worthy of comment”.

He meant it for all the right reasons - that in this day and age a sportsman’s sexuality shouldn’t be cause for discussion - but according to Ann Kendal, of the Bradford-based Equity Partnership, which works with the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, it is something that needs to be discussed openly.

“I understand what Nigel Wood means,” says Ann, “but I would say that Keegan Hirst’s announcement is something that is worthy of discussion, because we are not yet at the point - especially in sport - where it doesn’t matter.”

Ann says the key point of the Hirst story is that it helps to challenge the stereotypes surrounding people who are gay: that they are “limp-wristed and predatory”.

It would be a brave - or foolhardy, and not to mention bigoted - individual who, having seen any of Hirst’s 50-odd appearances for Batley, would walk up to him and call him limp-wristed, or any derogatory insult levelled at gay people.

The “predatory” angle is perhaps a more problematic one, and something that stops a lot of people who are LGBT people participating in team sports.

Ann says: “There’s this stupid perception that such people are predatory, that they will be ‘after’ everyone else. This can be heightened in a team changing room where there will be lots of ‘backs against the wall’ type talk. It’s hugely arrogant, of course, for people to assume that any person who is gay will be automatically attracted to them in the first place!

“But this causes a lot of problems for people who want to participate in sports, especially trans people against whom there is a huge amount of prejudice.”

Recent high-profile cases such as former boxing promoter Frank - now Kellie - Maloney have done a huge amount to change people’s views, says Ann, but there is still a long way to go - for spectators as well as players.

Football and rugby terraces can be threatening places for LGBT fans, says Ann, and she says clubs must adopt a zero tolerance approach to stamp out homophobia.

She says: “There have been great strides made in tackling racism, and a similar effort needs to be put in to combating homophobia.”

Indeed, Bradford City regularly takes part in the Football v Homophobia annual event every February, and has flown the rainbow flag - the standard of the LGBT movement - at home games to “signify it is an inclusive and open club”. City’s policy is: “We want to welcome players and fans to the club irrespective of their race, gender, colour, religion or sexuality. Supporters can help with this approach by not using language, chants and songs that attempt to highlight perceived or actual differences.”

Ann approves, and says the wider sporting community needs to support this policy all the time. She says: “Organisations such as the police and fire service have been very proactive in this area, and you’ll regularly see them at events such as Gay Pride.

“Sporting organisations need to do the same. It would be great for Bradford Bulls and Bradford City to have a presence at Bradford Pride.”

In doing so, she says, they would be sending the message that homophobia and transphobia will not be tolerated, paving the way for both players and fans to feel more welcome in the game.

But there’s a lot of ground to cover. In May a report entitled Out On The Field was released, which took the experiences of almost LGBT 10,000 people worldwide in a wide range of sporting activities, and concluded that homophobia was a huge problem at all levels.

Professional sport is still a straight-white-male dominated world, says Ann, which is why it’s so important for people like Keegan Hirst to put their heads above the parapet.

She says: “It’s great to see the amount of support that Keegan Hirst has had since he came out. People will see him and hopefully think about their own prejudices. He’s paving the way for making sport more inclusive for everyone, whoever they are.”