Nigel Owens: The biggest challenge of my life was accepting myself

Posted on Tuesday 27 July 2021 | IAB UK

The former international rugby union referee joined us at Leadership Series to discuss his struggle to accept his sexuality and how coming out changed his life

Growing up in rural Wales in the 1970s, Nigel Owens didn’t harbour dreams of being the international rugby union referee he would one day become. Instead, at 16 years old, all he wanted was to “appear live on the Antiques Roadshow, just for the simple reason that a lovely old lady could ask ‘Do you know how much it’s worth, love?’ and I could say ‘Fuck all. Not a carrot’.” 

Speaking as part of our 2021 Leadership Series, Owens shared a moving and candid account of his life - from being bullied at school to coming to terms with his sexuality in his twenties - it’s a journey that saw him go from living in daily fear to finally being able to accept himself. 


Absorbing everyday influences

“I had never met or knew a gay person”, Owens said, referring to his 19-year-old self. Having been brought up in a tiny rural community, Owens’ realisation that he was attracted to men was “something I knew nothing about”. “The only gay people I knew were very camp people on TV”, he explained, recalling that he thought to himself “if that’s the stereotype of a gay person, I’m not like that so I can’t be gay”. 

Not only was Owens absorbing homophobic stereotypes and language from the media, he was hearing it from people around him in day-to-day life. “Influences around me every day were contributing a lot”, to the extent that he went to his doctor to request being chemically castrated, after having read that being gay was ‘curable’ in a magazine. 

During this period, Owens suffered from mental health issues, bulimia, steroid addiction and he eventually attempted suicide. It was this, followed by a conversation with his mum, that led Owens to realise that “my sexuality was not a choice, this is who I am”. He describes accepting himself as the biggest challenge he has ever faced: “With refereeing, while the challenge and pressure are huge, it was nothing compared to the challenge of accepting who I really was.” 

Owens urged Leadership Series delegates to “never underestimate the influence that each and every one of you can have over people in your life… Not only do we have a responsibility in what we say and what we do, we also have a responsibility when we stand by and we say or do nothing.” 


Take your whole self to work 

Having accepted his sexuality, “the next challenge was ‘what am I going to do about it?’” Nobody was out in the world of rugby at that time and, with living in fear impacting his performance on the pitch, Owens felt that he had to make a choice between “giving up refereeing to live my life, or to carry on living a lie to keep doing the job”. He started by coming out to his mum, who told his dad. They were supportive and “nothing changed between us”. Next, he went to see his line manager: “I needed to find out if I could be gay in rugby.” The answer was that he could, with colleagues and governing rugby bodies throwing their support behind him. “It was like the weight of the world had disappeared off my shoulders,” he said. 

For the first time in his life, Owens could bring his whole self to work. This is something he believes is crucial for leaders to understand in order to create the best work environments that they can: “That little bit extra to be the best you can be requires you not just to enjoy life itself, but to enjoy where you work - and that requires having an environment where you can take yourself to work.”  

Prioritising respect is key to this. “It doesn’t matter who you are - the colour of your skin, where you come from, your sexual orientation - you should be treated the same as everyone else, in all parts of life”, Owens explained. He added: “Don’t try to be the perfect person, it’s not achievable… Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Instead, he told delegates not to be afraid of making mistakes: “If you’re going to be living in fear of making mistakes, there is no way that you’ll enjoy your life.” 


With thanks to our Leadership Series partner, TikTok. 

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