Coronation Street star Nathan Graham met with LGBT+ rugby player Keegan Hirst as part of research for a storyline about homophobia in football.
Hirst spoke to the actor about his journey of announcing that he is gay in 2015, during his time with hometown club the Batley Bulldogs, and shared his experiences of working with the FA to combat discrimination.
Birkenshaw-born Graham portrays footballer James Bailey, who is hiding his sexuality from everyone apart from his family.
In the soap, he fears that his career will be over if he comes out publicly and is scared of the resulting press coverage and repercussions from fans due to homophobia in the sport.
Hirst, who now plays for Halifax, visited the set of Coronation Street in Manchester, where he discussed the storyline with Graham and talked through his own experiences with the actor.
Graham said: “This storyline is important because it is clearly an issue as there is no one currently playing professional football who is openly gay.
"After talking to Keegan Hirst, I can see that in football, homophobia is not seen as being on the same level as racism so it is good to spark that conversation and then hopefully it will educate people that discrimination is discrimination no matter what it is; race, religion, sexuality.
“If a sportperson is gay, it doesn’t take away from their ability and with any type of discrimination, until people are educated then nothing will change.
"If someone is going through this struggle, I hope they see themselves represented and they know that it is okay to own who you are.”
Though Graham's character has been known to viewers as gay for some time, next week "a dramatic series of events will force him to to decide whether to go public or to continue to live a lie," said ITV.
His on-screen family are "panic-stricken and torn over what is best for James, his career, his safety and his life".
Currently there are no openly gay professional footballers in the top tiers of men's UK football.
Hirst said: “Being able to say that I am gay out loud was difficult for me to do for a really long time, I couldn’t say it.
“To have someone on TV who is representing what you might be or want to be is really important; there was no one like me to look up to when I was growing up and maybe if there was, I would have thought a bit differently about what it is to be a gay man. It’s about educating people and suddenly this starts to dispel all the stereotypes.
“It’s also about making that environment safe, if people know homophobia won't be tolerated in this environment and everyone is welcome then that message is hammered home and people can see that and then that empowers people to be their authentic self.”
When Hirst announced that he is gay, he was second in the the sport to do so after Welshman Gareth Thomas, who did so in 2009. Though originally a union player, Thomas achieved league caps for Wales in 2010 and also changed the rugby football codes from union to league when he transferred from Cardiff Blues the to Crusaders in the Super League.
In football, Britain's first openly gay player was Justin Fashanu, who died in 1998.
The story of James Bailey - not to be confused with the real-life former Barnsley player of the same name - continues tonight at 7.30pm on ITV.