Life

Rugby legend Gareth Thomas: 'The fear of coming out was far worse than the reality'

An enduring passion for rugby led to an incredible career, but it took a little longer to figure out who he really was

Gareth Thomas

Image: Camera Press / Josh van Gelder

Gareth Thomas was born in Sarn, Wales in July 1974. He began his Ruby Union career at his local club Bridgend in 1994, had a spell at Cardiff RFC (1997-2001) and then rejoined Bridgend in 2001 and captained them to a Welsh Premier Division title in 2003. The season after, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) controversially reduced the top tier of Welsh rugby to five regional teams, so Thomas became captain of the short-lived Celtic Warriors. The following year, he became captain of Toulouse before returning to Cardiff Blues in 2007. He made the switch to rugby league with Crusaders in 2010 but injuries plagued him and he retired in 2011.

Meanwhile, he made his Welsh national debut in 1995 and went on to play 100 times for his country, scoring 200 points. He was also selected for the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and was made captain for the second and third tests.

In 2009, Gareth Thomas announced publicly that he is gay, which made him the first openly gay professional rugby player. He became a vocal supporter of charities including NSPCC and Childline. In 2014, he announced he is HIV positive and has since campaigned to break the stigma around the illness.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Thomas looks back on his passion for rugby, his experience of self-discovery and the importance of being a role model.

My passion was always rugby and sport. At 16 I had nothing else in my life. I lived in a sporty area and really understood that in Bridgend, the town I was brought up in, the definition of if somebody was happy on a Monday was if Bridgend played rugby on Saturday and won. I don’t even know if my passion was rugby, I just felt the amazing influence rugby could have on whether people had a good day or bad day, a good week or bad week, a good life or bad life.  

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I understood I was different but didn’t know what that difference was. I never explored it. I put it behind a locked door and thought I would never open it, because I was afraid of what was on the other side. At 16, whenever I played or watched a rugby match, if a player missed a tackle, if they weren’t fast, if they were weak, they were called gay. So I thought my difference couldn’t be that – because I was fast, I was strong, and I could do these rugby things. But I knew I was hiding something.  

Gareth Thomas in 1998 in his Wales shirt
1998: Gareth Thomas in the Welsh international shirt, which he wore 100 times on the field over 12 years. Image: David Rogers /Allsport

I was so lost. I remember being a fan of certain music but only playing it locked in my bedroom, for fear of people knowing. I loved Jimmy Somerville. I loved Bros. But this music I loved didn’t match the image I had created outside of that tiny bedroom in a terraced house in Bridgend. So whenever I left the safety and security of my home, I felt lost. Because I didn’t know who I was and I was constantly trying to be whatever definition of myself that whoever I was with expected me to be.  

I would tell my younger self to stop trying to fucking please people all the time. Because it’ll never ever work. I’d get in so much trouble because I was always the one – and my mother says this to me now – that if somebody wanted to see what reaction doing something would get, they would ask me and I would do it. So if I could whisper in my younger self’s ear, I’d tell him to do just one or two things a day that will please yourself.  

There’s a lot of Bridgend and a lot of my parents in me. We didn’t have much growing up; I wasn’t good at school, but my parents allowed me to explore this passion for rugby and gave me the opportunity to follow my dreams. I played rugby all around the world and I don’t think my parents missed a game. That was so inspiring because I knew if nobody else in the crowd was supportive of me, Yvonne and Barry would be! 

Gareth Edwards with husband Stephen William-Thomas after completing the Ironman triathlon event in Tenby
2019: Gareth Thomas celebrating with husband Stephen William-Thomas after completing the Ironman triathlon event in Tenby. Image: ATHENA PICTURE AGENCY ZING LIMITED / Alamy Stock Photo

If I could tell my younger self about my rugby career, he would literally tell me to fuck off. My first ambition was to play for Bridgend. Because I understood the impact and influence a game of rugby could have on a little working-class town. To play for Wales even once, let alone 100 times and being captain, was just an insane idea. If you’d said to anyone around me that I could lead the church choir, let alone captain my country in sport, they would have said screw you. To go on to captain the British Lions, even now, is a feat far beyond a dream I ever had. To my 16-year-old self, it would be mindblowing.

The thing that would excite my younger self most is that he would put a smile on people’s faces. He would love the idea that he had the ability to, at certain moments in a game, put someone on the edge of their seat with excitement. I know what people go through to try to fund a ticket to a match, because I’ve been the guy who struggled to get the money. So to make them proud, to make them passionate would be such an achievement for that kid.  

I was a postman for years in Bridgend. And you become really important as a postman in a deprived area when people are waiting for their dole cheque on a Thursday, or waiting for a letter just for some contact. So you get to understand the importance of community. To stand on that rugby field as winners of the Welsh Premier Division in 2003 and have the whole town joining us was the best feeling.   

I would like to tell my younger self that the fear of coming out was far worse than the reality. Actually, I created the fear because it justified why I lied – if I thought Bridgend is going to reject me, Wales is going to reject me, the world is going to reject me, then I’d wake up every morning being OK about lying to everybody. But the reality was nowhere near the fear I built it up to be. People think that if you are being, I use the word unauthentic as in being not open, on a Tuesday and on Wednesday you’re authentic, then life’s completely changed. But I still lived in the same home, had the same friends, did the same things. So the idea that by saying a single sentence everything changes is wrong.  

To fully accept and understand myself took 20 or 25 years. I realised it’s selfish to allow myself all that time and expect everyone else to deal with it in a flash. My friends, teammates and family were not just dealing with the fact that I am gay, but also why I didn’t tell them for 25 years. I had to wait until they were ready to talk to me. And that was a process. All of a sudden, I had this new label everyone was sticking on me. So I’ve gone from being Gareth Thomas the rugby-playing proud son of Yvonne and Barry, brother to Richard and Steven, to that rugby player who is gay. I would walk around thinking, why are they looking at me? I had to go through all this to be able to still live in the place I was born, where I was raised, where I will live the rest of my life and die, to be comfortable with who I really am. 

I would tell my younger self that you will know love when it comes. I got married to a woman and genuinely thought I loved her. Because I genuinely believed at that point that was what love was. I take the blame but society, especially as a rugby player, at 18 everyone was saying, why haven’t you got a girlfriend? So you had to find a girlfriend. At 20, everyone was saying you have to get married. I thought I loved Jemma. I truly believed I wasn’t gay because I loved Jemma. But what I’d tell myself is that you will know when you fall in love with somebody. It will never have to be forced or pressured. It will be the most natural thing, outside of being able to spin a pass or kick off your right leg. 

There’s nothing truer than the fairytale that you have to kiss a few frogs on the way to finding love. People don’t open themselves up to love because it makes them vulnerable. But now I have an unexplained feeling every day of my life for Stephen. We’ve been married seven years and it’s still the same as when we first met. This sounds gushy and I’m not really a gushy person, but to have Steve in my life gives me a feeling inside that nothing else ever could.

Gareth Edwards taking theTackle HIV bus to the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023.
2023: Taking the Tackle HIV bus to the Rugby World Cup in France. The campaign led by Gareth Thomas, in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma around HIV. Visit tacklehiv.org and follow @tacklehiv Image: Matthew Dickens

You can think rugby is a sport played by brutes trying to hurt each other, but what it taught me is the foundation of everything I have done since. When it comes to campaigning with Tackle HIV, I understand my motivation is driven by something far bigger than me, just like being part of a rugby team and representing Bridgend or Wales. Being a voice for people who are not heard or being visible for people who are afraid to be visible themselves is so important to me. I want people to know people with HIV can do anything.  

I wish someone could have spoken for me at 16. I understand the power of media – if I go on television, it gets into kids’ bedrooms like the one I sat in when I was all on my own. I can actually accompany somebody. Or they might pick up this magazine and go home to their bedroom and they’ll have a friend for five minutes. So for me to be passionately outspoken is to represent the 16-year-old I used to be.  

Gareth Thomas CBE is doing the Royal Windsor Triathlon for Tackle HIV in June.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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