Gareth Thomas proud and hopeful for a better future
August 28, 2014
Gareth Thomas played three Tests for the British & Irish Lions in 2005 © Getty Images
Known as 'Alfie' to one and all, the aggressive and hard-hitting former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Gareth Thomas shocked the world when he came out as gay in 2009. But there remains a little of his story untold, and Gareth Thomas spoke exclusively to ESPN of his regrets and his experiences of homophobia within sport, and his hopes for the Bingham Cup.
Standing at over 190cm, weighing more than 102kgs and a huge tackle-busting rugby player, Gareth Thomas smashed stereotypes when he revealed to the Daily Mail that he was gay. He revealed a history of torment, depression and self-hate, and he remains to this day the only professional rugby player, current or former, who is openly gay.
Thomas made his debut for Wales against Japan in 1995, and he soon became one of the most prolific try-scorers in international rugby. He was a hero. But throughout his career he was haunted by his secret. Asked by ESPN if there was a specific moment in time, or a memory growing up playing rugby, that made him decide to keep his true self hidden, Alfie revealed that it wasn't a moment of homophobic abuse that made him keep his secret but the sight of players receiving racial abuse.
"When I first started to play professional rugby in around 1994, we had black players play in our team and people on the side would throw bananas at them," the 103-Test veteran told ESPN. "And my fear was, 'well, if they love to throw bananas at them, imagine what they could do to me for being gay?'. So it wasn't so much about abuse because nobody would have even thought that someone playing the game would be gay, not a chance in hell."
Growing up in a village near Bridgend in Wales, Thomas became used to hearing the term 'gay' tossed around the sporting field, But his decision to hide his sexual identity was constantly reaffirmed as right when his team-mates would use the term 'gay' as a derogatory comment for a poor performance.
"I just think for me it was just the way I grew up, you know; people didn't know I was gay. In the change rooms back in the early 90s, the word gay was used all the time; it was used as derogatory towards things all the time. So, you know, I was brought up in the environment that described people who were bad at tackling as being gay at tackling, or bad at catching as being gay at catching, so, you know, I grew up in an environment that associated gay with every negative that I didn't want to be associated with. I just wanted to be associated with being good at my sport.
"I grew up in an environment that was very macho, very testosterone filled, and very much anything that was negative was related to being gay. So for me I didn't think I'd be able to come out if I couldn't come out and be comfortable in the changing rooms because I felt the players around me - even though they didn't know anything and I don't think they would have been homophobic to me - I feel I lived in an era where gay related to negative things and I didn't want to disrupt my environment in the changing rooms. And I sure didn't want to run out onto the field and be subjected to the environment that I would have been subjected to in the early 90s."
Gareth Thomas celebrates the try with which he broke Ieuan Evans' Wales try-scoring record © Getty Images
Gareth Thomas won the 2005 Heineken Cup with Toulouse © Getty Images
After more than 10 years playing international rugby for Wales, Thomas had become the most-capped Welsh player, held the Wales record for most international tries (40), had led the British & Irish Lions on their 2005 tour through New Zealand, and had been named captain for his country. Hence in 2008, he wrote an autobiography, Alfie, which soon became "one of the biggest regrets I've ever had".
"I got asked to do it when I was in a really bad place, and I ended up saying yes because I didn't want to say no; because when you say no to something, you have to give a reason; when you say yes then it just carries on. So for me I didn't want to do it but I didn't want to give a reason behind why I didn't want to do it.
"So I ended up just going through with it and it's all true. But it's all very much rugby orientated; it's a rugby story, and not what I really think an autobiography is. I believe an autobiography should be like the soul of what a person is, what drives him and what fears he's had to overcome in his life. Luckily I've had a chance to put that book to bed and been able to do something that is an explanation of me and not just a part of me."
Six years later, Thomas has chosen to rectify his autobiography by releasing a new, no-holds-barred story, Proud. He admits it took him a long time to build up the courage to put pen to paper.
"This book to me is everything. It took me a long, long time for me to agree to do this book because I knew it would have to be everything, and not just everything but the reasoning behind everything - which goes even deeper. We all do actions but you know sometimes when it comes to giving reasons for these actions … those go really, really deep.
"So it was a really tough process. There was one which took me back to times and places that I vowed in my life that I'd never return to; but I did, to confront them for myself but also to get the full effect of the story. So that's why I called it Proud; it's because I was proud of myself that I'd managed to be able to do it, and it tells a lot of how I got into the mess I got into and the reasoning why, and the reasoning why rugby was more than just a game to me and it was more than just friends that I played with.
"People who play rugby and people who understand rugby will understand exactly what I mean when I talk about my rugby life, and then hopefully people will get a lot of courage from the story of being able to overcome what I felt or something I thought I couldn't overcome, and releasing myself and being myself to tell the truth."
Thomas remains the world's only openly gay international rugby player; he knows others, and he has talked about their sexuality, but he says there are a lot of different factors that hinder people from being able to be who they are.
"I've spoken to people and a lot of different factors in people's lives - their religion, their family, the country they live - make things extremely difficult. For me, the only thing I ever say to people is: As great as my life is now, it's only great because I have great people in it. I have people who support me in my life. That's why my life is so great.
"If I didn't have great parents, great family, a great partner or great friends then actually my life would be pretty terrible. I'd be quite lonely, quite scared. So you kind of need them; and if you have them, then as far as the rest of the world is concerned I have the people I really care about and they care about me. But as far as the rest of the world are concerned, I hope they like me and I hope they think what I do is good. But it doesn't really define why I get up in the morning. I get up every day, I try to be the best I can be, because I want to repay the faith shown to me by a lot of people close to me."
The Bingham Cup
The Bingham Cup © Getty Images
Bingham Cup Honour Roll
As awareness of homophobia within sport continues to grow, Thomas believes the growth of the Bingham Cup, the gay and inclusive rugby world cup, is a representation of the changing attitude within sport and society; he believes the tournament also offers gay men a strong network "that the fear of playing straight-dominated sports won't give them".
"I think it's a massive representation of not only the LGBT community but also I think society in general, in the fact that there are straight players playing in the Bingham Cup as well. I think it offers gay men a network that sometimes the fear of playing straight-dominated sports won't give them. So they get the feeling of being included in a team; when you're included in a team, you get a great bond, you get a great sense of value through other people.
"For me I think it's a representation of where we are in society today, that the tournament is now seen as such a big rugby tournament. The standard of rugby is high, and the passion is huge from the players. I think it's a great legacy in the name of Mark Bingham, but also a great legacy of where we are as a society today."
Thomas believes the LGBT community needs help in ridding sport of homophobia, saying straight players have a "huge role to play" and professional athletes such as Adam Ashley-Cooper speaking out against homophobia helps in "eradicating the fear people have".
"They have a massive and huge role to play, and I have total respect as a fellow professional for players like Adam Ashley-Cooper. When people with such a high esteem in the world of rugby talk out as a straight professional rugby player - stating if a gay person wanted to play in the same team as me I wouldn't have a problem with it - that's great because it's eradicating the fear people have of what other people will think of them. Then they won't have to hide themselves or wonder how you're going to affect the dynamic of the team or the dynamic in the change rooms.
"People like Adam Ashley-Cooper speaking out, it gives people one less worry and it gives them a shoulder to be able to go to and ear to talk to. And it's someone you know you're not going to be judged on your sexuality but just on you're playing ability. If the world was full of Adam Ashley-Coopers, which there are a lot of advocates, then there wouldn't be a problem in sport. So the more they speak out the less the problem becomes."
Wallabies forwards coach Andrew Blades puts Kings Cross players through a drill at a Bingham Cup training session © Brittany Mitchell / Scrum.com
Bingham Cup players were caught in a torrential downpour at a training session in Sydney © Bingham Cup
The Bingham Cup players finished their day in the sunshine at Vaucluse Park in Sydney © Bingham Cup
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