Last Wednesday, CBRE and Freehold held an interview with rugby behemoth Gareth Thomas where the openly gay, openly HIV-positive and openly Welsh former captain gave us an incredible insight into his revolutionary life on the field, what he has been up to since retirement and of course answering those all important questions about team showers!
The event was hosted by journalist Sean Fletcher and from the outset it was clear that the two had a fantastic rapport and that we were in for a great experience. Gareth is a very open and transparent person, no topic was out of bounds as we heard about some of his struggles in coming out, on-field abuse, how the press lied to his family that he would die of AIDS, suicide, homophobic attacks set against some very inspiring stories of community, teamwork, relationships, completing an Ironman, and restorative justice. One could discuss each of these topics individually at length, so perhaps I will leave it to you to find out more as you like. But the overriding sentiment that guests were left with is just how important it is to be authentic. This was a massive contributor to Gareth coming out and to him playing his sport to the best of his ability. He is in no way a preacher or advocate on having to ‘come out’ at the earliest possible time – for him it was important in order to be at the top of his profession and to establish some of his best relationships. Indeed when asked he categorically feels that had he come out at an earlier age, he would not have had the same career path and necessarily the same successes. I can assume that I don’t only speak for myself when I say that a lot of us can relate to this.
One other comment that has really resonated with me centres on LGBTQ+ people in sport. Gareth contemplated “Can we even name ten openly gay professional sportspeople?” Perhaps there are those who could easily name 10, 20+ out sportspeople, perhaps it was a flippant comment to make a point? However as I still mull this over, my list does not seem to even get to five! Now this could be a reflection on me of course as I am able to name quite a few openly gay singers and actors (plus those we hear the rumours about…). It could also be that when it comes to sport, whilst there has been so much progress over recent years, there is still a way to go. There are a variety of LGBTQ+ and open sports clubs and communities that offer an outlet, an opportunity to try something new and meet people in a safe community. This is far less visible at a professional level. I for one play for an LGBTQ+ hockey club so know how invaluable it is to play sport (even at a basic level) in an authentic environment. How good would it be to have people with a profile, on a world stage competing, winning, celebrating? At this point it would seem wrong to not acknowledge the recent and heart-breaking headlines of trans cyclist Emily Bridges being banned from competing by British Cycling. This in itself is a very complex and intricate story that I will leave to someone with a far better insight into it than me to discuss but it is very sad to see these steps backwards in the world of sports and perhaps, unfortunately there are more to come. Rather than dwell I want to finish on the positive note that this event deserves.
Gareth did not set out to become a poster boy for the rugby world or be a martyr to the LGBTQ+ community. He simply wanted to enjoy his life and play the sport he loved. His career would ultimately lead to him being a very public figure, seen by many people who might be going through the same thing knowing now that it will be ok. He has paved a new way for future generations and perhaps for some allowed them to take a step closer to being their authentic selves.
Post by Dan Westley
Photos by Mark Weeks