Firstly, a small admission. As an Englishman, and a lifelong rugby fan, I have historically not been keen on seeing Gareth Thomas happy. In fact the happier he gets, the more likely I am to be in something of a sulk. Because there’s a fair chance the reason for his buoyant mood will be related to a performance he’s just inflicted on the English Rugby team.
As professional rugby player, and former highly capped Welsh international, Thomas is a remarkable man – physically imposing, capable of showing the opposition a clean pair of heels even at international level, and with a reputation as committed and popular teammate. He is also, according to Sports Illustrated, the world’s only current professional male athlete in a team sport who is openly gay. Take a moment on that. The only one.
This struggle with his sexuality, how he came to terms with it personally, and then publicly, formed the foundation of Channel 4’s “In Conversation with Gareth Thomas” hosted at their London headquarters, as part of their Diversity Week. To describe Thomas’s talk as brave and honest is to barely scratch the surface. Displaying startling raw emotion, along with a keen sense of humour, Thomas spoke movingly of his journey from denial to acceptance, from living a lie, to “coming out” into the open.
Living as a straight man, married, and immersed in the intensely macho world of professional rugby, Thomas spoke of his life a being a series of lies. Concealing who he knew himself to be from his wife, family and closest friends, and how this torment led him to the brink of suicide.
But far from being a plea for sympathy, Thomas’s talk was a tale of freedom, optimism and pride. Pride in oneself, in those around you, and in our capacity to overcome. There were several points throughout the evening that had the audience reaching for their tissues, but they were upbeat notes. Thomas was clear – he dreaded the public response to his coming out. The day he did so, he ran out for the Cardiff Blues to play Toulouse on their home ground, feeling like everything was in the balance. As the names of each of his teammates were called out, 50,000 Frenchmen booed. Until they read out the name Gareth Thomas; and 50,000 Frenchmen cheered. The emotional impact of this, even now, is etched on the big man’s face as he struggles to retain control.
The point of this evening of storytelling, beyond moving and inspiring everyone in the room, was to announce the launch of The Gareth Thomas Foundation. An organisation whose aim is “to allow young people and those from marginalised groups to fulfil their potential, addressing the challenges of diversity and using role models from the wider sports world.”
During the lively Q&A with Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor of Arts at Channel 4, Thomas spoke movingly on his wish to leave a legacy, to make it easier for people to walk the path he has trod. He clearly feels a responsibility, and has embraced the need to drive change, within and beyond the sporting world. Having seen Thomas ride roughshod over defenses all over the world, I would not expect him to be easily stopped. And it will be a pleasure to be cheering him on for once.