Welsh rugby hero and Union Cup ambassador Gareth Thomas reflects on the changing face of rugby, and how the landscape has changed in the 10 years since he came out. You can listen to Gareth’s piece in podcast form here.
I never really wanted to die. The problem – and it seemed never ending – was I lived in a world I didn’t want to face.
All I wanted to do was close my eyes. It was a world that would never accept me. I truly believed that. Fear gripped my mind and body on a daily basis.
Close my eyes and it would go away.
I did attempt suicide but fear held me back – the fear of never seeing my parents and friends again.
So, there was a fear of dying but a want to never open my eyes again.
Sounds strange but that’s common enough for people with suicidal tendencies.
”What brought me back? Why am I alive today?
I faced the truth of who I really was. That began with telling the people around me.
If they didn’t accept what I told them there was the possibility of closing my eyes permanently. But I couldn’t continue in the limbo I had created.
There was chaos everywhere I went.
I stopped caring about myself.
“Alfie is mad, look at him” as I did something that seemed insane.
I wasn’t crazy, yet alcohol and tablets went into my body because I didn’t care about the consequences.
I stopped caring for my well being. I did care about the people close to me. They were hurting. I saw my wife Jemma, who I met as a teenager, in turmoil. I saw fear in my parents and brothers eyes due to my behaviour.
This was a deeply selfish period. Yes, I was hurting but the pain I was causing others led me towards the truth.
Carrying secrets comes with an overwhelming, almost paralysing feeling that revolves around ‘what will so and so think?’
”I promise you coming out in rugby circles is not going to be a problem.
I remember telling Scott Johnson. He wasn’t even Wales coach anymore. Scott was on tour in Cardiff with the Wallabies. We had just played Australia when he came into the changing room. My wife had left me. It was my worst performance in the Wales jersey. And I was the captain. I was sitting there, devastated.
Scott came over to shakes hands. He always sees the person before the player. All the great coaches skill you up but they also know the key to optimum performance is understanding what makes a person tick off the field.
We locked eyes and he just knew. Or he knew enough to investigate further. I trusted him. It dawned on me that this was an opportunity to tell someone inside the game.
“Are you alright Alfie?”
He took me to one side and I told him. He told me, ‘These boys love you’ and how I could not continue in this environment, under this kind of pressure while living a massive lie.
The fear was that people wouldn’t like me for lying to them for so long. Scott told some of the senior players. I roomed with Martyn Williams for most of my career. ‘Nugget’ is one of the great Welsh opensides. He wasn’t bothered in the slightest despite so many of our private conversations over so the years being based on the idea of a lie.
‘We don’t want you to change. We’ll protect you. We won’t change towards you. So don’t you dare change towards us!’
That was Nugget and so many others.
Ten years ago I came out to the wider world as a gay man.
Now, in 2019, I cannot tell you the name of another professional rugby player who has taken the same step.
They cannot all be straight!
”It’s disappointing but understandable.
Let’s flip the negative into a positive. I’ve played a small part in ensuring sports clubs across the UK, Ireland and further afield are more welcoming and inclusive to people regardless of their sexuality, race, gender or whatever makes them a little different.
I know this to be true. I’ve the mountain of letters, emails and DMs to prove it.
I know my actions have helped people struggling with their sexuality. I helped them get up off their couch, to climb out of that dark place in their head and go play sport.
It starts with telling my story, over and over again. It starts by looking at yourself in the mirror and telling the truth.
Then you tell the people you know, and love.
Sounds so simple.
Saying the words – ‘I am gay’ – is unbelievably difficult. The first time. After that it gets easier. Eventually it becomes something you enjoy telling people about.
I wish there were more openly gay professional athletes (More men, because women are not facing as steep an incline). But there isn’t.
This is a sad reality but I see the growth in numbers joining inclusive amateur sports teams – like The Emerald Warriors – and I know that progress has been made since I told the world something half of Wales seemed to already know!
The professional sporting bubble is a very strange environment. You don’t realise this until you are outside looking in. The focus, their reality I guess, is striving for success or recovering from failure or whatever short term aim becomes all consuming.
We still need that bubble to pop before the pro athlete – especially in team sports like rugby – understand that an openly inclusive environment can create a superior team capable of unbelievable success. Not the other way around. I am outside the bubble long enough now so I can see how difficult it is to get them to want to effect change from within.
This is important: a straight man or woman doesn’t need to announce their sexuality to the world. Same should apply to a gay person. They don’t need to tell anybody anything.
It’s an irrelevant fact except to the people you choose to sleep with and maybe your parents. I think that has become an accepted norm in modern society. But I worry for the young man who feels he needs to hide who he is.
”I did this for a very long time, until it ate me up inside.
The straight couple can walk down the street hand in hand. It’s an expression of their happiness. Of course a gay couple can do that in Dublin and people barely notice anymore. That’s real progress (even if it’s not so evident outside progressive cities).
However, a top gay professional sports man won’t walk outside holding his partner’s hand.
We are not there yet.
Why? Because social media will make it an issue. I am sure many, many people will support him. More than the fools that will abuse him. But it’s sad that he can’t just do it and be. The problem is if somebody doesn’t declare their homosexuality then the media will do it for them.
We all know this needs to change because when you have to hide something you live in constant fear.
People used to ask me if telling the world I am gay would impact negatively on performance. My response: do you realise how faster I can run, how higher I can jump now all that weight has been lifted off my shoulders?
It’s the worry that creeps into your brain. The worry about others seeing you “as being gay” or “calling you ______”
When you live with a secret you are always concerned about what others might be thinking. A cloak of paranoia comes over you.
That means you are never 100 percent in the moment. And that’s where the elite athlete must exist. They cannot be hindered by anything.
Consciously, I was always switched on while wearing the Welsh jersey. Playing for the British and Irish Lions against the All Blacks I was tuned into the task at hand. Trust me. But subconsciously, I guess, I’ll never really know how good I could have been.
Yes, 100 caps for Wales and 40 tries over 12 years isn’t so bad. But the weight that came off my shoulders when a French crowd cheered my name in 2009 only served to make me a better player.
Being your authentic self gives you a better opportunity to succeed. What I am doing now, the public speaking and appearances which have me in Dublin to promote the Union Cup, I don’t consider as a new career.
I will never allow it to become a job. I used to have a career I was really passionate about. It was something I lived every single day.
This – fighting for what I consider a human right, talking about diversity and inclusion – is not a job.
I can talk with complete authenticity about my past because I have lived the life so many young people currently struggle with. I know what is happening to them. I know they cannot speak up, not yet, maybe never – I know how important it is for me to tell them it is going to be okay.
My story can help them.
There have been great days in my life – travelling the globe, playing in World Cups and winning the Grand Slam. The fame and a little fortune made it seem like I was high on life.
Honestly, at times, I felt like I had nothing.
I was living a lie.
So this is not a job. I speak in big rooms to large groups about the pain and anguish I went through.
Recently I struggled to get the words out from a speech I’ve given many times. I was remembering the moment my Dad – who hails from generations of miners – accepted who his son really is.
“Son, I’d just like to toast the start of the rest of your life.” That still gets me.
No, this will never be a job.
”When I walk up to a podium to speak it has to mean more than a career move.
Up on a stage I can reach the one person in the room who is having the same suicidal thoughts that brought me to the edge of a cliff (literally). I can do something about their pain. I can relate to the person who feels like all hope has forsaken him or her.
I can tell them my story.
This is a passion. One I take very seriously because some people, especially hidden in crowds, will continue to abuse others due to their sexuality. 50,000 people in a stadium is the perfect environment for cowards to prosper. If we allow it.
Deep rooted problems remain in sport because they remain evident in society.
The struggle goes on.
I wouldn’t change anything from my past. Not even the horrible suicidal moments because they are the reasons I care so much about life today.
I used to not care about my own well being. I have to remember those days. So I can be me, today.
Did you know I was Christened age 19? I still go to church quite a lot. I go to pray.
At my lowest ebb, with nobody to talk to – or believing there was nobody – I turned to God.
Knowing this, can you imagine how I feel about Israel Folau and Billy Vunipola?
Church for me is a place of calmness. It’s the one place I am guaranteed to find love. That’s the one word I kept hearing since the day I was christened.
We love you.
You are loved.
God loves you.
Now, all of a sudden, these two Christians are trying to tell me, a Christian, that I am going to hell for being gay?
Christ helped me through the silence. The lies. Preach love – that is true religion. Folau and Vunipola are not preaching love.
I’m sorry, boys, that is hate.
Think about the young children that are listening and reading what we are saying.
I wish kids didn’t have to hear this debate. The reaction to Folau has been overwhelmingly positive but this was because of the negative words he said about gay people going to hell.
What saddens me is children in the playground of a Dublin suburb or the Welsh valleys have seen Folau’s Instagram post or what Vunipola said about procreation and that will give them false courage to direct horrible words at somebody else.
They can say it because they heard it from their rugby hero.
The rugby community and the LGBT community and society in general rejected this.
That reaction was great to see. Now, we need people to be proactive. That’s how we achieve lasting progress.
My Twitter handle says: ‘I am Welsh before I am anything else.’
It’s a play on words. Coming out I hoped to remove all the labels and tags that followed my name. In fact it added many, many more. I’m cool with that.
But the proudest thing that ever happened to me was being born Welsh. Now if somebody asked me to define Gareth Thomas, my sexuality would be top three. Rugby would be right up there but, quite possibly, so would my time doing Dancing on Ice!
When people look me up I want them to know the definition of who I am starts with being Welsh.
Throughout my adult life I defined a nation. I stood on a world stage being the leader of Wales.
Captaining any national rugby team is a very big deal but in Wales it means a little more. Same goes for New Zealand and possibly South Africa. The captain of Wales is answerable to 3.1 million people with 3.1 million opinions on rugby. The sport is synonymous with our land. Come to Cardiff on match day and you’ll hear us singing Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Only then will you begin to understand.
I’m really fucking lucky to come from a country that accepts my personality, accepts that I gave everything I could playing for Wales.
That accepts who I am today.
A lot about what I stand for is what Wales is all about. I’m really blessed to say that.
I don’t really celebrate Pride because I live it every single day. Sounds naff, I know, but as long as I stay true to myself I am living with pride.
I am Gareth.
No wait, I am Welsh.
I am so many labels.
More than I ever imagined.
More than I ever wanted.
But, I know who I am and so does everybody else.
If you enjoyed Gareth’s piece you might like to read Lindsay Peat’s – “If I Could Speak To Israel Folau“.
Union Cup is Europe’s biggest LGBT+ inclusive rugby tournament. The two-day festival of rugby will be held this June 7th-9th, at Dublin’s DCU with an expected 45 teams from 15 countries to participate, making it the biggest Union Cup to date.
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If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Pieta House at 1800 247 247, Samaritans Ireland at 116 123 or Aware at 1800 80 48 48.