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'It's sad when you sit alone for years in a bedroom, being yourself to nobody but the wall'

Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas on opening up, feeling secure and helping others.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT’S COMING UP on nine years since Gareth Thomas broke down in tears in a Millennium Stadium dressing-room.

Moments before, he had walked off the pitch as his country’s captain after an international against Australia. It had been a boyhood dream. But something wasn’t right. He was gaunt. He’d lost a stone in weight. He’d been drinking and chain smoking. He had just conjured one of his worst performances for his team. And as he looked at himself in the mirror after the drawn game, he realised that his personal secret was finally beginning to affect his professional life. He couldn’t hide from it any longer.

As he sat in his locker, the Wallabies then-coach Scott Johnson approached and extended his hand. Thomas began to cry. Johnson asked what was wrong.

“Gemma has left me”, he said.

“It’s one of two things and I think I know which one it is”, was the reply.

Rugby Union - International match - Wales v Australia - Millennium Stadium Thomas misses a tackle in that international against Australia in November 2006. Afterwards, he broke down in the dressing room and later told two team-mates, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, that he was gay. Source: David Davies/PA Archive/PA Images

Months before, Thomas told his wife he was gay. After she moved out of their home, he drove to a spot high above the Bristol Channel, took off his clothes and stepped to the edge. There were several other failed suicide attempts.

But that moment with Johnson saved his life. Later that night, Thomas told two team-mates, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams. Everything changed after that.

“It was a defining moment for starting to live a real life”, Thomas says now.

“It was a relief from not having to play a charade and not having to play a game anymore with myself and, more importantly, with the people around me and who are closest to me. It was defining in the way that I began to understand what I did and what I was afraid of was what I’d created – not an environment everyone else had created for me.

Maybe I didn’t respect the players around me enough. If someone had come to me with a problem, I wouldn’t have judged them at all – I’d have tried to help them. But I created too much of a fear.”

Source: GuinnessEurope/YouTube

Thomas’s fear centred around being different, being detached from his team-mates, ostracised from the group because of his uniqueness. He feared the consequences of being misunderstood, being on the outside of a tight-knit group.

“With a team sport, what keeps you together is similarity – everybody being the same, doing the same thing, wearing the jersey with the same pride. It’s a togetherness that holds no difference. Yet there’s the fear of potentially being different to everybody and being perceived as a weakness and then discarded because you’re not going to be part of that solidarity.

But the one thing you learn as a captain or a leader is that everybody is different, that everybody should be treated individually and treated with their differences. But there’s still a fear within the changing room of potentially not being treated that way.

Rugby Union - British & Irish Lions Tour - Second Test - New Zealand v British & Irish Lions - Westpac Stadium Thomas captained the British and Irish Lions in 2005. Here he is scoring a try against the All Blacks. Source: Phil Noble/PA Archive/PA Images

So many people treat sport as a completely different environment. You try and please everybody all the time so if you’re going to be a bit different, you think ’Well, how are the fans going to treat me? How are the players going to treat me? All of a sudden, I’m going to be judged on my sexuality not my ability. All of a sudden, am I going to be different and fall apart from this jigsaw, fall apart from this team environment and no longer be accepted?’”

In many ways, Thomas had a split-personality. He had cultivated the perfect altar-ego from a young age. ‘Alfie’ was a stereotypical rugby player – strong, tough, brave and conventional. And Thomas had little difficulty in playing the role because he was performing so often. For the eighty minutes of a game, it was a release. And then, once it was finished, there was the swell of sadness as he retreated into his own thoughts.

“I had an understanding of what a stereotypical rugby player is and how they’re viewed by society and that’s how I acted. And then there was the real me. That wasn’t completely different from the other person but there were differences. And those differences had to be hidden when I was on show. As a rugby player, you’re constantly on show so there were times when I could only be myself when I was alone. And then you’d be really sad. Nothing about me seemed different – not visually, not speech-wise, but only in my head could I be a different person.

It’s sad when you sit alone for years and years in a bedroom on your own, just being yourself to nobody but the wall. Then it’s a sad existence. But also it was a necessary existence. I saw what I did in rugby and what I gave my family and the pride of everybody in the village I lived in and the country I lived in. The pride I gave them meant I couldn’t be the sad guy in his bedroom alone because they liked the actor, they liked the guy I played, the persona I gave people.”

Sport is a paradox. There’s something sweet about the small-time stories, the local heroes, but there’s a reason why audiences are drawn to the big events and lose themselves in the fantasy element and the scale of it all. For many, the make-believe is intoxicating.

Rugby Union - Friendly - Wales v New Zealand - Millennium Stadium Source: David Davies/PA Archive/PA Images

Rugby has always been a bruising battlefield but the modern incarnation in particular leaves little room for weakness. Each warrior seems super-human. Every collision is an event. Thirty imposing monstrosities, each fuelled by fearlessness. But Thomas feels the general public find it difficult to relate to athletes in any other way.

“The reality of a sportsperson is that they’re actually human beings. They live, they breathe, they cry, they hurt, they bleed like everybody else. It’s just that when you watch them on the TV, they’re almost fictional, they don’t have feelings, they’re almost emotionless. And as far as problems go, of course they don’t have problems. Why would they have problems? I turn on the telly, I see a guy wearing a Welsh rugby jersey, it’s what three million people would dream to do. Why should he have any problems in his life? He’s doing the one job we all want to do. Yet, there are problems. There are other things that occur. An understanding of what a sportsperson goes through is lost in how we perceive them and look at them, how we think they live their lives, how we think they have everything. The reality is, what is everything?”

Since publicly coming out in 2009, Thomas’s story has been well-documented. There have been multiple TV appearances – even in North America. There was a stage play based on his story. A Hollywood movie has been in the pipeline for years. In many ways, Thomas is now a very public face – much more than when he was a player.

Celebrity Big Brother Live Final - Hertfordshire Thomas competed in Celebrity Big Brother in 2012. Source: Matt Crossick/EMPICS Entertainment

After retiring from rugby in 2011, he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. He signed up to ITV’s Dancing On Ice too. While others may have been happy to slink into the background after revealing so much about themselves, Thomas has done the complete opposite. Why?

“To be able to talk openly is something I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of because I got so tired of lying.  I have an understanding and an actual knowledge of how this affects other people. I now measure success by the fact that I can help somebody have a life they never thought they could have. To help a human life – literally helping somebody to have a life – my God…”

Thomas’s voice breaks and he pauses to compose himself before continuing.

You can win a World Cup for the next fifty years and you still wouldn’t come within an inch of having the satisfaction of knowing that somebody is smiling because you fucking helped them. That outweighs any achievement you can hang in a trophy cabinet at home. It becomes an irrelevance.”

After coming out, he felt it made more sense to move to London, away from the prying eyes.

Thomas, for so long the famous son of Brigend, didn’t know how his homosexuality would go down in the small community in which he grew up. But he needn’t have worried.

“I thought ‘There has to be more to life than living in the same village I’ve always lived in’. But after moving away, I realised what made me feel safe and that was being home so I moved back. Why did I spend all my life pretending to be somebody else in Brigend, to all of a sudden be myself and then move away? And I’ve been accepted for who I am. The people where I live – they know me, they’ve known me all my life – and they treat me the same. They don’t treat me any differently.

That’s my reality. That’s where I live. That’s where I feel secure. That’s where I feel comfortable. Where I feel safe. In sporting terms, you always play better at home because you have a familiarity with your surroundings. For me, I get that everyday. Because I’m out and openly gay now means I could potentially forget about my fight, my struggle and just carry on, telling everyone how wonderful life is. But, by staying in touch with my roots and who I am, it still gives me an understanding.”

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2007 - Pool B - Wales v Canada - Stade de la Beaujoire Source: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport

Other athletes have approached Thomas and admitted they’re gay. They’ve sought solace and support but stopped short of going public. Thomas understands their reluctance.

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“I didn’t come out because I felt I had a duty. It was live or die.

I never would promote somebody to just come out because you need to understand circumstances first. The only reason I am where I am now is because I had people around me to support me. I wouldn’t even claim that I could’ve done it on my own because I couldn’t have. So without them, either I wouldn’t be here or my story would never be out because I wouldn’t have got through it.

Me being gay is almost irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. But what I did after I came out is very, very relevant. You have such a role afterwards. It has to be positive. Afterwards. if it’s negative, that sends such a bad message. We live in an age where there are still 77 countries where it’s illegal to be gay. Religions don’t allow you to be gay. Some family members couldn’t handle you being gay. Sometimes, it’s not about that one person, it’s about what that person has to support them.”

A high-profile figure from a small country and even smaller town, Thomas is known to everyone. So is his family. When he made the decision to go public with his homosexuality, the fall-out was never just going to affect him.

“My Dad will wear my Welsh rugby jersey with ‘Thomas’ on the back to the pub everyday. He works in the post-office. My mother works in a hospital – everybody knows my mother is my mother. Everybody knows my brother is my brother. So, I knew everyone had to come out with me. You think no one will talk about it in the post-office behind my dad’s back? Or in the hospital behind my mother’s back? Or even ask them questions? Of course. So they all have to be a part of it. But as much as I was taking their feelings into account, they just said, ‘Look, if you feel better because of this, if you’re going to have a better life because of this then d’you know what? You do it. You do it and you’ll have our support’.

I had to stop caring whether the people in the stands were talking about me. My father said ‘I don’t care if they’re talking about you in the post office. I don’t give a shit. And I’ll still wear your jersey over to the pub and your mother will still tell everyone she’s your mother.’ Luckily, through intelligence, my parents and my brothers all had the understanding that what was right for me was right for them.”

Earlier this year, in an RTE documentary ‘Coming Out Of The Curve’, former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack explored some of the international feelings surrounding homosexuality and investigated other Irish people’s struggles in dealing with being gay.

One line stood out.

“Sometimes I forget I’m gay”, Cusack said.

Does Thomas ever think it will become irrelevant?

Gareth Thomas Source: Nick Potts/PA Archive/PA Images

“As long as something is a minority, it will always be big news and as long as something is big news, it will always be a talking point”, he says.

“I am there. I am at a place where I don’t constantly think or forget. I don’t have to forget I’m gay because I never think it. Being gay doesn’t define who I am but I’m very proud that I can say that I’m gay and I can be supportive.

I speak to boys and rugby players and ask them ‘Do you ever walk around thinking ‘This is just such a nice feeling because I can be me’? And they’re like, ‘Well, no.’ So I tell them, ‘Think about how hard it must feel when people can’t be themselves and it’s such a freedom that you take for granted’. Being able to say ‘D’you know what? I can just be me wherever I want to be me and I don’t have to announce it because no one cares’. And that to me would be the perfect scenario.”

And what of the accolades, the trophies, the jerseys on the wall? Does he look at himself at that time of his life and merely see an imitation? An actor?

With Gareth Thomas the rugby player, the life he was living outside of rugby was the lie. As a rugby player, he had everything. On the rugby field, he had the honesty, the commitment, the passion, the pride. But even with that, every honour I’ve won I’ve given to my mother and said ‘They’re all yours because you deserve them’.

I have my trophies. They’re here (taps the side of his head). My trophies are knowing what I do. My trophies are what I feel represents who I am now. The others will go and will rot away but what I’ve done with my life in the last couple of years is better than any trophy. I don’t class myself as somebody who wants to be remembered for decorative rugby achievements. They’re for other people to celebrate on my behalf.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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