As a play about his life and career opens, Gareth Thomas talks to Phil Penfold about being one of only a handful of high profile sportsmen to come out as gay.
When he goes out to talk to young people about his extraordinary life and his passion for rugby, the subject of all his many injuries always comes up. Bruises in places where most of us don’t even have places, and so many broken bones that it is probably a lot quicker to recount the ones that haven’t snapped or cracked than to list the ones that have. But, says Gareth Thomas with a huge grin, “Youngsters like gore, don’t they? They like to hear of someone being hurt, and then bouncing back... it helps put their world into perspective. Makes then realise that they too might be able to stand up and take the knocks of life?”
Thomas, who will be 41 this summer, has been playing rugby (both Union and League) for more than three-quarters of his life. His first professional match was for the team in his home town of Bridgend, near Cardiff. His first international for Wales was in 1994, and he finally bowed out of the game in 2011, after breaking his arm in a match against Hull Kingston Rovers.
In between, he’d been in 100 Test matches, and had played for top teams that included Toulouse, Crusaders and Celtic Warriors. He had winged feet, speed, and a formidable presence on the pitch. At 6ft 3in, and weighing in at just over 16 stones, no-one messed with Gareth Thomas.
Even after retirement, he’s still a big lad, soundly proportioned, shaven-headed, but with an engaging grin and steel-blue eyes that twinkle a lot.
I tell him that I am slightly surprised that he has allowed anyone from Yorkshire anywhere near him, given that two of the worst moments of his career (and that’s not including the HKR injury) happened while he was playing within the county boundaries.
The first came in Castleford, and the second was in Hull. On both occasions, he was the subject of homophobic abuse. Because, not so long before, the impressive talent that is Gareth Thomas had decided to take a deep breath, “shake the demons from my shoulders”, and face the truth.
He was gay. Had been since his teens. He was the most prominent athlete ever to square up and to admit to his sexuality. Hull was a pretty minor event.
One “fan” shouted out “Thomas, you’re gay”. To which he had replied with an unexpected graciousness and light courtesy: “Yes, thank you. I know I am.”
Someone at Castleford, followed by a couple of hundred others, was far more offensive.
“It was the only time that I ever regretted coming out – both as a player and a man – because up till then everything had been so positive. It was just… collective prejudice.”
That little band of homophobes cost Castleford dear, for they were finally fined £40,000. Oddly enough, reckons Gareth, it was a turning-point.
“It was a genuine case of ‘what you think might hurt you only makes you stronger’, and it made me more determined to go ahead with a project I’d been thinking about, to get into schools and colleges and clubs, and to talk to people about being yourself, and how (hopefully) to deal with bullying in all its forms.
“Sometimes it just takes a very long time for people to realise that abusers and bullies are, simply, cowards. It takes guts – and support – to stand up to them. And I want to be saying that ‘Look, my support is right there for you’.”
To get to where he is now has been a long, difficult and at times hugely cathartic journey. He got married to Jemma in what he recognises today was an attempt to prove to himself that he was 100 per cent heterosexual. He loved her very much, he still does and, while she has remarried, they still keep very much in touch. They tried for children, but she miscarried three times.
He’s candid when he reveals that “had the third child, our last attempt, lived, I don’t think I would have come out. Why? Because I think I owed something to the child, and to Jemma, to be there as a loyal and caring husband and father. Maybe I’d have done something later? Who knows? It’s a ‘what if?’ in my life that will never be resolved now. It’s probably the one thing that I ever wonder about….”
And, he says quite openly, “I also tried to commit suicide – many times. It seemed the only way out. I drank as if it was going out of fashion. Nearly all rugby players drink to an extent, but this was world-class, gold-plated drinking. To oblivion. And I still tried to play rugby. My problem was that I was a rugby player, in a life that I’d chosen, but . I believe, back then, that I was really two people – yes, I know that many of us have two or three sides to our personalities, but I’m talking about being borderline schizophrenic. I just didn’t want to tell anyone. Because I didn’t trust anyone, that’s why”.
He calmly opens up his life, like a surgeon doing a very careful, incredibly complex dissection. Another way that he’s beginning to see himself from a different angle has been affected by the opening of a new play, Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, which is the Gareth Thomas story, staged nightly by a company brought together from the National Company of Wales and the acclaimed Out of Joint Troupe. It will tour the UK, and the structure of the production is that all six actors (three men and three women) will be Gareth Thomas at some point in the evening. The creators are writer Robin Soans and the award-winning director Max Stafford-Clark, and it is based on Gareth’s thoughts, conversations and experiences.
“At first, I thought ‘Nah, sounds a bit weird’,” he chuckles, “a bit….self-regarding? But then it occurred to me that this was just another means of getting the message out there that every life is best lived if you can just be yourself.
“So now, I’m very excited that it is going ahead, and I’ve worked as closely as I can with the team, and I must say that I am very impressed indeed.
“Is it boastful to say that I believe they’ve done me justice? I hope not. If you want the honest truth, I am faintly embarrassed with what they’ve done with my character, and the image that they put over.”
He can now own up and say that he was embarrassed – in quite a different way – by an autobiography that was published a few years back, one which offered a much sanitised account of Thomas’s life and achievements.
To counter that, and to reveal the full story of his complicated journey, he brought out Proud last year, co-written with journalist Michael Calvin. The heart-breaking raw honesty propelled it straight onto bestseller lists.
“I took a leap, and jumped right in. Its warts and all.
“Michael, who is now a very good mate, talked to my friends, my team-mates, my family. They told him the truth. All that stuff about me going to all sorts of clubs and bars where I thought I wouldn’t be recognised….all true.
“The first time that you walk into a gay bar, alone, it’s like walking into another world. You can be the fittest, tallest, most self-confident bloke in the world, but instantly your knees just turn to jelly. And then it slowly dawns on you that… er, no… you aren’t the only one, at all. Far from it”.
But, he considers, “it is confusing, living a life of different personalities. I suppose that, over time, quite a few people in the gay bars did start to realise who I was. But no-one ‘shopped’ me to the press. It was different then, there wasn’t the instant social media that there is now, so perhaps I was a just lucky.”
He’s at the point now, he says, “When I can truly say to people, ‘OK, if you don’t like it, that’s fine. Now you get on with your life, and I’ll get on with mine. I’ve been honest, and if you can’t accept that, it’s a shame, but go away and leave me alone.”
He’s found happiness in a long-term partnership with Ian Baum – they live together in Bridgend, and met through friends on a holiday in Ibiza – he supports all manner of charities, he’s an avid supporter of Stonewall, and he’s appeared on both Big Brother and on Dancing on Ice.
This summer will see him commentating for ITV on the Rugby World Cup, and he says: “Who do I fancy? At the moment, oh Christ, I’m going to be lynched for saying this, I think that the Kiwis have got the edge, followed by the English side. Wales, sad to say, aren’t quite there at the moment….God, I feel terrible for saying that on the record.”
And if he had to say anything to anyone out there trying to get to terms with their sexuality? “It would be ‘Be you. You only have one life to life. Live it for you. Not for what everyone else expects you to be’. ‘If only’ are the two saddest words in the world. See, now I’m Gareth Thomas, one-time rugby player, who happens to be gay. That’s a LONG way from ‘Gay rugby player Gareth Thomas’. Believe me.”
• Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, West Yorkshire Playhouse, March 31 to April 4, www.wyp.org.uk; Hull University, April 14 to 18, www2.hull.ac.uk