Christa Ackroyd: Why we all have something to learn from the bravery of Gareth Thomas

If ever you are in New York nothing beats a stroll through Greenwich Village on a Sunday morning.

Former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas who took part in a 140-mile Ironman triathlon, a day after revealing he is HIV positive. Picture:: Ian West/PA Wire
Former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas who took part in a 140-mile Ironman triathlon, a day after revealing he is HIV positive. Picture:: Ian West/PA Wire

There the rich and the famous rub shoulders with the cool and the super cool. Long famous for its bohemian culture, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise have homes there.

The area is known to New Yorkers as the village. Around Christopher Street it is also known as the Gayborhood. This part of town proudly proclaims itself the birthplace of the gay rights movement largely due to events that happened 50 years ago this year at the Stonewall Inn.

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To be gay in America in the sixties was a crime, as it was here. In some US states it was punishable by chemical castration. In others gay men could be put in mental institutions for life. By 1969 the Mafia owned all the gay bars in town including the Stonewall Inn. Police raids were on the up. At their height up to a 100 people were arrested each week for homosexuality. It was an incendiary atmosphere.

Only this time instead of fleeing under the cover of darkness after the raid those inside refused to go quietly. Instead they stood proudly on the streets and refused to move, eventually barricading the police inside. The confrontation was to last for six nights. The fight for acceptance and tolerance took decades more.

But the rebellion had begun.

Within a year the first Pride March took place in New York. I tell you this because it was just a couple of blocks away that I sat in a coffee bar and read of rugby star Gareth Thomas’s sense of shame at being diagnosed with HIV. How he kept it a secret even from his family fearing he “would be treated like a leper.” And that he only told them when blackmailers threatened to expose his secret and left him feeling suicidal. He hadn’t even told the world he had been married for four years to his partner Stephen.

“In my mind you only get blackmailed for something bad, which compounded the feeling of shame,” he says. And this from a man who came out as gay way back in 2009 which led to him being named Stonewall’s Hero of the Year, Stonewall being the UKs campaigning group named after those events in New York. Well Gareth Thomas was a hero then and even more of one now.

He was at the forefront of one of the most macho of sports. His decision to be out and proud was an inspiration to countless others to do the same. Now in what has clearly been his darkest moment he is empowering others to stand up to those who are both ignorant and cruel.

And the response to his revelation has been overwhelming, the outpouring of support incredible. His honesty and the hope he has given others makes him a beacon of light shining equally as bright as the day Princess Diana showed the world it was not only safe but the right thing to do to show compassion to those with HIV.

This week Gareth Thomas has challenged us even more. In the 1980s when Diana forced us to confront our misconceptions a diagnosis of HIV was a death sentence. I knew of the advancement of medicine, but like many I didn’t know enough.

I do now thanks to Gareth, though I am sorry his message was born out of pain. Thanks to him I now know that people who are HIV positive can have a life expectancy equal to yours or mine.

I now know if diagnosed early enough medication can not only save lives but can prevent it being passed onto others even through sex.

I also know it is time to end the shame that Gareth and others are still forced to live with. I know people who have died of AIDS.

I know people who have been diagnosed as carrying the HIV virus.

I hope they will be empowered by his words and “remember what it’s like to live again...what it is like to feel free”. The medical profession has done their bit. So has Gareth Thomas. Now it is up to the rest of us. So tonight I will watch his documentary on the BBC. I will watch him through his tears tell us he has to be strong.

And I hope everyone, including him, will realise Gareth Thomas is one of the strongest of men not because he once played rugby or completed an Ironman despite his diagnosis. It is precisely his diagnosis that makes him strong. And because he beat the blackmailers to say out loud and proud “I’ve got HIV and it’s okay.” That is as important a message for a new generation as the night a group of gay men and women in a part of New York City said enough is enough and changed the world for the better.

I salute you Gareth Thomas. Now live your life with pride. Christa Ackroyd: Why we all have a lot to learn from Gareth Thomas