Gareth Thomas was one of the first male athletes to come out while still playing professional sport. In an exclusive column for Paddy Power, he speaks about his own experiences and why the Rainbow Laces campaign has the potential to make a huge positive impact for gay athletes
When you come out, you need to have foundations to be able to do it. The people closest to me deserved better than to know at the same time as the wider public. First it was my wife, then my parents and the support I got from them generated a snowball effect so from then on it became slightly easier every time I had to tell someone.
The support they give you gives you the strength you need to go on and be able to tell the next person in your life. At some point you’ll meet someone who maybe isn’t homophobic, but doesn’t like the fact you’ve lied to them for years, so you need to have those foundations of support to fall back on. I was surprised by the amount of people who had no problem with me being gay, but were just angry I hadn’t been honest with them for all those years.
When you live a double life, you end up getting confused about what you’ve said and what life you’re supposed to be living at any given time. It’s draining and living a lie is a depressing experience that no-one should have to endure, particularly on the grounds of their sexuality.
Professionally, there was no one thing that I was afraid of when I came out. Sport is a package and within that package comes sponsorship deals, contracts, making a livelihood for yourself, respect of the fans who ultimately pay your wages, the clubs. That was my life and I didn’t worry about losing any individual element, but I did worry about losing my life because all of those things put together was who I was. It was all I ever wanted from my life. I didn’t want my sexual orientation, something which doesn’t define me, to ultimately define me as an athlete. I was worried of rejection because I wasn’t what everyone assumed is the definition of what a perfect sportsman should be.
Fright night in Castleford
There was one match in Castleford after I came out which was particularly difficult. The fans threw homophobic abuse at me all night. I’ve always been fine with abuse from the terraces because people get passionate about their teams and you’re the opposition, so it’s natural. They’ll use whatever they can to try and put you off your game. If you’re tall, short, fat, skinny, got big ears, if you fuck up – people will use anything. You need to be big enough to accept it. But this went too far. This crossed a line. It was a horrible moment in my sporting life, but I never reported it. It was other people in the stands who reported it. They found it offensive enough to take it to the authorities. That restored some of my faith in people and showed me the power of change.
I’ve been a fan and stood on the terraces so I know people get caught up in the emotion of the sport. 99.9% of them are good people, but they forget themselves. The people who hurl the abuse go back to their jobs, back to their lives and forget they ever said anything. But for the person on the receiving end of it, it’s very hard to forget. There needs to be a greater awareness from people that what they say does matter to athletes, especially when it goes beyond sport and into someone’s private life. People are entitled to have their opinions about whatever lifestyle, but don’t hide behind a crowd of 50,000 people to do it. I’d have far more respect for someone who told me to my face their opinion and was willing to discuss than some coward in the stands hiding behind all these people.
I got a huge amount of support from family and friends when I came out, but I would have liked the various governing bodies who run sport to be a lot more vocal on the issue of homophobia. It’s a simple message too – within the grounds, on the terraces, among the fans, there is a zero tolerance attitude to homophobic language and attitudes. If these athletes are good enough and proud enough to wear the jersey and they work as hard as everybody else, that’s what counts.
It’s not asking for special treatment, it’s wanting to be treated the same as everybody else. There’s no place in sport for racism. If someone is racist in a football crowd for example, something is almost always done. What makes homophobic abuse any different? Do we have a scale from one to 10 of abuse and racism is at the top and homophobia is around the middle? Of course not. It’s all abuse.
I worked so hard to get to the level I did, all I wanted was the environment where I could concentrate and do justice to the thousands of hours of practice I put in. If I screw up in the course of the game, I’ll take whatever you’ve got because I deserve it, but I don’t deserve 80 minutes of abuse because I’m gay.
In my experience of playing professional sport, players don’t really have the time to worry what a team-mate does when they go home and close their doors. The only thing you worry about is that they work as hard as you do and they give everything they’ve got for the team. It’s really the terraces where there’s an issue.
The right time, the right lace
Rainbow Laces is the best possible place to start changing attitudes. Professional footballers are role models and whether they want to embrace it or not, they have the power to influence huge change. Millions and millions of people watch them each week and take their cues from what they do and say. Their decisions are followed by huge numbers of people. Rainbow Laces starts with the people at the top and from there, the changing attitudes influence the people in the stands and at home. All of a sudden, people of all ages will start to realise that a person’s sexuality makes no difference to their ability and their willingness to give it everything for their team.
Based on my experience, this has the potential to have a hugely positive effect. If this happened while I was still in the closet, it would have been a huge source of comfort. It’s great to have praise from the fans and the press, but ultimately all you really want is the praise and the acceptance from the people you work with on a daily basis. To see so many people actually coming forward and showing their support for gay footballers and athletes, that’s immense.