Gay rugby star hosts 'coming out' party to thank friends

Sport and stage stars turn out to show solidarity with Wales's 'role model' player

For one of the rugby world's more eloquent stars, the speech was surprisingly brief – but then Gareth Thomas has done a lot of talking in recent weeks. Just before Christmas he did the unthinkable and became the first professional player in Britain to admit he is gay. Last night was his chance to celebrate the announcement.

"Everybody here tonight is celebrating that the world is changing," he said. "We are here to send the message that it's OK to be a sportsman and it is also OK to be gay."

The venue was Movida, a glitzy London club with a bright pink bar and equally garish cocktails – not a very likely hangout for burly rugby players. But this was no post-match celebration, rather an opportunity to tell the world that the sport was longer a place in which gay players had to hide their sexuality. Last night, the former Welsh captain's friends and supporters joined Britain's gay glitterati for Thomas's official "coming out" party – a remarkable display of solidarity that many hope will signal the beginning of the end of homophobia in sport.

Former and current rugby stars including Will Carling, Matt Dawson, Gareth Williams and Lee Byrne were present, along with the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Will Young and Graham Norton. The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said he hoped Thomas's decision to publicly declare his sexuality would inspire others.

"If more top-class professional sportspeople came out as Gareth has done they would win huge amounts of public respect for their honesty and courage," he said. "It would boost their public standing and provide a very powerful and positive role model for young lesbian, gay and bisexual people who are coming to terms with their sexuality for the first time."

The positive reaction from the public, particularly in Wales where Thomas is a national hero, has convinced him to throw himself into an active campaigning role for gay rights. In the six weeks since he came out, he has already signed up to be a patron of the annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, and is in the process of filming a documentary about homophobia for ITV.

Thomas told The Independent last night: "The most important thing in my life is rugby and that will always be the case. But I will inevitably become something of a role model and that's something I'm happy to embrace. It's not about self-promotion, it's about actually doing something positive that will help other people."

Matthew Todd, editor of the gay magazine Attitude, which co-hosted the party, said it was clear that Thomas intended to be known as more than just a rugby player.

"Not since Sir Ian McKellen came out have we seen someone throw themselves into the gay rights cause with such enthusiasm," he said.