Gareth Thomas: 'I can handle a few wolf whistles from the crowd – it's just banter'

The Brian Viner Interview: The former Lions captain reflects on reactions he has received since announcing he is gay and explains why coming out would be much harder for a footballer
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Gareth "Alfie" Thomas phoned his Cardiff Blues team-mate and great pal Andy "Powelly" Powell on Monday, to commiserate with him over the drunken shenanigans that got Powell booted out of the Welsh rugby union squad, but also to offer some sage advice. It's not easy when you've only ever been known for playing rugby and suddenly your name's in headlines for other reasons, the former Wales and Lions captain told Powell, but the trick is to use it as an incentive, to play so well that your talent and energy on the field eclipse the images of an early-morning expedition to the M4 in a golf cart. Or eclipse, in his own more seismic case, the decision to declare his homosexuality to the world.

It is two months since Thomas came out. There had been occasional rumours, and even photographers staking out his house, but nobody ever turned the rumours into fact. Now that he has done so himself, he welcomes me cheerfully into his home in a village near Bridgend knowing that his sexuality is what we'll be talking about for the next hour or so. Oddly, I have been asked by a man called Emanuele, his friend and adviser – Thomas loathes the word "agent" – not to raise the reports that Thomas is on the verge of a move to rugby league. It's the first time in my interviewing career that a fellow's sexual orientation is wide open for discussion, while rugby league is firmly taboo.

He makes coffee and we sit down at a round breakfast table. The house, where he lived with Jemma, now the ex-wife he still adores, is not at all grand, but comfortable. There are rugby photos around the place, and I spot a copy of Barack Obama's book, Dreams of My Fathers. Has he read it? "No, I've just bought it." The "it" is pronounced the Bridgend way, without the T. "I've never been a big reader, but now I read a lot. I'm into books that challenge me, and..."

He starts to chuckle. "Obviously Barack Obama and myself are in no way comparable, but who'd have thought there would ever be a black president of America?" I complete the connection for him, and assure him that it is in no way fanciful: who, similarly, would ever have thought that a big, tough Lions and Wales ex-captain, thunderous wing, full-back and centre, would burst out of the closet? "Yeah, and what he must have gone through... I thought I could read it and in some fraction of a way, relate to it."

The angst that Thomas endured in his long years as a secretly gay man – the suicidal thoughts, the intense guilt when he was unfaithful to Jemma – has been chronicled now, but not the tumult of the two months since he came out.

"It's all been positive," he says. "But I almost wish I had a negative, because we don't live in a perfect world and homophobia hasn't disappeared. I don't want to be this fairytale story, because that's not the reality of the world, but I'm not going to make things up to make this journey I'm on seem more real. There have been a couple of wolf whistles when I've been warming up for the Blues, but I can take that, just like I'd expect jeers if I dropped the ball. Part of a sportsman's job is taking banter from the crowd. And we joke about it all the time in the team. The guys see someone gorgeous reading the news and say 'She's really smart, what do you reckon, Alf?' That's not homophobia. We're so politically correct in this society that we see it where it isn't."

A glug of coffee. "I'm dreading the day when I open a letter to find a whole lot of abuse, but up to now I've had nothing except support. I had an amazing e-mail from [former Australian captain] John Eales. He said, 'of all the things you've achieved in your career, this stands out as your biggest achievement'. For one of the greatest players ever to take the time to sit down and write that ..." Thomas, unusually, is lost for words.

I ask whether he is comfortable being adopted as a hero, a figurehead even, by the gay community? He smiles. "I wasn't sure that I would be, but I am. Gay people have become interested in me and that's fine. Some of them see me as a bit of an inspirational guy, so I can't say 'thanks for that but I'm going away now to live my own life'. I take it too seriously for that. And I've had some really touching messages. There's one guy in north Wales somewhere who gave up rugby 14 years ago because he was gay, but he sent me a message on that Twitter thing to say that he was going to start training again because of me. He played his first game last week, and I've told him that sometime during the season I'm going to go and watch. I said, 'I need to know how you get on, how the boys are with you...' "

Paradoxically, the message that really gets people excited is the one that Thomas hasn't received, the message from X, the Premier League footballer, to say 'thanks to you, I've decided to come out'.

"Yeah, the acceptance of a footballer being gay would be really groundbreaking," Thomas says. "But I don't think someone should be pushed into coming out just because he's a footballer. If he has the backing of loved ones and feels capable of it, then fine, but it needs to be done to better his life. If it doesn't make his life better, if the repercussions are so negative, then there's no point."

Since his life-changing announcement, Thomas has been to several games at Cardiff City – not a club known for the broad-minded magnanimity of its fans – and received not a hint of abuse. But it will be different for the footballer who blazes the trail. Also, as he points out, he has had the firm backing of the Welsh rugby hierarchy, whereas the Football Association seems what we might generously call disingenuous in its attitude to homophobia. But he concedes that as the first openly gay high-profile British sportsman, he has at least administered a shoulder-charge to floodgates that, one day, will open.

"Let's call it a step in the right direction," he says. "And the more gay sportspeople who come out, the better. But for people to keep saying 'Yeah, but where's the footballer?' That's just unhelpful."

Moreover, he knows how inhibiting raw fear can be. Hugely courageous though it was for him to declare his sexuality to the world when he did, he is well aware that it would have had a massively bigger impact had he done it as captain of the British and Irish Lions. But he didn't, because doubtless like those closeted footballers, he was scared and confused.

"With hindsight I know it would have been a really positive thing to do. But I loved captaining the Lions and my country, and I didn't want to do anything that could possibly lose it. Also, there were other issues. I was married, for one thing. And how could I expect others to accept it when I hadn't accepted it myself?"

Indeed. And now a tougher, more impudent question comes to mind. I probably shouldn't pose it, but he's such an honest, engaging man, and I feel we have established a rapport, so here goes: if Jemma hadn't suffered a series of miscarriages, if she'd had their child, or children, would he still have come out?

It's clearly a question he has asked himself, because the answer comes quickly and fluently. "I probably wouldn't. To put a child of seven or eight years old in the middle of this? No, I couldn't have done that. I'll never think they [the miscarriages] were a good thing. It was tragic. But we can't change the past, and the miscarriages were one of the reasons I did come out, because I felt like God was punishing the people around me for doing what I was doing."

In my bag, I tell him, I have a copy of his 2007 autobiography Alfie! The Gareth Thomas Story. "In Alfie!," reads the blurb on the jacket, "Thomas reveals the inside story of his incredible life." But of course there is nothing in there about being gay, and he winces when I mention it.

"I felt like a massive fraud writing that. Delme [the ghost writer] is a good guy, and at first I said no. But sometimes it's easier to say yes because you don't have to give a reason. When that book was published I was probably at my lowest ebb. Me and Jem had split [he had by then come out to Jemma, his parents, brothers, team-mates and close friends], and I wanted to tell everybody who bought it to go and get their money back. I didn't do any signings. I didn't want to be sitting there signing a book that I felt bad for writing. It wasn't that it was full of lies or anything. But a massive part of my life was missing."

The next autobiography, though, could be a belter. "Yeah, and I'd like to do it, but not for a long time. There's still a lot I want to achieve. I'd like to set up a foundation that helps kids with problems. And what kind of message would it have given if I'd done a book straight after [coming out]? It would have looked like cashing in."

Let us, finally, go back to the day his new life began. Thomas handed to Emanuele the task of placing the story. Had he taken control himself, he thinks he might have bottled it. As it was, his only instruction was that he wanted it to run before Christmas.

"For the first time in my life I wanted to be able to wake up on Christmas morning knowing what it felt like not to have a secret I'd kept all my life. And I thought that by getting this message out, I might help someone else's Christmas as well as my own. It all worked out perfect, because I was away in Toulouse with the Blues that day. It was good that I was out of the UK, not hiding, but doing my job. And on the plane over I told a couple of the boys that the story was about to come out. They were brilliant, and so was the crowd in Toulouse, because by then the story had been on the BBC and flown round the rugby world. Gareth Edwards, who's on the Blues board, came up to me in Toulouse and shook my hand. He said, 'Whatever you do in life I wish you all the best, because you deserve it.' That meant a lot, from the greatest rugby player in the world. And it made me realise that he would have been just as supportive if it had happened in the 1970s, because he's the same man now that he was then."

Over the ensuing weeks, Thomas wore a bobble hat when he was out in public, kept his head down, avoided eye contact. "I was fearful of the reaction I'd get," he admits, "but slowly I began to walk down the street with my head up." It's hard to think of a sportsman who more deserves to hold his head up high.

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