Gareth Thomas on the joy of coming out

Gareth Thomas, Wales' gay rugby star, tells Johann Hari how it finally feels to be himself after years of self-denial.

The sports fields of Britain are one of the final ramparts of homophobia – a place where gay men are still obliged to go through the 1950s misery-go-round of fake girlfriends, suppressed love, and self-denial.

But this month, those ramparts may have begun to crumble. Gareth Thomas is the ninth most-capped rugby player in history, the former captain of the Welsh team, and one of the most popular sportsmen in the country. And he is now openly gay.

Thomas towered over the dancing throng at his coming-out party this Thursday in the London club Movida. He is a meaty 6ft 3in giant, and he walks with the confident roll that comes from always being the strongest man in the room. Yet when he speaks, he is surprisingly tender. He tells me in his lilting Welsh voice: "All those years I was terrified there would be a negative reaction – comments from the crowd or the opposition. It's been the complete opposite. The first match after [I came out], the crowd gave me a huge cheer. It's like I'm finding out that the world is a brilliant place, a place where I can be happy. It's an amazing thing."

For the first 35 years of his life, Thomas tried to bury his sexuality. He confides: "I used to visualise it as a little ball. I know it's crazy, but I'd imagine this little ball in my stomach and I'd have an encounter with a man and the ball would just be there. Then from that day to the next encounter, be it one month, two months, three months, all I could see was this gold liquid dripping out of the ball. That was the real me seeping out ... I didn't want it to be there. I'd walk along cliffs and think it would be much easier if I just fell off."

Now, he realises it didn't have to be this way. "I feel normal at last. Everyone has been so accepting – basically, they don't give a fuck. I haven't lost anything – my career, my fans, my friends – but I've gained so much. I came home from that game and went straight to my mum and dad's. They cracked open a bottle of champagne. I didn't know what we were toasting but my mother was like: 'The rest of your life.'"

Gay men who are naturally effeminate have had visibility for several generations now, but the many gay people who are nothing like this have sometimes felt that they can't be "really" gay. Thomas says: "Growing up I wasn't aware of a single gay person in our town. The only people who were gay that you had any idea of were Kenny Everett and people like him on TV. I thought, that's not what I am ...I'm not a stereotypical gay man but I am a gay man as much as anyone else."

He knows he has just broken the stereotype – hopefully for good. "I hope it shows gay people come in all types. There may be an 18-year-old who put his rugby boots away because he was gay and thought he wouldn't be accepted, but now he can go back to the cupboard and dust his boots down." Today, Ofsted says homophobic bullying is "endemic" in our schools, and a Stonewall study found that 41 percent of gay kids get beaten up and 17 per cent get told they will be killed. Now Thomas has burnt a big hole in that culture. When the heroes of the most macho boys reveal they are gay, it scrambles the prejudices on which homophobia is built.

On the dance floor I talk to Phil Hurt, a tall 29-year-old who works for an investment bank. He says: "If you're a young gay person at school, you get these unspoken signals that sport is something you're excluded from. You're not allowed to be sporty or masculine because you're gay. It was only in my twenties I realised it was bollocks and I thought, I can play rugby if I want." So he joined the Kings Cross Steelers, an amateur gay rugby team. "The greatest moment of liberation is when it becomes unconscious. I don't think of it as a gay rugby team any more. I just play rugby. We have lawyers and train drivers and go-go dancers and every kind of man you can imagine. Gareth has just taken that a whole mile forward."

Paul Burstyn, the editor of Time Out's gay section, comes from the same town as Thomas, Bridgend – a place that used to be famous for rugby and is now famous for teenage suicides. Staring over with pride at Thomas, Burstyn said: "I fled that town because the rugby culture was so barbaric and macho and brutal. They were the people who went queer-bashing. I never thought I would live to see an openly gay rugby player from Bridgend, never mind one who was applauded locally, by the community, by everyone. I thought even now the local press would be snide and mocking. But they haven't been. They have all praised his bravery and shown him as a hero. It's a sign that something really deep is changing."

Yet there were ghosts at the party, reminding people why it has taken so long for this to happen. The great gay equality campaigner Peter Tatchell was there and couldn't help but think about his old friend Justin Fashanu, the first – and so far only – Premiership footballer ever to come out, in 1990. After eight years of vicious hounding by the tabloids and on the terraces, he locked himself in his garage and gassed himself. Tatchell said: "If Justin could see this, I think he'd ask, where are the other Premiership footballers? Statistically, there must be about 50 gay men in the Premier League. Where are they? Why are they so macho on the pitch and so cowardly about coming out? The fear of coming out is far worse than the consequences ... Gareth has shown that coming out brings you public respect and admiration."

Twenty years ago it was common for black players to be greeted with monkey noises and inflatable bananas. That world has been wiped out now. If there are going to be more Gareth Thomases – especially in football – there needs to be a parallel campaign that is just as tough on anti-gay bigotry. You could see the first steps towards it in 2007, when it was alleged, falsely, that Ashley Cole was gay. The website for fans of rival team Arsenal organised systematic homophobic abuse against him, including printing huge £20 notes depicting "Queen" Ashley.

The response by the Football Association, after prompting from Tatchell, was a model of how to react. The fans at the next match were inundated with anti-homophobia flyers. Anybody caught trying to bring in homophobic material was banned. CCTV cameras were trained on Arsenal fans so that anybody leading homophobic chants could be banned from future matches too. The abuse withered away. They gave homophobia the red card. Now that effort needs to be stepped up.

The party was full of living proof of how far homophobia has been rooted out of professions where it was, until recently, impossible to be openly gay – from the government minister Chris Bryant to the pop star Will Young, who told me: "It's so wonderful. I've been saying for years the last bastions of the closet are Hollywood and sport. It's one small step for a gay man, a huge step for gaykind."

Better than almost anyone else, the actor Sir Ian McKellen was able to understand how Thomas was feeling. He came out when he was the same age, in the 1980s, at the height of Thatcher's demonisation of gay people. "Oh, I recognise that smile on his face," he said. "There's such a rush of excitement. Just like me after I came out, he said, 'I've never been to a club like this. I don't know what to do!' And I said, now you can find a boyfriend, Gareth. And he beamed."

At the end of the night, I asked Thomas what advice he would give to the scores of closeted sporting heroes. "I would tell them coming out causes you such a small amount of pain to get such a huge amount of happiness. You don't have to be so unhappy, and you can do so much good ... I'd say to them, everybody deserves a chance to be happy in their life. You do too." And with that, he danced away, smiling.

Out of the closet: Gay sportsmen

*Justin Fashanu

The former Nottingham Forest and Norwich footballer is still the only prominent professional player to have been open about his homosexuality. His life ended tragically in 1998, when he hanged himself in his garage. He was 37.

*John Amaechi

Three years after he retired, the basketball player admitted he was gay in his 2007 autobiography Man in the Middle, becoming the first NBA star to do so. Amaechi played 301 NBA games for four teams over five seasons. He said last month: "As much as society has moved on, sport is still dragging behind."

*Donal Og Cusack

The goalkeeper of the Cork hurling team came out in October last year, becoming the first top Irish sports star to admit to being gay. He had only told his family four years earlier, when his father's first words to him were: "We need to get you fixed." His announcement provoked widespread debate across Ireland.

*Ian Roberts

The Australian rugby league player said he was gay in 1994, six years before he retired. He was the first in his sport to admit to being homosexual. Roberts was an aggressive forward who represented both New South Wales and Australia.

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