Gareth Thomas: The Pink List inspired me to shed my fear

Rugby Union's first openly gay professional found himself galvanised by the names of the successful unafraid to be themselves

The first time I saw the Pink List was about two years before I came out. I remember that Clare Balding was on it, and she was a big name in sports. To me that was a real "wow" moment: looking through the list and seeing people in different jobs and walks of life who had been able to be themselves and be successful. It was incredible. The list itself didn't prompt me to come out, because that was something I had to do when the time was right for me. But it was inspirational to see that these people who did not need to pretend could thrive in their chosen field.

That first time that I saw the list, there were no sportspeople on it. Sport is the last bastion of fear for people who are gay and afraid of the reaction. There's a stereotype that says that you have to be a certain way to play sports. Barriers are coming down, and there's a lot more acceptance, but it's a very slow process.

It would really help if more people in sport were openly gay, and I'm sure that the more people I inspire, the more that will filter down to children growing up. When people ahead of them break the mould of what they think they should be like, then children will be able to do what they want to do and be who they want to be, whether that be in sport, pop music, movies or whatever.

Some people believe that listing successful gay people shows prejudice in itself. But to me, appearing at the top of last year's Pink List was an honour. I wasn't looking for any reward, but for people to recognise how much I'd gone through and that I'd helped other people on their own journey meant a lot.

I do believe, though, that because I'm a sportsman it doesn't make it easier or more difficult for me to come out than for someone who works in a factory. It doesn't matter what your job is; being different is a scary thing. It's emotionally tough for everybody to deal with and accept being gay.

The majority of people just assume that everyone else is straight, so to have to come out in a workplace is a difficult thing to do. It means that you're dealing with issues before you've even made a start on your job. To undertake that and still be really successful, in any line of work, takes a lot of courage and dedication.

There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of good work who don't get the recognition that I've had. There is prejudice everywhere: in a war zone, on the football or rugby stands, in schools – in all areas of life. Children are cruel because they don't know or understand, so as a child you grow up thinking that the word "gay" means something bad. And sometimes, the fear of prejudice can be worse than the prejudice itself.

Several well-known people contacted me when I came out to say that they were gay, too, and that they didn't dare to admit it. I'll take their names to my grave.

People are afraid for all sorts of different reasons. For some, it's because of the countries they live in or the religion in their community. Acceptance is an impossible thing for them and they end up living a lie, not because they want to, but because they have to. In this country, therefore, it is important for prominent people to realise that being gay is not just about their personal life: if you're in the public eye, it's about sending a positive message. Unless successful people are ready to accept themselves, how will vulnerable young people learn to be accepting of who they are? How will we move on?

Even though the Pink List is a list of gay people, it's not about sexuality for me; it's about people who are brave and have been able to be who they want to be. Anybody trying to find a reason to dislike the list should accept it for what it is: a list of people who have been strong enough to say: "I want to be a rugby player," – or a movie star, or a pop star – "and I'm gay, and I'm going to do it." I think it's just recognition of that.

In my position, I don't think you can look at the Pink List as being a bad thing. The bad thing is the society we've created. I hope that the list can inspire people who are out there now in public life and hiding their sexuality. Maybe people can look at that list and think, as I did: "That inspires me."

While, sadly, I won't now be New Zealand watching Wales in the World Cup next weeekend, after yesterday's defeat, wherever I am I'll be having a look at the Pink List on Sunday. Even though I'm openly gay now, I still get inspiration from it, and for me it is a messaging tool to show people who are struggling that you can be who you want to be.

It made a difference to my life, and it is definitely a positive thing.

The Independent on Sunday Pink List will be published next Sunday, 23 October