Former rugby star Gareth Thomas came out as gay 10 years ago but found himself having to go through the procedure all over again when a newspaper found out about his HIV status. His response is proving to be a game changer
The ex- rugby player scores our Game Changer Award after opening up about living with HIV
It’s diff icult — futile maybe — to think of a more succinct way to describe Gareth Thomas than “game changer”. So it’s apt that he’s the recipient of an Attitude Award that bears the same words.
The 45- year- old Welshman made his name on the rugby pitch between 1994 and 2011, is a former captain of the British and Irish Lions and the Welsh national team, and is one of the most capped rugby players of all time. An impressive CV in itself.
But it’s what Gareth has done off the pitch
“I WANT TO REMEMBER WHAT IT’ S LIKE TO LIVE AGAIN”
that we’re celebrating. In 2009, he made history when he publicly came out, becoming the fi rst openly gay rugby union professional.
An Attitude cover feature followed not long after, in which he spoke about wanting to be “the gay role model [ he] never had”.
In 2012, he stripped down for our Naked Issue, encouraging people to get tested for
HIV, and in 2014 he posed with his thenpartner for a third cover.
In September of this year, Gareth was in the headlines again, for a diff erent kind of coming out — one altogether more game changing.
After a tabloid newspaper threatened to reveal his secret, Gareth chose to take control of his narrative and tell the world that he is living with HIV. He posted a video on Twitter, saying “it’s mine to tell you, not the evils that make my life hell,” and gave an interview to the Daily Mirror.
The following day, he completed a gruelling Iron Man challenge in Tenby, Wales, cheered on by crowds and overwhelmed by emotion as he collapsed into his husband Stephen’s arms at the end of the 140- mile triathlon.
His journey, from tentative fi rst steps to the fi nal stages of his coming out, was caught on camera for a BBC documentary, Gareth Thomas: HIV and Me. Released just a few days after the Iron Man event, it’s a visceral watch as Gareth revisits his past, confronting his fears and, fi nally, embracing his future.
“The reason I’m doing this is because I want to remember what it’s like to live again,” he states at the beginning of the programme.
“I want to remember what it’s like to feel free, and by doing that, I want to empower so many other people who are in exactly the same position as me, and probably 10 times worse, to be able to feel free as well.
“And to do that, I have to educate myself, I have to be strong. I have to be, at the end of it, a completely diff erent person to the person I am now… what I want to learn, more than anything, is that I’ve got HIV and it’s OK.”
During the hour- long documentary, Gareth talks about his father being door- stepped by a journalist, before the star had told his parents about the diagnosis himself.
In one scene, he meets actress Samantha Womack, with whom he’d bonded during a pantomime production -- while struggling with the burden of his status. “You were trapped,” she recalls. “You looked hunted.”
And hunted is what he was.
Despite the fact that HIV is a perfectly manageable condition — Gareth explains that a single pill is all it takes to make the virus undetectable and therefore untransmittable — the ugly and outdated stigma that persists has been made apparent in recent weeks, fuelled by sensational, homophobic reporting from certain corners of the press. The shadow of the Eighties “Don’t Die of Ignorance” tombstone adverts looms large, even in 2019.
As Professor Chloe Orkin, a consultant in HIV medicine, tells Gareth, “There are no public health campaigns from the government saying ‘ U= U, you cannot pass it on’.”
But Gareth’s desire to use his story to educate both LGBTQ and straight people about the modern- day realities of HIV is a powerful driving force that motivated him to stay on course with his plan to publicly reveal his status. “We’ve got to move on from the myths of the Eighties, to the truths of today,” he says, determinedly.
Following his announcement, which prompted Prince William and Prince Harry to call him “courageous” and a “legend”, Gareth tells Attitude that he’s been “overwhelmed” by the public reaction.
“I feel so humbled and I am so grateful to everyone out there who has supported me,” he says. “My reasons for doing this were to help others, in terms of educating people and to help those living with HIV. If my announcement has helped with awareness of this, then it was worth it.
“I want others t o feel proud of who they are and not be afraid.”
At one point during the documentary, on the eve of the Iron Man, he tears up thinking about how his life is about to change. “Maybe tomorrow will be all right,” he manages to say.
And for many people living with HIV, Gareth’s bravery makes that “maybe” a little bit more lik ely.
His willingness t o become a r ole model will help t o make their f utures a little bit easier, a little bit brighter , and, hopefully, a little bit more positiv e.