Gareth Thomas: 'I Want To Make Sure We Never Go Back To The Way Things Were'

·8-min read
(Photo: HuffPost)
(Photo: HuffPost)

(Photo: HuffPost)

Gareth Thomas is undeniably one of the most prolific and celebrated LGBTQ+ figures in the world of British sport.

In addition to his impressive, record-breaking career on the rugby pitch – which included serving as captain of the Welsh national team – Gareth has also received praise for having raised awareness of issues around queer identity, mental health and destigmatising HIV.

For his latest venture, the rugby pro has teamed up with Ford for a new video series which aims to fight discrimination in industries that are stereotypically male-dominated.

Gareth Thomas pictured in 2020 (Photo: ITV/Shutterstock)
Gareth Thomas pictured in 2020 (Photo: ITV/Shutterstock)

Gareth Thomas pictured in 2020 (Photo: ITV/Shutterstock)

“Tough Talks is all about sitting down with people and giving them a safe place where they feel they can air the problems that are around what is a very very macho and sometimes toxic masculinity kind of environment,” he explains.

“What we’re trying to do is get the culture of this industry up to speed with 21st century thinking and 21st century living. And try to create change, because culture can break people down and stop people being authentic. And to be successful, you need a diverse work environment, you need people to be able to be authentic, you need people to be able to be the best version of themselves.”

To mark Pride month, HuffPost UK spoke to Gareth about how Queer As Folk provided an insight into a world he’d “only ever dreamt of” before coming out, why It’s A Sin proved to be both an “addictive” and “disturbing” watch and his admiration for Blackpool’s Jake Daniels...

Who was the first queer person you can remember looking up to?

I kind of feel like I used to shelter myself away from many iconic LGBT figures when I was growing up, because I was afraid of being “guilty by association”. So I kind of hid myself away.

But someone I would say now is H Watkins from Steps, who’s a really good friend of mine. He’s probably not somebody that people would think [I would say], because he’s not someone I grew up watching. He’s even younger than me!  It sounds like a really bizarre one, because I’m sure people would think, you know, Peter Tatchell or Ian McKellen or somebody like that.

But for me, he has the same lived experience as me, he’s from the same area, he’s always celebrated who he is and he’s very active in fighting for the rights of LGBT people in the community and the area that I know.

H on stage earlier this year (Photo: Joseph Okpako via Getty Images)
H on stage earlier this year (Photo: Joseph Okpako via Getty Images)

H on stage earlier this year (Photo: Joseph Okpako via Getty Images)

What was the first LGBTQ+ TV show or film that you remember resonating with you?

Oh my word, well, I wasn’t out at the time, but I remember watching Queer As Folk when it first came out about 20 years ago. And it was like an insight into a world that I’d only kind of ever dreamt of exploring or being in. It was a very interesting watch for me. 

It pushed the boundaries and got people’s attention and got people talking about what it’s like to live in that community. I’m not sure if it scared me, or whether it excited me about the potential of, “OK, that’s what’s on the other side of the door if I dare ever unlock it”.

Queer As Folk (Photo: Channel 4)
Queer As Folk (Photo: Channel 4)

Queer As Folk (Photo: Channel 4)

What’s a song you associate with your own coming out?

The Freemasons’ remix of Here Comes The Rain Again by The Eurythmics, and I’ll always remember it because it was playing the first time I ever walked into my first gay club experience.

The reason it resonated with me was because that was the first moment where I really saw people not worrying about what other people were thinking about them. It felt like, for the first time in my life, I was standing there, looking around, and feeling really liberated. Whenever I hear that song, I have that memory of seeing people smiling, seeing people holding hands, seeing people not afraid to be themselves.

What was the most recent LGBTQ+ show or film that made an impact on you?

It has to be It’s A Sin, without a shadow of a doubt. For me, watching It’s A Sin, as much as I found it addictive and wanted to binge-watch it, I also found it quite disturbing. I live with HIV myself, and through the work I do now, I know a lot of people who are from that generation. They’ve told me stories, but to see it played out and the reality of what it was brought it to life a lot more.

I became very appreciative of the times I live in now, the fact that I can live on medication now. But also, I felt so connected to, and helpless for, the people who lost their lives in horrific, horrific ways. They spent the rest of their lives, after diagnosis, being locked in a room or being discriminated against or with people not wanting to touch them.

[Seeing] the reality of what happened, and with my connection to it, I wished I could have done something then, but also it made me more determined to realise, “at least I can do something now”. That gave me a sense of motivation, but also a sense of sadness that people had to live through that.

And I made sure that everybody that I spoke to watched it, because I wanted to make sure that we never go back to times like that. There is always a chance in society that if we relax or if we stop talking about things, it’s easy to fall back to the way things were.

The cast of Channel 4's It's A Sin (Photo: via PA Features Archive/Press Association Images)
The cast of Channel 4's It's A Sin (Photo: via PA Features Archive/Press Association Images)

The cast of Channel 4's It's A Sin (Photo: via PA Features Archive/Press Association Images)

Who is your ultimate queer icon?

Growing up, I loved Dennis Rodman so much. He was a great athlete, he was a great basketball player, but he also always pushed the limits. He would wear a dress if he woke up and felt like he wanted to – it didn’t define him, he just felt like he wanted to wear one.  He had tattoos and piercings and it felt, to me, he was someone who had no shame around his identity. And if his identity didn’t match what someone else thought it should be, that was somebody else’s problem to deal with, not his.

I was such a sports fan, and I think to have a sporting icon – which he was at that time – pushing the boundaries and the limits of what people assumed every sports person should be, or look like, or wear, or say, it was very iconic to me. He didn’t follow the rules, and he didn’t break the rules, he just made his own rules.

Dennis Rodman at the VMAs in 1995 (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images)
Dennis Rodman at the VMAs in 1995 (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images)

Dennis Rodman at the VMAs in 1995 (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images)

Who is a queer person in the public eye right now that makes you excited about the future?

It has to be Jake Daniels, the footballer. It kind of blew me away, reading about him coming out. It was such a brave decision – he’s 17 and he’s only just signed a professional contract. At 17 I was so immature, so to show that maturity and bravery at such a young age, makes him such a positive role model for that generation – and everyone else.

And now, whether he’s successful or not, he’ll be able to look himself in the mirror and say, “I gave myself every opportunity”. Because if he failed, and he hadn’t spoken about his sexuality, he could have been left wondering, “would I have been successful if I had been authentic?”. The fact that he’s willing to put himself under that spotlight and that pressure, he’s willing to take the failures or successes and through all of it being himself, I think that is such a positive message for the future.

Jake Daniels (Photo: Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images)
Jake Daniels (Photo: Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Jake Daniels (Photo: Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Why do you think Pride is still so important today?

There are so, so many reasons. For me, Pride was not created or born out of a need to celebrate but being gay, it was born out of a need to fight for the right to exist without persecution. And we still live in a world where there is discrimination, nobody in this world can sit down and say there is zero discrimination against the LGBT community. There are still 69 countries where it is still illegal to be gay.

There are far-reaching messages from these Pride festivals and marches, that transcends borders and transcend communities. And it gives people hope. If I go to a Pride, I don’t go there to celebrate me being gay, I go [to celebrate] my right to exist without being persecuted for it.

Gareth Thomas (Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)
Gareth Thomas (Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)

Gareth Thomas (Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)

What’s your message for the next generation of LGBTQ+ people?

Everyone goes through life wanting to be liked by everyone. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I’d like the next generation of people to realise that it’s OK to be disliked for being authentic, but it’s not OK to be liked for being a version of you that’s a version that other people think you should be.

I feel that if people didn’t feel the need to lie about who they are, life would be a lot easier for everybody.

Watch Gareth Thomas and Ford’s Tough Talks video below:

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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