Welsh sports star Gareth Thomas has been praised by the rugby community for his “brave” decision to announce his HIV status as he returned to the pitch to urge the nation to get tested for the virus.
Thomas was joined by the Duke of Sussex, a long-term HIV campaigner, at the ground of Premiership Rugby club Harlequins as he described telling the world about living with HIV as “empowering”.
He praised Harry for publicly getting tested a number of times – famously with superstar Rihanna in 2016 – while the Harlequins players paid tribute to the former Wales captain, saying the rugby community wanted to get behind him and his cause.
Thomas was the highest-profile sportsman in the UK to reveal he was gay when he came out in 2009 and in September he said he was forced to reveal his HIV diagnosis after a tabloid newspaper threatened to publish it.
In recent interviews he said he was driven to suicidal thoughts as a result of his diagnosis but Harry and his brother, the Duke of Cambridge, have praised Thomas for revealing he is HIV positive.
Thomas, who earlier was named as a member of the Terrence Higgins Trust’s new HIV Commission, said: “Going public with living with HIV has been very empowering and I want to help others to show them they don’t need to live in fear and live in shame, because you can still live with HIV and be healthy and live a normal life.
“The support from the royals has been magnificent. And it’s not just for me, it’s to show that we accept people living with HIV and that carries an enormous weight.”
Speaking about his new role with the commission, Thomas said: “This is something that I am unbelievably honoured about, becoming an HIV commissioner with a group of people who plan to end zero new transmissions of HIV in England in the next 10 years, and that’s the first country in the world to do that.”
He added: “I have a little platform, I don’t know how big it is but I know I have a platform, and I understood why there are so many people living in fear, living in shame, because I lived in fear and I lived in shame.”
During the visit, the duke and Thomas met players from Harlequins and others from London’s Kings Cross Steelers – who style themselves as the world’s first gay rugby club – chatted to amateur players and others living with HIV and watched a demonstration of an HIV test.
— Terrence Higgins Trust (@THTorguk) November 8, 2019
The event was held in south-west London at the Twickenham Stoop, home of Harlequins, ahead of National HIV Testing Week, which will run from November 16 to 22.
Harry said the issue of HIV and testing needed a figurehead like Thomas and joked: “We’ve been looking for somebody like this, arguably somebody better looking. This whole conversation, this topic has needed somebody like him for many, many years.”
Talking about the outdated 1986 “tombstone” Aids awareness campaign run by the Government, Harry added: “Within this (rugby) community and wider community, it’s a conversation that doesn’t really happen, people look back to the 1980s, to those commercials everybody is scared of.”
Rachael Burford, 33, who is a centre for Harlequins Women, said the rugby community wanted to get behind Thomas for his “brave” decision to announce he was HIV positive.
She added: “The rugby community wants to get behind him and support him but not just him, it’s actually supporting the issue of HIV – breaking down the stigma.”
The HIV Commission was set up by Terrence Higgins Trust and the National Aids Trust to develop independent recommendations towards ending all new HIV transmissions in England by 2030.
The number of HIV diagnoses in England have dropped to their lowest level since 2000.
Reductions in diagnoses have recently slowed – there was a 6% decline in new HIV diagnoses in 2018, compared to a 17% fall in 2017.
Ian Green, chief executive of the Terence Higgins Trust, said there was a significant spike in enquiries to the trust’s website, calls to their helpline and orders for HIV testing kits in the aftermath of Thomas’ admission he had HIV.