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Gareth Thomas ... the only openly gay male athlete
May 03, 2010
He's 6'3" and 225 pounds of muscle. He's broken his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and lost eight teeth. He's drunk his mates under the table and brawled by their side. He's been named to the Welsh national rugby team more times than any other man. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's ...
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May 03, 2010

Gareth Thomas ... The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete

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Rugby officialdom checked in, with the chief of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis, texting, "The world is yours now, you really are brave."

Then came his soon-to-be ex-wife's response from her new home in Spain, blared in the London press. "I couldn't feel prouder of him than I do now," Jemma said.

But the fans, Alf couldn't predict. Just how deeply did Wales believe in its deepest core value: that a man should never put on false airs, should be himself? He got a few wolf whistles at Swansea, but the vast majority of crowds cheered his name louder than ever. The newspaper and television coverage was unrelentingly positive. Support on the Internet came like a wave, 20,000 people signing up for a Support Gareth Thomas group on Facebook and a Twitter community gathering around him overnight, along with the expected sprinkling of scrum jokes. Letters thanking him poured in from across the world, from old gay men who'd lived in fear all their lives and young ones who'd abandoned sports. He became an instant spokesman, discussing homophobia at universities and on TV, partnering with ChildLine—a phone bank for youths troubled by sexuality and abuse—and becoming a patron of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month.

At last came the anvil. "Most right-thinking people would be appalled that sex in any form and sodomy in particular is being thrust down small children's throats, yet that is what Gareth Thomas is now promoting," declared Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, a small fundamentalist group. But by then the positive tide was so strong, Alf could shrug it off.

Paul Burston, the 44-year-old editor of the gay section of London's Time Out magazine and a fellow Bridgender, was floored. "I never thought I would live to see a gay rugby player from Bridgend, never mind one applauded," he says. "I fled that town because the rugby culture was so macho and brutal. Local coverage of anyone who was outed was almost always snide and mean. But there's been none of that with Alf. Something really deep is changing. There's still a lot of homophobia, but it's not something you let out in genteel company now. It's been stigmatized."

And Alf? He felt so energized that rather than retire, as he was preparing to do, he signed a two-year contract last month with Wrexham's Celtic Crusaders in northern Wales to play rugby league—a faster and even more physical version of the rugby union game he's played all his life. "It's like waking up on Christmas Day, walking down the stairs and seeing Father Christmas," he says. "The horizons are wide open. I'm like a teenager again. People keep asking, 'What's the negative of coming out?' But there's none so far.

"If this taboo had been broken before me, I would have known better. I created this hool monster that didn't exist. The fear of rugby being taken away from me, my hool life being taken away ... people talking about me behind closed doors ... I created it. It's mad. Now I know I'm not an alien and God isn't punishing me.

"I would love to help kids who are going through this, because we're all kids, butt. I want to be the gay role model I never had. The note I got from a guy who gave up rugby years ago because he was gay and has returned to playing it since I came out—that outweighs lifting the biggest trophy as captain of Wales.

"The e-mails and letters and Twitters I get tell me there is so much confusion, so many gay kids who love sports but get pushed away. A lot of the notes are from America. I love the United States, butt ... but why wouldn't the people who run your sports and who sponsor them make a public announcement that they welcome gay people and will support them? Because even if they feel that's bringing too much attention to something that should be a private matter, at this point that's what's needed."

Someday, a gay male athlete in a mainstream U.S. sport will step forward and cross the threshold that lesbian athletes did long ago. And when that day finally dawns, Alf has this crazy idea. He'd love to go to the U.S. and climb onto the highest rooftop with that guy. Not to jump off. To stand tall beside him, to break the link between homosexuality and weakness, and to scream, "I'm gay! He's gay! We're gay!" And see how far the echo carries.

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