This year, a new play told the story of rugby player Gareth Thomas, one of the world’s most prominent gay sportsmen. Jim White looks at how public attitudes have changed over the past decade
Broadcasting himself via a breathless Youtube video, in December 2013 the Olympic diver Tom Daley revealed that he was in a relationship with a man. What followed was telling.
As his news hit the water, far from a giant wave of indignation, there was barely a ripple of disapproval. Even in this era of Twitter, when trolling has become a national pastime, the most common reaction was to offer the personable young man good wishes for the future.
Tom Daley came out in December 2013 (Rex)
Certainly not for a moment did anyone suggest that his ability to tumble artistically from heights up which few of us venture unless aboard an aircraft would be compromised by his sexuality. He was left alone to pursue his aim to win gold in Rio in 2016 almost entirely free of negativity.
Which is not what happened to John Amaechi when he revealed he is homosexual back in 2002. Raised in Stockport, Amaechi had enjoyed a hugely successful career in the National Basketball Association in the United States; during the late nineties, he was consistently the highest paid Briton involved in team sport anywhere in the world.
But when, immediately after retiring, he disclosed in an interview that he was gay and had been throughout his ball bouncing career and thus became the first professional basketball player ever to admit as much, the ordure unleashed in his direction was close to unrelenting.
John Amaechi on the court (Getty)
“Every day,” he recalls, “I would have someone ringing me up to inform me I was a disgusting human being.”
It was not just his morals that were impugned, either. His very influence as a sportsman was questioned.
The NBA player Tim Hardaway summed up the view held by many that the presence of someone gay in the dressing room would somehow detract from the purpose of the game: “I wouldn’t want him on my team,” said Hardman of Amaechi. “If you have 12 other ballplayers in your locker room that can’t concentrate because he’s there, it’s going to be hard to win.”
Tim Hardaway (AP)
Amaechi and Daley’s experiences were barely a decade apart. Yet they may as well have occurred in different centuries. What happened in between to shift perception, to make the wider attitude to gay sports people more tolerant, more accepting, more, well, indifferent to difference, could be summed up in two words: Gareth and Thomas.
Earlier this year a new play opened at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff called Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage. Written by Robin Soans, directed by Max Stafford Clarke and staged by the National Theatre of Wales, it dramatised the tale of the former Welsh rugby captain and his decision in 2009 to step out of the closet. According to Thomas himself this is “a great Welsh story about sport, politics, secrets, life and learning to be yourself.”
Gareth Thomas paved the way for gay men in sport (Rex)
And, as is revealed in a work written in collaboration with its subject, learning to be himself was no easy process for the man who won 100 international caps for his nation. Thomas had known he was attracted to men from about the age of sixteen. But, convinced that to admit it would compromise progress in the game he loved, he hid his self-doubt behind a carapace of aggression.
He subsumed himself into his work, becoming renowned as one of the hardest, toughest, most brutal players in a hard, tough, brutal sport. Hewn apparently from granite, with the snappy temperament of an underfed bull terrier, no-one messed with Thomas on the pitch.
Off it, though, he lived a double life. Unable to exercise the same sort of repressive control over his instincts as he did in the gym or in the game, he became a regular in the London gay scene. Ashamed of illicit Soho grapples undertaken without the knowledge of Jemma, his unsuspecting wife, Thomas was so weighed down with guilt, in 2007 he considered suicide. Twice.
Gareth Thomas on the pitch (AP)
Eventually, however, after being pursued by a tabloid newspaper threatening exposure, he realised deceit was no longer viable. He made a public proclamation of his sexuality. He knew what had happened to Amaechi. He was braced as if for a spear tackle by a twenty stone prop forward.
“I was doing something nobody had done before,” he says of becominghistory’s first still active rugby player to come out. “And if you’re the first to do something, you have to be prepared to take the sh*t for it.”
And indeed the reaction did astonish him. It was nothing like as negative as he anticipated. True, there were moments – such as a game in Yorkshire when members of the crowd shouted homophobic abuse – but they were rare almost to the point of invisibility. More to the point no-one suggested that this paragon of hardness was in any way inferior as a player simply because he was gay.
This was Gareth Thomas we were talking about. And as everyone in the game knew – occasionally to their cost – you didn’t mess with Gareth Thomas.
James Haskell on the pitch (Getty)
Assuming he would have to skulk away from the game, he instead found himself able to play for two more seasons until chronology inevitably caught up with him and he retired in 2011 at the age of 36. When he did, he could make legitimate claim that he had shifted public opinion.
James Haskell, the unreconstructed heterosexual England international, summed up the game’s feeling on the issue when he appeared semi naked on the front cover of the gay magazine Attitude in 2013.
“I hate the idea of people feeling they can’t just be themselves,” Haskell told the magazine. “And personally I wouldn’t give a sh*t if any of my team mates were gay.”
Olympic boxer Nicola Adams (Getty)
The widespread tolerance came, Thomas admits, as a huge relief to him. Keen to thank those who had been so thoughtful, he cheerfully acquiesced to every interview request, happily talking about his decision making. His autobiography “Proud” became a best seller. His story was optioned by Mickey Rourke who said he wanted to make a movie of his life. Now there is a play.
Meanwhile, on social media, he became a sort of unofficial gay agony uncle, regularly dispensing advice to those struggling with their identity.
“When I started doing Twitter, I realised there were so many people following me who were going through the same thing I was going through,” he says. “A lot of people were asking me questions, even though I was saying: ’Look, I’m not qualified, all I can tell you is what’s happened in my life’.”
According to Richard Lane of the gay rights lobby group Stonewall, the very public nature of Thomas’s coming out is what made him a highly influential figure.
“I have no statistics to back this up, but my sense is that what Thomas did made a huge difference,” he says. “It did really open the door. It did a lot to demonstrate the truth that you can be different, but of equal merit.
Rugby is a macho, manly sport and here was a gay man playing it to the highest level.”
The swimmer Ian Thorpe came out as gay (Getty)
Soon after Thomas came out, a steady trickle of other sports people made their sexuality similarly clear. Daley, the swimmer Ian Thorpe, the cricketer Steven Davies, the Olympic gold medallist boxer Nicola Adams, the footballers Robbie Rogers, Thomas Hitzlsperger, and the England women’s international Casey Stoney.
And in the US, there was the American footballer Michael Sam, who, right at the start of his career, made no secret of his gayness as he signed on for the St Louis Rams during the college draft in 2013.
It was a moment that encouraged President Obama to “congratulate Michael Sam and the Rams for taking an important step forward today in our nation’s journey.”
The gay American football player Michael Sam (Reuters)
For Richard Lane the increase in honesty can only prove beneficial. Not least for the sports people themselves.
“Sport is about getting the best out of people, making sure that every marginal gain is achieved,” he says. “If you are spending a significant part of your energy hiding what you did at the weekend, or who you were with at the cinema, that is energy wasted that should otherwise be focused on the process of winning.
The motto we at Stonewall present is that in the workplace people should be encouraged to be the best they can be. It is a motto that works particularly well in sport.”
One man, however, is not entirely convinced that being gay has ceased to be an issue in sport.
John Amaechi playing ball (EPA)
“Listen, Gareth did a remarkable thing to promote difference,” says John Amaechi of Thomas. “And of course he made it easier for people to follow him. I’m not denying that. But people do a weird extrapolation to suggest that somehow the business has changed. Well it hasn’t. And it won’t. Not with the same dinosaurs in charge.”
These days a practising psychologist, Amaechi suggests that the clearest indication that things have yet to improve institutionally comes in analysis of our national sport. There are 5000 professional footballers in this country and yet not one of them is known to be gay. Statistically that is highly unlikely.
But Amaechi – who claims he knows at least half a dozen current footballers wrestling with the issue – suggests that, whatever Thomas may have found, it is the announcement to the public while still trying to progress their career that puts off some from breaking cover.
Particularly the younger players.
Tom Daley is a gay icon (Getty)
“People have often said to me ’why didn’t you come out earlier?’” he says.
“Well, I wanted to come out since I was 11. But would the world have known who I was had I come out at 11? Not a chance. With all the hurdles I had to vault to become a professional sportsman, I didn’t need that as well. The fact is, you’re more likely to be hit by a meteor than to make it as a Premier League footballer, so why add another reason why you might not make it?”
Amaechi’s point is that Thomas was already well established, performing – like Daley – at the very pinnacle of his sport. His prowess as a player was unimpeachable.
We will know that things have properly and finally changed for the better when footballers starting out in their career, yet to be similarly recognised, can feel comfortable being themselves. Until then, the statistics will continue to suggest football is a gay-free sport.
“Look at Michael Sam,” says Amaechi. “Everyone congratulated each other on how tolerant they were when he was drafted. Obama saw him as this great symbol. He has barely played a game since. He is under much greater scrutiny because of who he is, his performance is much more analysed. And when there is any apparent weakness spotted, everyone can agree they know why.”
Michael Sam has barely played a game since he came out (AP)
Which is largely why Amaechi kept himself to himself throughout his career, with all that secrecy entailed.
“This is the strangeness,” he says. “The athletic environment is one where rules are different: you look at goal celebrations, take that out of the context of football and into a shopping centre, when does a guy do that to another guy in public? In the locker room nudity and frankly homo-erotic activity is the norm.
I found that more disturbing than encouraging, all that arse slapping. I didn’t like to join in, which oddly made me different. I had to keep quiet while they slapped each other’s arses. I’m sure that is going on in Premier League dressing rooms right now. It is frustrating, exhausting and an anti-cohesive way of going about things. I’m convinced the sense of resentment that built up within me was part of reason I wasn’t as good as I should have been.”
This ultimately is the point. Amaechi believes sport would be stronger if it could exercise full and proper tolerance, allowing some of its practitioners to develop to the best of their potential. If coming out were no more noteworthy than signing a new deal to promote a brand of boots, he says, then we would all benefit.
When Tom Daley came out, the response was overwhelmingly positive (Action Images)
Unlike Amaechi, however, Richard Lane of Stonewall is optimistic that such a time is growing ever closer.
“I think we have reached a position where coming out is treated with a shrug rather than outrage. There was no sense that Tom Daley was hammered for it. The response to him was overwhelmingly positive. Commercially, he remained as sought after. I think for a lot of people, the reaction was: you’re gay, so what? Which is exactly what it should be.”
And, if it is like that, if that is to become the established norm, then to Gareth Thomas will be due much of the credit.
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