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

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

Alongside his impressive, record-breaking career on the rugby field – including captaining the Wales national team – Gareth has also been praised for raising awareness of issues surrounding queer identity, mental health and the destigma of HIV.

For his latest venture, the rugby pro has teamed up with Ford for a new series of videos aimed at that Combating discrimination in sectors that are stereotypically male-dominated.

“Tough Talks is about sitting down with people and giving them a safe space where they feel like they can speak up about the issues that come up in a very, very macho and sometimes toxic environment of masculinity,” he explains.

“We try to reconcile the culture of this industry with 21st century thinking and living. And try to make change because culture can break people and prevent them from being authentic. And to be successful you need a diverse work environment, you need people who can be authentic, you need people who are able to be the best version of themselves.”

To mark Pride Month, HuffPost UK spoke to Gareth about how Queer As Folk offered a glimpse into a world he “only dreamed of” before it came out, why It’s A Sin was both “addictive” and “disturbing” was. Watch and his admiration for Blackpool’s Jake Daniels…

Who was the first queer person you looked up to?

I feel like growing up I hid from a lot of LGBT icons because I was afraid of being “guilty by association”. So I kind of hid myself.

But someone I would say right now is H Watkins from Steps, who’s a really good friend of mine. He’s probably not someone people would think [I would say]’Cause he ain’t nobody I grew up with He’s even younger than me! It sounds really bizarre because I’m sure people would think, you know, Peter Tatchell or Ian McKellen or someone.

But to 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 area that I know .

H on stage earlier this year
H on stage earlier this year

Joseph Okpako via Getty Images

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

Oh my god, well I wasn’t out then, but I remember watching Queer As Folk when it first came out about 20 years ago. And it was like a glimpse into a world I had ever dreamed of exploring or being in. It was a very interesting watch for me.

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

Queer as a people

Which song do you associate with your own coming out?

The Freemasons remix of Here Comes The Rain Again by The Eurythmics and I will always remember it because it played the first time I walked into my first gay club.

The reason it resonated with me is because that was the first moment I really saw that people didn’t care what other people thought of them. It felt like I was standing there for the first time in my life, looking around and feeling really liberated. Whenever I hear this song, I have this memory of seeing people smile, seeing people holding hands, seeing people not afraid to be themselves.

What was the last LGBTQ+ show or movie that impressed you?

It has to be It’s A Sin, without a doubt. For me, when I saw It’s A Sin, as much as I was addicted and dying to see it, I also found it quite disturbing. I live with HIV myself and know many people from this generation through my current work. They told me stories but seeing how it played out and the reality of what it was made it come to life a lot more.

I’ve really appreciated the time I’m living in now, the fact that I can now live on medication. But I also felt so connected and helpless to the people who lost their lives in a horrible, horrible way. They spent the rest of their lives locked in a room after diagnosis, or discriminated against, or with people they didn’t want to touch.

[Seeing] the reality of what happened and with my connection to it I wish I could have done something then, but it also made me more determined to realize ‘at least I can do something now’. It gave me a sense of motivation, but also a sense of sadness that people had to go through this.

And I made sure everyone I spoke to saw it because I wanted to make sure we never go back to times like these. In society, there’s always a chance that when we relax or stop talking about things, we can easily revert to the way things were.

The cast of Channel 4's It's A Sin
The cast of Channel 4’s It’s A Sin

via PA Features Archives/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 his limits. He would wear a dress if he woke up and felt like he wanted it – it didn’t define him, he just felt like he wanted to wear one. He had tattoos and piercings and to me it felt like he was someone who wasn’t ashamed of his identity. And if his identity didn’t match what someone else thought was right, that was someone else’s problem, not his.

I was such a sports fan, and I think having a sports icon – which he was back then – who was pushing the boundaries and boundaries of what people assumed every athlete should be or look like or wear or say was very important to me iconic. He didn’t play by the rules and he didn’t break the rules, he just made his own rules.

Dennis Rodman at the VMAs in 1995
Dennis Rodman at the VMAs in 1995

Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images

Who is currently a queer public figure that excites you about the future?

It has to be Jake Daniels, the footballer. I was kind of blown away when I read that it came out. It was such a brave decision – he’s 17 and just signed pro. I was so immature at 17, and showing that maturity and bravery at such a young age makes him such a positive role model for this generation – and everyone else.

And now, whether successful or not, he can look in the mirror and say, “I gave myself every chance.” Because if he had failed and not spoken out about his sexuality, he could have asked himself, “Would I have succeeded if I had been authentic?”. The fact that he’s willing to face that limelight and that pressure, that he’s willing to accept the failures or the successes while being himself is such a positive message for the future I think.

Jake Daniels
Jake Daniels

Lee Parker – CameraSport via Getty Images

Why do you think Pride is still important today?

There are so many reasons. For me, Pride was not created or born out of a need to celebrate, but because I’m 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, no one in this world can sit down and say there is no 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 transcend borders and communities. And it gives people hope. When I go to a Pride, I don’t go to celebrate being gay, I go [to celebrate] my right to exist without being prosecuted for it.

Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas

Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

What is your message to 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 want the next generation of people to realize that it’s okay not to be liked because you’re authentic, but it’s not okay to be liked because you’re a version of who you are other people think you should be them.

I feel like life will be a lot easier for everyone if people don’t feel the need to lie about who they are.

Watch Gareth Thomas and Ford’s Tough Talks video below: Gareth Thomas: ‘I Want To Make Sure We Never Go Back To The Way Things Were’

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