Gareth Thomas: 'All sport has a homophobia problem, but football is worst'
Former Wales rugby star speaks out about his long-running battle against hate after Euros abuse.
Gareth Thomas knows a lot about hate. When he came out as gay to his wife in 2006 and she left him, he hated himself. In 2018, he was the victim of a hate crime in his home city of Cardiff. He hates when people congratulate his parents and husband for standing by him since his HIV diagnosis, or call them "brave" just for loving him. And he has been on the pitch, and within the stands, as sports fans have spat out hateful, homophobic chants.
It's only because the 47-year-old rugby star, who gained 100 caps for Wales, knows so much about hate, though, that he cares so much about challenging it. He mentions this when explaining why people often forget to fight for causes that aren't their own: "We get trapped in our own little bubbles where we don't see all discrimination," he told JOE.
"If someone didn't have any black friends, they might not see racism. If you don't have any gay friends, you won't experience homophobia. If you don't have trans friends, no transphobia."
For this reason, he wasn't surprised by the hate speech that was directed at black England players following the team's Euros defeat to Italy. Their Instagram comments were flooded with monkey emojis and the n-word, murals of players were defaced and Twitter admins were forced to remove over 1,000 comments, suspending many of the accounts they came from. And while this hate was met with a tremendous amount of love - hearts and post-it notes on the mural, outpourings of sympathy from celebrities and fans, even a hug from Prince William - Gareth knows that this doesn't undo the hurt.
"We celebrate this moment, and we think that everything will be okay... but that person still has that lived experience. [The fans] don't often think of the consequences. And sometimes there aren't consequences."
Gareth, who represented Wales in both union and league and captained the British and Irish Lions, has been trying to enforce consequences for this kind of fan behaviour for years. Since witnessing homophobic chanting at a football game in 2017, he's been lobbying for the Football Offences Act to be amended to make homophobic chants illegal. (As it stands, racist chants are the only specific form of chanting outlawed by the 1991 act.)
Gareth's fighting this fight because he believes that all sport has a homophobia problem, but football is the worst of all.
"No fan should be completely painted [one way], but I've been in both environments. In Rugby, you get certain games and environments, like local derbies, where things can get extremely hostile or extremely personal. And other games you can mix the fans and everything's okay.
"But within football, there's never that same kind of match where people are okay and everyone's fine with each other. There's a lot of history within football and a lot of people following pack mentality, where they follow the chants of tens of thousands of other people behind them.
"People within football also kind of feel like 'well, my grandad stood here and my great grandad stood here, and he said these things hundreds of years ago, so I'm carrying the history on.' It doesn't much like change, football."
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Gareth, who retired from rugby in 2011, notes the two locations for the most recent and upcoming World Cups: Russia and Qatar. In Russia, same-sex marriage is currently illegal, and constitutional changes which state that "marriage is between a man and a woman" were approved by the electorate as recently as 2020. Male homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with a punishment of up to three years in prison and a fine and the possibility of the death penalty for Muslims under Sharia law - although there are no known cases of this happening.
"So yes," he said, "I believe sport has a problem, but football as a global game has one of the biggest problems for many, many reasons."
For someone who once attempted suicide, prayed to god to make him straight, and then later wanted to die because he was HIV positive, Gareth has become an activist more by force than by choice. When I ask him if he's ever been criticised for "making it all about being gay, instead of about sport" (a very common criticism from sports fans who clearly forgot to read page one of Homophobia For Dummies) he laughs and responds: "Absolutely loads."
"And where a lot of that came from, as well, is from within the LGBT community. It wasn't just heterosexual people. People were saying 'Why are you so special? Why should you have this platform?' about me and other sporting people.
"But we don't think we're any special. We talk about our experiences and, because we have a platform, our experiences are magnified. We don't claim to be any better. And we don't claim to be any worse than anybody else who's had a very similar story. What it is, is that we're underrepresented."
This is something Gareth touched on in his 2019 BBC documentary, "Gareth Thomas v Homophobia: The Legacy". Striding across a football pitch, he makes an obvious but explosive statement: "There are currently 5,000 professional male footballers in Britain, but none who are openly gay. When roughly 1 in 6 people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, how is this even possible?"
Gareth knows for a fact that there are gay professional footballers who are staying in the closet. This is why representation is so important, he says. "I just feel that there's a sense of jealousy in people, in saying, 'Well, why are we celebrating this person for being authentic?' You know, and it's because almost 50 years ago, to be authentic, for someone like me, was illegal."
While Gareth still says he receives some form of hate or ignorant comments on a relatively daily basis, ("Social media is very invasive like that," he told Joe), he has hope for the future of sports. One thing that has given him hope lately? Tom Daley.
The openly gay athlete won Gold at the Tokyo Olympics this week, touching the hearts of many who have followed his story since he came out in 2013, including Gareth Thomas. "His whole story - the way he spoke, everything. I think great sportspeople transcend sport, and that's exactly what he did."
Gareth Thomas is an ambassador for small business insurance provider Simply Business's Business Boost campaign – helping one self-employed person start, grow or revive their business with a £25,000 grant.