On a night in late February, Gareth Thomas – former captain of the Welsh rugby team and the most famous gay team sportsman in the world – took his family and friends to a theatre press night. He’s no stranger, now, to shiny showbiz events but this was special. The play being premiered was Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, which tells his own extraordinary story, set against that of his hometown Bridgend, which has had its own share of the media’s attention.
For a play that contains its share of darkness, it also contains a lot of humour and there was a lot of laughter in the theatre that night – not least from Gareth’s own mother, who shrieked with shocked glee whenever the actor playing her caught one of her mannerisms. The sight and sound of Thomas’ family watching his story unfold is hard to beat as in image of acceptance. Although perhaps his reincarnation as a star of family pantomimes comes close. (“It’s great to be part of a team in theatre,” he says. “Even if it’s a smaller team than in rugby it’s still a team where you work for each other and help each other out.”)
Does this mean things have changed? Would it be easier today for a young player to come out?
“I’d like to think so. The fear I had was that no-one had done it before, so I had no idea if I was going to get any support. I had no idea what the crowd’s reactions or the reaction from my teammates would be, or from the press. When you’re the first person to do something, everybody is unsure of what to do. I went through some bad times, but the majority of it was good times and I’d like to think people can look at that and think ‘he did it, he got through it, he carried on playing, he didn’t lose much from it, in fact he gained a lot from it’. I think mine is a positive story that people can look at and think ‘yeah, I can too’.”
In Wales, rugby isn’t just a team sport. It’s the people’s game in the way football is in England. It’s the centre of communities, whether that community is a small town or the nation itself. That his coming out, while still a major player, has been so uncontroversial is heartening. But he remains a rarity. Thomas says it’s about more than just looking for the famous cases.
“To me it’s important not just that a professional rugby player could potentially come out, it’s that anybody can decide to take up sport. There are billions of people in the world that play sport and the fact that it could make a difference to a few of them is enough for me. I know for a fact there are a few people out there who’ve had the courage to join a team because of what happened with me.”
Does he feel an obligation then to gay sports people? “100 percent” he says, then qualifies it. “I never came out because I felt I had an obligation to a community – I had to come out because I felt I had no life left to live. But after coming out, I realised that I do have a responsibility to others, and I have to take it seriously. When you realise you could influence somebody else’s life, that’s a massive responsibility. I want to influence people. By doing positive things, and consistently giving positive messages the more people you can start to influence.”
His success has seen him travel, which must give him a perspective of how things are for gay people around the world and at home. Are we as progressive here as we like to think?
“So many people are willing to say that everything’s okay but not to show that everything’s okay. I’ve been to countries where people say, ‘You know, I don’t mind if there’s a gay rugby player or someone gay living in my street’ but they don’t want to be associated with them. I think we live in a world where everybody wants to say the right thing but actions speak a lot louder than words. There are something like 78 countries where it’s illegal to be gay. Is that okay? That there are other places where people are afraid to live their life the way they want to?”
Thomas is very famous now, and much loved in Wales. Does he ever encounter homophobia himself?
“Not so much now, but I’m a stronger person. When I came out I was very self-conscious. I’d be constantly looking out for how people looked at me or listening to someone who’d just walked past in the street to see if they’d say something. I didn’t want people to dislike me or judge me for my sexuality. In sport, you’re trying to please people all the time and it’s very hard to stop thinking that way. Now, if someone does have a problem with me, that person becomes irrelevant. That comes over time, and from realizing who your friends are.”
Did his training and discipline as a sportsman help him block out the bad stuff?
“It’s probably a hindrance. You need positive support to play well so it’s very hard to not to notice the negative stuff. If somebody is calling you something, repeatedly, you can’t ignore it.”
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage was the idea of veteran theatre director Max Stafford-Clark, himself a keen former scrum-half. It’s been written by his regular collaborator Robin Soans, well known for his successful “verbatim” plays, based on extensive interviews with real people. Previous projects have seen Soans meeting with everyone from terrorists and their victims to Neil and Christine Hamilton, who became unlikely celebrities after disgraced MP Neil was caught up in a cash-for-questions scandal.
As well as telling Gareth Thomas’s story, the new play gives voice to young people from his hometown, Bridgend, which hit the headlines a few years ago following a number of young suicides in the wider Bridgend area. Newspaper photographers and headline writers fell over themselves to paint a gloomy picture of the town. For someone who grew up there that must have been strange at best?
“To me, Bridgend is something everybody has – it’s a home. All my friends live there – it’s a friendly place, everybody is willing to do anything for everybody else. It’s a lively town, and it represents a lot of who I am. It’s a place that’s proud. It’s been through turmoil, but it’s willing to fight to keep its reputation strong. People on the outside may read an article or hear a story about a place, but that doesn’t define that place. A place that’s willing to overcome adversity, that’s willing to fight for its reputation as I’m willing to fight for mine is a good place to be in.”
Is he not tempted to move to somewhere bigger? London, perhaps?
“I did. One of the best things I did was move away for a while. I thought, there has to be more to life than going to the pub and seeing Dave in that corner because he’s always there and Jen behind the bar because she’s always behind the bar. So I went to London for about three years and I felt so alone it made me realize the thing I was running away from was exactly what I loved – that I can walk into the pub and know people or people can stop me in the street to talk about the rugby. I had to go away to realize what that meant to me and moving back was the best thing I ever did. I’m part of a community where I feel safe, and I’m proud to be part of it.”
Since coming out, Thomas has worked with a lot of young people in Wales and across the UK. What advice would he give to a young person struggling with the idea of coming out?
“It’s difficult to give generic advice, because coming out is such a personal thing. But the thing I would say is, I get a lot of credit for coming out but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my mum and dad and my friends. So I’d say, the best thing is to find two pillars – it could be your parents or close friends. And then you realize, the rest of the world could hate you but you’ve got someone to fall back on. And it will be alright. Find your support network, your failsafe. Your bookends. I was lucky – I had a great family and friends.”
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage plays at Arcola Theatre from 20th May – 20th June, in a co-production with Out of Joint and National Theatre Wales.