Gareth Thomas. One of the most capped Welsh rugby players ever to take to the field for his country. The second highest try scorer in Welsh rugby history. Patriot for his beloved Wales. Lynchpin to his team. And gay.
Bridgend. A small town near Cardiff. The hometown of Gareth Thomas. A community with a passion for Rugby. A community who supports each other. A community that sadly became known to the wider world for a number of suicides amongst young people towards the end of the last decade. And a community who believes that the media handling of the tragedy didn’t help.
On the eve of one of the biggest matches of his career, Thomas received a warning that The Sun newspaper was going to out him as gay. Thomas, who had hidden his sexuality for years was about to be exposed. From the age of 16, Thomas knew he was gay, but the perception of the macho world of rugby not being one where he was able to be open about his sexuality is something that dogged him. After years of struggling with his sexuality, he came out to immense support and has gone on to be one of the most famous, openly gay sportsmen, inspiring many with his frank and honest account of the impact on his emotional health and how his internal struggle caused him to contemplate ending his life.
The stories of both Bridgend and Gareth Thomas coming out are told in the new play, Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, co-produced by acclaimed theatre company Out Of Joint, National Theatre Wales and Arcola Theatre, with Sherman Cymru. Assisted by Thomas throughout the development and rehearsal of the play, and after universally positive reviews in Wales, the play is now preparing to embark on a national tour at a number of venues around England. Crouch Touch Pause Engage is not just the story of Gareth Thomas. It is a play which also addresses and gives a voice to the young people from Bridgend. The negative press associated with the area at the time of the spate of teen suicides was not dissimilar to the way in which the lives of people in the public eye are often pulled apart in many negative ways when details of their private lives are brought into the public arena.
The play had its world premiere in February in Cardiff, where Gareth Thomas attended with his family and friends. Directed by Max, Stafford-Clarke; a keen scrum half himself; the play was written by his regular collaborator Robin Soans. Robin is really well known for his successful “verbatim” plays, based on extensive interviews with real people. Previous projects have seen Robin meeting with everyone from terrorists and their victims to Neil and Christine Hamilton. The human focus of both writer and director is what makes this play work so well.
Just before its English premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Gareth Thomas spoke to The Gay UK’s Paul Szabo about coming out in sport, treading the boards and why you need bookends.
TGUK – Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is your story. Why do you feel that a play telling your story is important and why was it equally important to include aspects about the story of Bridgend?
GT – 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; just as I’m willing to fight for mine; is a good place to be in. I think mine is a positive story that people can look at and think ‘yeah, I can do that too’.
TGUK – Why did you choose to work with Out of Joint and National Theatre Wales? What was it about these companies which made you think “I trust these people to tell my story”?
GT – I was approached by Max Stafford-Clark, a theatre director who I respect tremendously and then heard about his vision for the play, it was an easy choice to make. I am really proud of the play, Max and the team have done an amazing job. I really enjoyed the opportunity to have my story told in an honest and open way.
TGUK – Given that you travel to a lot of different places, does that give you different perspectives on gay rights both at home and abroad?
GT – So many people are willing to say that everything’s okay but not to show that everything’s okay in their actions or in what they do or say. 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? Is it okay that there are other places where people are afraid to live their life the way they want to?
TGUK – Do you still encounter any homophobia?
GT – Not so much now, but I am a much stronger person than I used to be. At first, it was always something I was mindful of. 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.
TGUK – Did your training and discipline as a sportsman help you block out the bad stuff?
GT – 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.
TGUK – I would imagine that watching other people openly portray what can be difficult times in your life can feel very uncomfortable and bring back a lot of memories and emotion. When watching Touch, Crouch, Pause, Engage for the first time, how did it make you feel?
GT – It was incredibly moving and powerful; it actually surprised me to react as I did. Seeing someone play me was very surreal.
TGUK – This is clearly a very personal project whereby you worked very closely with this production. How did the cast and crew of the play benefit from working so closely with you during the development and rehearsal process?
GT – I wanted to give my personal input as much as possible to make sure it was as authentic as possible. I enjoyed the whole process.
TGUK – You have previously spoken very openly about your struggle with your sexuality and your book, Proud, talks frankly about you coming to terms with being gay, you wanting to end your life and your feelings of betraying those around you. Whilst coming out is an incredibly personal process that impacts on people in different ways, a lot of people may have felt; or may feel; like you have done historically. What advice would you give to anyone who is struggling with their sexuality?
GT – 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. Everyone’s story is unique and everyone’s circumstances are different, but I hope that by reading my story it can give someone the confidence to be honest about who they are.
TGUK – In an interview with BBC Sport in 2009, you said “I’d love for [being gay], in 10 years’ time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: ‘So what?”. Whilst we are not quite 10 years on, there appears to be more sportsmen and sportswomen coming out. People like Tom Daley, Michael Sam (NFL player) and Simon Dunn (Bobsledder) have all come out accompanied by a huge amount of public support. Do you think it is now easier for sports people to come out than it was a few years ago?
GT – I don’t think it’s easy but with each new person that comes out it definitely will be helping others. 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’. To me it’s important not just that a professional rugby player could potentially come out, it’s important 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.
TGUK – When you came out, you spoke of the support you received from teammates Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams; and in September 2014, you spoke to Wales Online about the historic incident with Castleton fans saying “even today, I need only close my eyes to recall the braying ignorance of those cowards, who sought refuge in anonymity and sheer weight of numbers. It was a form of mass bullying which made bile rise to my throat.” Do you think that education in schools now will help future generations of gay sports players and their team mates, or do you think that there will always be an element of the pressure of the views of the fans shaping the players attitudes and perception of sexuality in sport?
GT – I think education in schools is a really positive way forward. Fans and the mob mentally will always exist, but you can always hope that in the future it will improve and someone won’t experience what I did. 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.
TGUK – So do you feel a responsibility to the gay sportsmen and sportswomen?
GT – 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.
TGUK – Do you miss playing rugby and still keep your hand in the game, or is your time spent more focussing on your media projects, motivational speaking and charity work?
GT – Rugby was my life for so long and although I have other interests now too, it is still a big part of my life and I do a lot of rugby media work.
TGUK – And your patriotism for your beloved Wales is legendary…
GT – One of the best things I did was move away to London 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.
TGUK – Has Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage and Cinderella whetted you appetite for more acting roles?
GT – It’s something I would definitely not say no to, I love a challenge so who knows!
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is now on national tour and full details and information can be found on the play’s website at www.outofjoint.co.uk . It the tour commences at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from 31st March 2015 to 4th April 2015.
Tickets for this venue can be booked viawww.wyp.org.uk. The play then continues tour then continues nationally, visiting the following venues:
Watford Palace Theatre, Watford from the 8-11 April;
Gulbenkian Centre, University of Hull from the 14-18 April;
Liverpool Playhouse from the 21-25 April;
Felsted School, Essex on the 27 April;
Stahl Theatre, Oundle School, Peterborough from the 28-29 April;
The Leys School, Cambridge on the 30 April;
Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on the 1 May;
Northcott Theatre, Exeter from the 5-9 May; and
Arcola Theatre, London from the 20 May – 20 June
Read the entire interview from the forthcoming issue 11 of TheGayUK – subscribe now.
INTERVIEWED BY: Paul Szabo
In between visits to the theatre, watching films, photography, walking, scuba diving and singing (badly); Paul writes for TheGayUK.