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Saturday 11 April 2015

Review: Gareth Thomas' Proud

Posted in: Books
By Jacqui Stanford - 17th October 2014

Move Gareth Thomas’ new autobiography to the top of your list of books to tackle. The hardman of Welsh rugby’s story of the torturous hiding of his sexuality, and the light he was greeted with when he threw open the closet doors, is heartfelt and enlightening.

Thomas made history as the first man still playing a professional team sport to come out. As he reveals in Proud, it was far from an easy journey. He was a teenager starting to realise he was into men as his rugby career was taking off. What should have been moments of joy, like making the Welsh national team, became moments of terror and self-loathing, as he hid his secret.

The compelling autobiography begins with Thomas in a state of despair, when his wife Jemma has left him, after they’d impossibly tried to stay together after he told her he was gay.

Thomas had felt like he’d be living as a chameleon, as he was a rugby bloke on the record, while sneaking off to London’s gay bars under the radar, playing “a game of hide and seek from hell”, but embraced and protected by the community, in what he admits he was lucky was a pre-social media era.

Thomas details the stories behind his many tattoos in the book
Proud is not the usual watered-down, dull modern sports bio. Thomas is honest. He tells it like it was. He discusses the meat-headed initiation rituals and general rugby culture that simply pushed him further into the closet, the more he rose in a game where opposition players were ‘poofs’ and ‘benders’. Yet it was a rugby world which was paradoxically, ultimately welcoming – summed up the best by a hug from a prop who threw his arms around him and would not let go, in an unspoken message of love and acceptance, after he came out.

While the book has plenty of rugby elements, they focus on personalities, politics and his thoughts on the changes in the game. There are of course plenty of New Zealand links. We find out about his state of mutual dislike with former Welsh coach and now New Zealand national hero Graham Henry, how he credits current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen with saving his international career, and about what a simple supportive exchange with a New Zealand player meant to him after he came out.

And that’s what this book is really about – the constant daily struggle he lived before finally coming out and the incredible impact it then had on so many. Thomas shares some of the countless letters he received, including one from a man named Gareth who threw on a pink shirt and came out to his family, because if Gareth Thomas could, he could too.

You can’t help but wonder though, would it all have been very different if Thomas had come out at 18, as a nobody – unproven as the ultimate in what our society hails as one of the highest echelons of masculinity, as one of the toughest players in world rugby. He addresses this in an honest letter to his teenage self which closes the book. You’ll have to have a read for yourself to find out what the answer is.

Proud is out now.
Jacqui Stanford - 17th October 2014

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