To the outside world it appeared like Gareth Thomas had it all. He was a national hero and a sporting icon having been captain of Wales and the British Lions.
To him rugby was an expression of cultural identity, a sacred code. It was no mere ball game. It gave him everything, except the freedom to be himself.
Gareth's autobiography is the story of a man with a secret that was slowly killing him. Something that might devastate not only his own life but the lives of his wife, family, friends and teammates. The only place where he could find any refuge from the pain and guilt of the lie he was living was on the pitch, playing the sport he loved. But all his success didn't make the strain of hiding who he really was go away. His fear that telling the truth about his sexuality would lose him everything he loved almost sent him over the edge.
The deceit ended when Gareth became the world's most prominent athlete to come out as a gay man. His gesture has strengthened strangers, and given him a fresh perspective which he now feels strong enough to talk about.
Living a Lie:
Rugby League - England v Australia - Rugby League World Cup 2013 Group A - Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales - 26/10/13 Wales' Gareth Thomas during the opening ceremony. Credit: Action Images / Paul Harding Livepic
Gareth was, and still is one of the biggest figures in rugby. He became Wales' third most-capped player, the twelfth highest try scorer in the world and one of very few to notch up four tries in a single match.
After captaining both the Grand Slam-winning team and the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, Gareth made the switch to Rugby League. Proving the doubters wrong, he put in a number of bravura performances before a serious arm injury finally ended his rugby career.
"My career was very public. But behind what was happening on TV and whilst I was wearing the proud rugby jersey of Wales, I was, I suppose, slowly dying" said Gareth Thomas in a moving interview with BBC Radio 5 Live recently.
Gareth Thomas' decision to talk publicly about his homosexuality made him the first openly gay professional rugby player however until now, the only Gareth Thomas that the public really knew was the character that he created to mask his true identity.
Gareth, who was often known whilst he was playing rugby as Alfie says that the Alfie character that he created was the epitome of what people would expect the stereotypical rugby player to be; the macho man who plays rugby, stays up drinking and will always have his friends back if needed.
He was given the nickname Alf, the Alien Life Form after the central character of an American kids’ TV programme that was popular whilst Gareth was still in his teens. "We were watching one day after school when Stephen Hughes, one of my mates from the estate, suddenly exclaimed, ‘You look exactly like him.’ Since Alf was huge, with pronounced ears, a pig’s snout and a gorilla’s torso, it wasn’t meant as a compliment", he writes.
Although Gareth admits that Alfie does make up small part of who the real Gareth Thomas is, the Alfie that the public knew was merely a flash of what he thought the most socially accepted side of him would be.
Laid bare in his honest autobiography, the picture that we once painted of Alfie seems a far cry from what was actually going on in his mind and behind closed doors.
In the opening passage to his recently released autobiography, Proud, Gareth talks in detail about a suicide attempt. "I wanted to be a beautiful corpse. My eyes were red-rimmed, milky and stagnant. They started accusingly from the mirror as I bathed them with cold water, forcing me to focus on the image of someone I had come to despise. He was weak, deceitful and dangerous. The least he could do for those whose love he had betrayed was to have a decent death', he recalls.
Thankfully, Gareth never followed through the "fantast fatality."
Gareth has said that he is not sure if it was because he was gay that he was feeling such depression, but believes it was the lie that was crushing him. The lack of honesty with his wife at the time, his teammates and his friends and his family that was becoming too much for him to take.
"The sea was grey and merged with the horizon. Standing there, on the edge of the cliff, it all seemed so easy. A single step and I'd walk off, into the sky. No more pain. No more loneliness. No more lies. No more causing chaos for people that I loved". Gareth Thomas
Gareth says that whilst he was coming to terms with his secret and if and how he would ever let it out, he actually didn't care about himself. In fact he regards himself as having been almost irrelevant. There were a handful of people that were certainly not irrelevant however; his wife at the time, his family, his close friends and team mates. "I felt like I was turning their lives into hell and that's what bothered me more than anything," he writes.
The turning point:
Gareth said that he first really knew that he was different at a very young age, but accepting it came much later, admitting that it is only really in the last few years that he has accepted fully that he is gay.
From reading his book it is apparent that lots of the feelings that he was facing came back to his love for rugby. Gareth told Radio 5 Live that at the same time as he first acted on his urges, he was playing rugby with friend and player, Glenn Webbe.
Webbe, a black team mate of Gareth's had faced tormenting racism throughout his rugby career, even having bananas thrown at him as he played on the pitch. Experiences like this filled Gareth with fear and he found himself wondering whether similar torment would be aimed at him should his secret ever get out. If they were allowed to do that to Glenn, "what would they do to me?" asked Thomas.
"The word 'gay' still made me shudder. It had terrorised me from my late teens, when I first played along with the idea that I was one of the lads, out on the pull with a bellyful of beer", Gareth Thomas.
A five year marriage:
Gareth's ex-wife Jemma unsurprisingly features prominently in the book. His autobiography tells his story of how he confessed to his childhood sweetheart wife Jemma in 2006 that he had been secretly homosexual throughout their five-year marriage.
Prior to that and the reason that Gareth got and stayed married in the first place was because he believed that if he did everything right in the marriage, including really meaning his vows, then god would answer his questions and prayers and everything would be OK. Five years into the marriage and Gareth finally realised that everything was far from OK.
In the book he tells the story of the night that he returned home from playing rugby, to find that Jemma had finally walked out on him. “A form of madness gripped me that first night after Jemma left. I needed her presence, so I invented it. I climbed into her wardrobe, and sprayed her favourite perfume, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, around the interior.
I pulled her clothes off the hangers and shelves, and buried myself in them. In my warped state of mind, it was my only way of getting her back. I sensed her spirit, savoured her scent. I was in her space, her sphere," he wrote.
Once it had sunk in that she really had gone for good, Gareth says that he missed her so badly, and hated himself for what he had inflicted on her. Despite the seeming betrayal, Gareth still stands by the fact that he truly loved his ex-wife and although he understands that many will not get it, he says that Jemma was his soul mate and she in fact saved his life several times over by making it bearable.
Telling his story, Gareth talks intimately about how much strength is involved in coming out. "I hated it, because I became increasingly introverted every time I’d hear the word ‘gay’, or a similar term used in a derogatory fashion. I would retreat deeper into myself, and use my discomfort to justify my lies. How could I tell the truth when such casual ‘banter’ was so widespread? It was all part and parcel of the laddish vocabulary of the game," says Gareth.
Speaking about his future and his relationship with partner Ian, Gareth says that "it differs massively [to former relationships] because I can be myself, there’s not a part of me lying at all".
"Although I had a great relationship with my ex-wife. I know in my heart of hearts that this is probably the rest of my life with Ian. I knew deep down when I was lying before in a relationship that it could potentially blow up in my face but with this one it feels like the final piece of the jigsaw," Gareth told Attitude magazine earlier this month.
Gareth, who says that he has finally reached a place of refuge, believes that his final duty is to show a "frightened young man the way there" and he hopes that his honest recall of painful times and memories that made his journey will go some way to doing just that.
Gareth admits that writing this autobiography was one of the most difficult things he has ever done in his life, visiting times and places in his life that he never ever wanted to revisit. However now, finally after all of those years, "it means so much to my partner Ian and me that we are accepted as a couple. Yvonne and Barrie, the best Mam and Dad in the world. Everything I’ve done has been for them. I hope I’ve made them proud" says Gareth.
Gareth's autobiography Proud can be purchased here.