It takes a lot to stop Gareth Thomas smiling these days. From the moment the 6ft 3in Welsh rugby legend walks into the room, his Cheshire cat grin seems to be permanently propping up his ears. In December, the 36-year-old became the first professional rugby player to come out as gay.
"I'm beaming. I'm constantly beaming," he admits, flashing a toothy grin, reconstructed after rugby took away his real incisors. "I always thought the world was a horrible place and that justified me lying. But what I found is the world isn't a dark place... The truth has set me free."
Unlike the Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens, who came out in 2007 ahead of the World Cup, Thomas chose to come out after he had retired as the captain of Wales and his career in rugby union was almost over. But his coach and team-mates knew the truth years before. "They were great. That was the start of realising that the people who I thought might boot me out actually closed ranks with me."
Thomas, who topped The IoS's Pink List last week, knows that what he did would be impossible for the probably hundreds of professional sports men and women who are still in the closet. Since coming out, Thomas, who now plays rugby league for the aptly named Crusaders, has been inundated with letters from high-profile athletes too scared to take the step he has.
"Other athletes all over the world have contacted me since, asking about the processes of coming out. I've spoken to maybe about 10 people, from various sports. A lot of them can't come out – literally – because their culture or religion or society doesn't allow them to. For me, the comforting thing is knowing that there are other athletes out there, but it is a shame that they don't feel they can come out."
Thomas, who is Wales's most capped international, keeps all his letters of support in three overflowing shoe boxes under his bed. "I would honestly give up every rugby achievement I've got for just one of those letters," he says. In one of the boxes is a letter from a retired professional rugby player in his eighties who kept his sexuality a secret. "It was a really touching letter. He said that he lived his whole life as a lie and never felt he could come out, because he thought that the wider world of rugby wouldn't accept him. He said that what I did gave him so much happiness because, although he didn't do it, he was so proud that someone actually did."
Despite all that support, as the only high-profile openly gay man in British sport, he admits it can be lonely. In football, Justin Fashanu is still the only well-known player to admit to being gay, and he ended up taking his own life. "The experience of Justin Fashanu doesn't promote coming out because it's a terrible story. Nobody wants to follow that, so another footballer now would have to walk in the dark like I had to, and make their own path."
Yet Thomas himself was close to following a similar journey. After coming out to his wife, Jemma, in 2006, he wanted to end his life. "I can remember sitting by the pool when Jemma had left me in France, and we'd split, and I was drinking vodka and trying my best to find the strength to just plop my head under the water. I was questioning who I was then, because I was thinking, 'I'm so pathetic, I haven't even got the guts to kill myself.' I had just lost the best thing that ever happened to me, and I thought I was going to lose rugby because people would start finding out I was gay."
Since his very public emergence from the closet, he has stayed in touch with his ex-wife, who he says has been "incredible". Their latest text exchange was after Jemma heard that Thomas was to be the subject of a Mickey Rourke biopic. Like many of his friends, her first question was about which actress would play her. "Even my binman thinks he's going to be in it."
No film of Thomas's life would be complete without the low points he has had since December. The worst came in his second match for the Crusaders, in March, when opposition Castleford fans screamed homophobic chants. "It was really tough. I remember being on the field and hearing the chanting, and my first thought was: 'Why did I do it?' I thought, I'm just standing here in the rugby field in a really lonely place." But what happened afterwards showed a real change in sport. Castleford was fined £40,000, which sent a clear message to the fans.
As for boyfriends, "there's not someone at the minute," he says, looking away shyly. "It'd be a barrier for me to knock down. I'm not sure if I'd be comfortable introducing someone as my boyfriend, because I never have before." But the issue is not just one of apprehensiveness – it is also a matter of practicality. "It's impossible for me to meet men. I play weekends, and that's when people go out and meet each other. I also live in Wrexham, which isn't exactly the gay capital of the world."
Before coming out, Thomas had always dreamt of living in London, but now he's not so sure. "I realised when I came out that, when we went out in London, I wanted to be in Wales because that's my home. At the pub back home, though there's no other gay men there, I'm accepted. I love to have a quiet pint and socialise with friends."
Although he's grateful for the welcome he has had from London's gay community, it is as if now he has been accepted he can return to being the rugby-mad boy from Bridgend. "I always want to stay the same Gareth Thomas: I'm a mammy's boy, I love my roots, and I don't want to stray from that. It's tough because now that I'm going off in different directions my feet are lifting off the ground a bit and I don't want to do that – I want to stay on the ground. It's scary, but it's also kind of exciting."
The Pink List 2010: Readers' reactions
Looking forward to your grey or beige list to "celebrate" heterosexuals... in the interest of equality.
Martin Luther King dreamt of a day where people will be judged "by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin". I hope we can get to a day where sexual orientation is as newsworthy as foot size.
I'm sure those included in the list are pleased someone remembered them. For others, it is a discussion point for the next pregnant pause.
So, Louis Spence is a stereotype and ends up on the naff list, while Alan Carr is lauded for an "Eva Peron" moment? What are you saying to gay kids who are not yet out – the gay community hates you as much as the guys bullying you at school!?
Well, at least Mandelson is no longer No 1. That he once was makes me very suspicious of lists such as this.
I rather enjoyed the Pink List. As I read it I found myself saying "I do love The Independent on Sunday". I am gay, yet found it inoffensive, fun and informative. Great stuff!
Gareth Thomas, great choice. Good to see Peter Tatchell get the recognition he deserves. Nice to see Julie Bindel in the Top 101 too. All in all, a pretty well-balanced Pink List.
Martyn Richard Jones
An extension of the gay stereotype of shouting "look at me – I'm gay!"
I hope for the day when there is no IoS Pink List because gay people are so much an accepted part of society that no one would read it. Until then, long may it demonstrate how much we benefit from all minority groups.
Only two women judges? And how come a 101-strong list has only 30 women? Like hell do I struggle for equality as a lesbian to quietly accept second place as a woman.
Next week can we have a list of the 101 influential ginger people and then 101 influential fat people?
Thoroughly entertaining. If I were a teenager again, I would be inspired at the freedom and openness these people deserve and enjoy.
Photo Credit By ANDY PARADISE and The Independent