Gareth Thomas and his parents: ‘As a family, we don’t live in the past’

Former Wales and Lions rugby captain Gareth Thomas grew up in Bridgend, Wales, with his parents, Yvonne and Barry, and two older brothers. A prominent force on the pitch since the late 90s, he’s arguably been an even more influential presence with his advocacy work. Since coming out in 2009, Thomas has raised awareness around LGBTQ+ representation in sports and mental health. He is working towards destigmatising HIV; first with his 2019 documentary HIV and Me, which explored his fear of sharing his diagnosis with the world, and now Tackle HIV, a campaign in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust. He lives near Bridgend with his husband, Stephen. For more information, visit tacklehiv.org and follow @TackleHIV.

This photo is from Benidorm – it was our first family holiday abroad, and I was about 10. That night we had a nice, posh meal, and a waiter with a big bushy moustache took our photo. It came in a cardboard frame – my parents paid an arm and a leg for it.

I was a really mischievous little boy – full of energy and easily led. As a result, our household was in chaos. Between me and my brothers, there was always a fight to be the alpha male. My parents had to control the carnage from the moment we got up to the moment we went to bed. But I was never spoiled, and knew how hard my parents worked for us. Even though I was given the opportunity to do lots of sports – from karate to boxing, there’s not a sport on this planet I didn’t try – I was taught that things don’t come for free. Because of my upbringing, I’ve never been allowed to be famous; I’ve never forgotten where I’ve come from.

It took me more than 20 years to understand and accept who I was. My parents have been the most important people in my life for 47 years. For me to all of a sudden say, “You know what? I am gay, I want to tell you this and accept it straight away,” I thought that was a selfish act. But they didn’t reject me, they just wondered: “Why did you feel you couldn’t tell us? Why did you feel you had to wait until you had no other option?”

When I found out I had HIV, I thought I was going to die. That’s what I’d taken from the adverts from the 1980s. I was in my parents’ car when a reporter told my dad about my diagnosis. I knew the press were on to me and had been for a few years, but what happened that day was a level too far down in the gutter. It was early in the morning and Dad was driving me to the station so I could go to work in London. As we pulled out of the drive, there was this guy standing in the road, and my dad, being the person he is, stopped to see if he was OK. He put the window down and the reporter stuck his head in and asked my dad to make a comment on the fact that his son was HIV positive.

It was a weird old car journey to the station. I fulfilled my commitment and went to work, but it was horrific. On the way back, on a packed train, in and out of tunnels, I was trying to tell my mother that what the journalist was saying to Dad was true, that I was HIV positive, but I would be OK.

That moment was taken from me. All I wanted was to sit down when I was ready and say, “You know what? I am not going to die. Your son is going to be around.” To have that conversation on a train, your signal cutting out, it’s not the way I wanted it to happen. It really hurt me.

Now, because of what we’ve been through, we are not afraid to educate people, or call people out if they talk about HIV in a discriminatory way. HIV doesn’t just affect gay men or people in Africa, and it can be treated. Family is massively important when it comes to tackling the stigma. The lack of understanding is a generational thing that’s passed down.

These days we are all very proud to be armed with this knowledge. It’s made me feel powerful.

This holiday was the result of a long trek. It’s the only way we could afford to take all our children abroad. But the kids thought it was wonderful. We had chocolate waffles every day. There were wasps chasing us. We had fun.

I worked with children in care, as a secretary, cleaned clothes and worked in the shop around the corner, to get extra money to give my three boys what they wanted. Gareth cost us a fortune in sports equipment, and was always in trouble at school. One report says: “Gareth seems to think he’s been put on this earth to entertain everyone” and, “He has the concentration level of a gnat.” It’s just the way he was; we didn’t need telling.

He left school at 15, as he never liked it. He did various jobs and was eventually offered his first professional contract – £200 a week and a secondhand Volvo. Barry said: “I’d stick with the Post Office, if I were you. This rugby thing is never going to take off.” Good job he didn’t listen.

When Gareth told me about his diagnosis, I assumed that was the end of him, because I didn’t know any better. Since then, we’ve learned a lot. I have been amazed by all the work that’s gone into finding new treatments – it’s never publicised, it’s as if HIV is still taboo.

Gareth has had some difficult times – if you thought what he’s said publicly [about his mental health] was bad, privately he was a hundred times worse. But, as a family, we don’t live in the past. What is done is done, and you can’t change it. All you can do is go forward, and even though I’ll never understand why that reporter had to do something so malicious, we’ve lived on, we’re coping with it and I love to see my son as happy as he is now. That’s the main thing. But, my God, we would never go on holiday together again. Me and Barry want some peace and quiet.

I remember the journey to the train station like it was yesterday. After the incident with the reporter, Gareth said: “Drive on, Dad, drive on.” Once we’d pulled over, he turned to me and told me: “Dad, I’m very worried. I don’t know what to do.” I said: “You can handle this, don’t worry. We can handle it.” I dropped him at the station and assured him that everything was going to be all right. After I’d got back home, I heard a knock on the door – it was the same reporter with his hand in his pocket; he had a dictaphone in there. I looked him dead in the eyes and closed the door. I didn’t speak a word to the man – the expression on my face said it all: clear off.

From the moment our boys were born, we’ve made sure we stay connected as a family, through thick and thin. When Gareth told us he was gay, we wanted to try to take the pressure off him, so we got some champagne to toast the rest of his life.

There have been difficult times where Gareth has contemplated suicide. I’ve told him since, if you had done it we wouldn’t have learned anything; about what you were going through, about HIV. It all would have been empty. We’d have no answers, and you’d be gone. And in our family we feel things together.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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