uk rugby star comes out: "you mean to tell me i'm the only one??"

Watching baseball together, Allan and I have long wondered who will be the first active Major League player to come out as gay. It will have to be someone great, unassailable from a player-performance perspective. Someone very personable and likeable, unassailable from a fan-friendly point of view. And someone very brave, because the second he comes out, no matter what year or what century it is, he will find himself at the centre of a firestorm. I do think reaction will be more positive than negative, but it will still be very rough. I can't wait to see it and to cheer him on.

I've also wondered who would be the first male athlete to come out in any team sport, and now that question has been answered. Gareth Thomas, Welsh and British rugby star, has told the world that he is gay.

gareth thomas, pioneer

Thomas gave the Daily Mail an exclusive before the story rocketed through the gay community, the world of sport and the overlap between the two.
Gareth Thomas is a sporting legend. He captained Wales in 2005 to their first Grand Slam victory since 1978. The same year he captained the British Lions tour of New Zealand.

With 100 caps to his name - more than any other player in Welsh history - he has one of the fiercest reputations on the field, and a row of missing front teeth to prove it.

At 6ft 3in and 16st of pure muscle, his masculinity has always been an absolute given.

As a young man he bonded with rugby mates in the pub over tales of sexual conquests, and flirted with pretty girls eager to bag a sporting hero.

After his marriage in 2002 to teenage sweetheart Jemma - the woman he called his 'rock' - he spoke movingly of their desire to become parents and the heartbreak of her suffering three miscarriages.

And if anyone dared to suggest he was anything other than 100 per cent straight, Gareth 'Alfie' Thomas was prepared to make them see the error of their ways. With his fists, if necessary.

But, as he admits in the Daily Mail today, it was all a pretence, a fragile artifice - and one which came crashing down around his ears on November 4, 2006, following a Wales game in Cardiff.

Breaking down in tears in the changing rooms of the Millennium Stadium, Gareth finally realised he could not go on living a lie. Keeping his true sexuality a secret was destroying him.

That secret, which he'd kept hidden his entire career, was - he admits now - 'like a tight knot in my stomach, always threatening to seep out'.

He says: 'I was like a ticking bomb. I thought I could suppress it, keep it locked away in some dark corner of myself, but I couldn't.

'It was who I was, and I just couldn't ignore it any more.

'I'd been through every emotion under the sun trying to deal with this.

'You wake up one morning thinking: "I can handle it. Everything is fine," and the next morning you don't want anyone to see your face, because you think that if people look at you, they will know.'

That summer, he had confessed the truth to his devastated wife Jemma, unable to cope with the guilt of deceiving her.

But even as their marriage crumbled, he'd somehow hoped to maintain his charade for the rest of the world. [More here.]

There's an excellent lengthy feature in Sports Illustrated by Gary Smith, whose work I really like. Here's a bit of it.
He's 6'3" and 225 pounds of muscle. He's broken his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and lost eight teeth. He's drunk his mates under the table and brawled by their side. He's been named to the Welsh national rugby team more times than any other man. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's ...

Wot, butt? You come to this tiny village in this tiny country and tell me that I'm the only gay man in a major team sport who's out of the closet?

The man was missing eight teeth. Sometimes he would slip out his false teeth when you weren't looking and deposit them in your pint of ale.

All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?

His blue eyes twinkled and his laughter was infectious and his body was a riot of muscles and he'd been known, if he suspected someone in the pub was talking about him, to rise from his table and drop him.

America's the pioneer, butt! Am I right?

He plays professional rugby. No, he has dominated it, been selected to play for his national team more times than anyone else in his country's history.

America's at the top of the table in everything! So why...?

His sport has broken his nose five times, fractured both of his shoulders and his hip and his forearm and his palate and his thumb, and concussed him, on average, three times a year.

A rugby team ... in Wales. A country of coal miners. I thought THAT would be the harshest environment for a man to come out in, but no....

But no. In the US - poisoned by the religious right on one side and the macho cowboy spirit on the other, overlaid with its history of bigotry and inequality - no one has taken this leap.

Professional basketball player Sheryl Swoopes came out a few years ago, but as great as that was (and it was), it's different for a woman. Athletic women are stereotyped as lesbians anyway, and women's sports are generally an afterthought in US culture. So as much as I admire Swoopes personally for going public, her announcement did little to soften the ground for her male counterpart, whoever he is.

Gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Greg Louganis who compete in individual sports don't face nearly the same challenges. (Even so, when Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, came out, her endorsement offers disappeared.) But neither have to deal with the homophobia - and the latent homoeroticism - of the team-sport locker room. Again, I take nothing away from any athlete, from any public figure, who comes out. I admire each and every one of them. They are pioneers for young LGBT folks, and for everyone whose life path diverges from the strictly conventional and mainstream. But Louganis's and Navratilova's actions do little for gay baseball, basketball, football or hockey players.

Several male players of team sports have come out after retiring. In baseball, Billy Bean and Glenn Burke, and former umpire Dave Pallone, all did so. All have written books: Pallone's Behind The Mask, Billy Bean's Going the Other Way and Glenn Burke's Out At Home, published posthumously. (Burke died in 1995.) Wikipedia says Burke was "the first and only Major League Baseball player to be out to his teammates and team owners during his professional career". Apparently it was an open secret, and it got Burke traded from at least one team. Former NBA basketball player John Amechi came out after retirement, and a few former NFL players have done the same. (This little list is not meant to be exhaustive. Outsports keeps a list.)

But so far, an active male player in a US team sport coming out as gay has happened only in fiction. Some years ago, when we were still in New York City, there was a Broadway play called "Take Me Out," about a baseball team - a fictional version of the New York Yankees - and a star player - seemingly a fictional Derek Jeter - who announces he is gay. (Now people searching for "Derek Jeter gay" will land on this post! Despite all available evidence, Jeter is rumoured to be an outstanding shortstop. However, he is not rumoured to be gay.) "Take Me Out" was a decent play, although unfortunately the only thing I remember from it was working showers and an insane amount of full-on male nudity in a locker room scene. This play must have employed an entire staff of hair removal experts. I remember laughing with friends about a baseball team with nine perfectly smooth, hairless men. "Not bloody likely!"

Back in the real world, there are always rumours about certain players, some of whom are known to be bisexual and frequent male hangouts in various cities, some of whom just can't seem to keep a pretend girlfriend. But so far, their community has kept their secret, and so have they.

Several high school football stars in the US have come out, and I imagine one of them will eventually get a college scholarship and make a name for himself. A huge section of the US is obsessed with college football. Maybe that's where the pioneer will come from.

Meanwhile, Gareth Thomas is quite amazing, and quite alone, breaking ground in the unassailably macho world of professional rugby.

The Sports Illustrated story on Gareth Thomas is here.

ITV documentary "Afraid To Be Gay" is here. (Thanks to Jen for this one.)

Gareth Thomas on Facebook.

A good story called "Is Baseball Ready for a Gay Jackie Robinson," from in these times is here.

And for all your gay sports needs, try Outsports.com.

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