Gareth Thomas: ‘I will be a voice for people with HIV. I won’t be derailed’ | Gareth Thomas

Gareth Thomas isn’t sure where to start. Or, rather, if he should even try to. Mum, Yvonne, warned against it before he left Bridgend yesterday. The publicist now hovering in earshot seems unconvinced. Yet here the two of us are on a wintery March morning: sitting in a west London hotel lobby, to discuss a relationship he was in 10 years ago. His sex life, specifically. In how much detail remains uncertain.

Thomas retired from rugby in 2011, but through punditry, activism and reality TV, the former Wales international – recently made a CBE – has maintained a major public presence. As an LGBTQ+ pioneer, sporting giant and HIV advocate extraordinaire, he’s a national hero in Wales and beyond. In secret, however, Thomas has been facing years of complex legal wrangling, including a criminal investigation. In a recently settled civil case, an ex-partner – Ian Baum – alleged that Thomas “deceptively” transmitted HIV to him a decade ago. Only in August 2022 did some of the details become public. That wasn’t Thomas’s call – he was given six hours’ notice.

Until now, he hasn’t spoken about the case in any detail. “But now I think that the only way to move forward is to try to address certain things, where I can, just the once. To draw a line and move on. And while it’s not that I want to avoid anything…” His tattooed fingers dance nervously. “For me, for my husband, my parents, my stepdaughter, step-grandson – and financially, for my career – I can’t create more legal issues. And I don’t want to, either. I need to move forward.” He sounds resolute. “But I will not be silenced, or be discriminated against. It’s not about me – what this represents is what’s important.”

It’s alleged that Thomas lied to his ex about his HIV status in 2014 and as a result “recklessly” passed the virus on. This January, the parties agreed to a settlement in a personal injury case, with Thomas paying his accuser £75,000, plus costs. Through it all, Thomas’s position has remained consistent. As he said in a statement once the agreement was reached: “This is not an admission of liability or guilt. I maintain my innocence in all the meritless allegations.” At every stage, the HIV organisations Thomas works with have stood alongside him.

The last few months have been tough. Devastating, really. “It has been horrific,” he says. “It all got out of control. I was walking through Bridgend and I was spat at in the street by a group of kids. I pulled up at a set of traffic lights, had my window down, and a red van pulled up next to me and someone yelled ‘You fucking Aids spreader’ then drove off.” The incidents were scary, yes. “But worse was it showed how all this bigotry and hatred had just been bubbling under the surface.”

“Then people started to be in touch to say: ‘You’re supposed to be doing something for us next week, but we can’t be associated with you’,” he continues. The fact he’d not been found guilty of anything was deemed immaterial.

He’s in higher spirits today. Work is back on track; life at home couldn’t be happier. But through his Tackle HIV campaign and work with groups such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, Thomas has become the UK’s most recognisable HIV activists and he understands, therefore, why people have questions, however intrusive. “I’ve been treading water for a bit,” he continues. “Now I have to make a decision: continue being me, or do I stop, give up and give in?” The latter, he’s decided, is not an option. “I live this campaign,” he says. “It’s my everyday. 24/7. It never ends. I don’t sign off.” He knows that left unanswered, the allegations might detract from his educating and advocacy efforts.

Polling found 74% of British adults know Thomas has spoken about living with HIV. “It means I’m defined by this diagnosis, more than anyone else in the country. I am the definition of HIV to a lot of people. So, I have to do something about that definition. To radically change it. To educate people, and fight stigma. It also means I have to try to respond to the allegations, which compound stigma and harm this community.”

Before we get to that, though, he wants to talk about his own HIV story.

Thomas is no stranger to publicly speaking about areas of his life he might have preferred to keep private. For the first 15 years of his rugby career, he was known primarily for his playing prowess – one of the world’s greatest try-scorers and captain for both the Welsh team and the British & Irish Lions. One of Cymru’s finest. Then, in December 2009, he publicly announced he was gay, the first professional rugby union player to do so. Press intrusion played a part. “Journalists had started to knock on my elderly neighbours’ doors asking if they’d seen ‘strange men’ visiting. But it was time to see if I could still play rugby, still be funny, a leader and friend ‘authentically’. I needed to know the real me.” Within a year he’d been voted the most influential gay person in the Independent on Sunday Pink List, and received Stonewall’s Hero of the Year award.

He was diagnosed HIV+ in 2012. Time has passed; the trauma hasn’t. He was 35 when he shared his sexuality and had recently separated from his wife – they’d met as teens. A newly single gay man by 2012, he’d settled into a routine when it came to taking sexual health tests. He went to a quiet, private clinic, where there was a low risk of him being recognised; weekends were preferable, with fewer patients present. Bloods and swabs taken, he’d hide in his car before darting back in for results. He always went alone, never telling friends or family. “Even starting to have routine HIV tests was difficult for me,” he says. “I don’t live in a big city and was ashamed of walking into a sexual health clinic in a public hospital and having to explain.”

“Then, one weekend in 2012, I was getting my results, when the nurse told me I’d had a positive HIV test…” Even now, there’s pain reliving it. “You know that moment when you stand on a station platform and a fast train that’s not stopping goes rushing past? The way it whooshes; a shudder goes through your body. I started to cry. I felt a panic attack coming on.” This wasn’t a specialist sexual health clinic with expert staff. “She just looked at me: a 5ft 4in woman staring at this 6ft 3in man, semi-butch public rugby figure totally breaking down. I needed to talk to someone, but there was nobody who could help. I did the test, got the result and that was it. All she could suggest was to go to hospital.”

The drive to Cardiff Royal Infirmary was dark. He’s blanked much of it out. “It was horrific. I was certain HIV was a death sentence. I was alone with a single thought: how was I going to tell my parents that I was going to die?”

Thomas was profoundly wrong. With access to the right medical care, people living with HIV no longer even see their quality of life reduced, let alone life expectancy. A single antiretroviral pill taken daily is, for many, the only major physical healthcare intervention required in the longer term. With this treatment, the virus can become undetectable, and therefore untransmittable. He didn’t know any of this back then. It would take years for him to comprehend it. “I’m a product of my upbringing,” he says, thinking back. “My parents. The 1980s. HIV for me was always the gay plague. A killer. It was never spoken about. Not at home. Not in sex education. It was all tombstones and the grim reaper.

Gareth Thomas takes the ball past Felipe Contepomi of Argentina during a Rugby Union match at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales, in November 2001.
Line break: Gareth Thomas in his playing days. The former Welsh international was one of the world’s greatest try-scorers. Photograph: Tom Shaw/Getty Images

He arrived at the hospital alone. “It was the most degrading moment of my life. I had to lie on a bench and have invasive, painful tests for STIs. I was screaming. I’d just had the most horrific news…” His voice cracks. “Of all the shit I’ve been through in my life, that stands out as one of the worst moments. And I couldn’t absorb anything. It was just white noise.” The medics were trying to communicate what his diagnosis meant, but years of stigma and misinformation wouldn’t be undone in an instant.

After the diagnosis, all he could think about was a TV show he’d seen about assisted dying. “I decided I’d sit down with my parents, tell them I had a job out there. Then I’d go to Dignitas and ask the team to tell my family I’d been involved in a fatal accident. I literally Googled it when I got home.

“It makes me sad, so sad, that I had to think that way. But I never let go of those moments.” Today, Thomas couldn’t feel more differently. “But remembering those experiences is what attaches me to the people I encounter now. It reminds me why I do my campaigning.”

For years, Thomas kept his diagnosis secret from those close to him. “I’d already put them through the ringer enough.” He smiles, briefly. “When I came out as gay I watched everyone come out with me. I went from Gareth Thomas the rugby player to Gareth Thomas the gay rugby player. Dad went from Barry Thomas, father of the captain of Wales, to father of the gay boy.” It was the same, he says, for the rest of the family. “Now they were all going to become the mother, father, brother of the guy who died of Aids? I just couldn’t load that on them for the rest of their lives.” He believed the secrecy was protecting them. “Let them be comfortable, not knowing, and being proud and I’d just disappear. Better that than the subject of smalltalk down in Lidl.”

And so, Thomas ploughed on, isolated and alone. He tore the labels off his medication to hide their contents and scheduled routine medical appointments at the crack of dawn – before the clinic opened – hoping to remain hidden. “I thought I was protecting myself,” Thomas reflects, “but when you enter a place through the side door, in secret, hood and scarf up like a ninja off the telly… It was so harmful.” It compounded his sense of shame. Over time, however, and with expert support, his ignorance lifted.

Seven years later, Thomas did what once felt unthinkable. In September 2019, he said he was HIV+ in an interview, after a lengthy legal fight to keep a tabloid from – without his consent – revealing it. “I could have easily gone under the radar, fought the newspaper, and kept my personal medical records private, but sometimes the fight is better put into taking control and doing something good.”

A few weeks later, a documentary – Gareth Thomas: HIV and Me – aired on BBC One, following him as he prepared to go public. It makes remarkable watching. In it, he busted HIV myths and refused to be ashamed. “I finally allowed myself to listen to the truth,” he says. It was a long journey, much of which remained unseen. Still, a brave Thomas emerged triumphant. To many, he’s now a role model. It’s a label that hasn’t always sat comfortably.

Thomas and Baum recall their relationship differently. Amid all the messy details and disputes now in the public domain, there’s one fundamental question: back in those early years of his own diagnosis, did Thomas hide his status from his then partner, have unprotected sex and pass it on? If so, what now for his role as an HIV advocate? The terrain is hugely personal. While there’s no legal requirement to tell a partner your HIV status, it is a crime to recklessly pass it on. Ethically, that’s complex territory.

Having denied the allegations from the offset, Thomas is reluctant, instinctively, to expand further. “How would you feel,” Thomas asks, “if people wanted to publicly ask you: did you have sex on X date? Did you have penetrative sex? Oral sex? Kinky sex? Did you use condoms? I was near enough forced to come out as gay. I was forced to talk about my HIV. Enough of my life is already everyone’s property.”

In court documents, Thomas stated the pair didn’t have sex before Baum’s diagnosis and that he fully believed his viral load at the time meant he couldn’t transmit HIV regardless. The police dropped their inquiries. Today, though, he’s holding back.

“I could sit here and spew it all out,” he says, “but I’m trying to be kind, to do this neutrally.” He has further evidence, he maintains, that proves his position. But to fight the case at trial, Thomas would have been forced to sell his home. And as the dust starts to settle, he’s starting to believe that the evidence never seeing the light of day might be the best result. “What I’ve agreed is not damages or a payoff,” he says. “It’s a legal document. One that allows me to move on. Everyone to move on. Because I do care about this. It also allows the other party closure, too,” he says. Nobody wins, he believes, by thrashing this out in the court of public opinion. He understands the pain that Baum has felt. “I can’t run a campaign trying to help everyone and anyone living with HIV while turning on this one person who is struggling.”

Exactly what happened between Thomas and his ex I’m still unsure. Before we met, I was convinced the details were mine to know. Now, I wonder weather it’s relevant. Because for all the hurt, there’s no suggestion of Thomas having malicious intent. Thomas resolutely denies that fear and ignorance led him to hide his diagnosis and that he then passed it on. But even if that was the case, should his campaigning be shut down? It’s precisely the conditions which lead to people making decisions like that he’s fighting. Thomas’s message is simple: despite medical advances, HIV is still a dangerous source of stigma and shame that urgently needs fighting. And he knows it from experience; both parties are still grappling with the consequences. The rest might best be left to Thomas and Baum and the legal system. Thomas, at least, now hopes both have turned a corner.

Still, he knows that declining to set out his own version of events might not satisfy everyone. “But I know who I am when I look in the mirror,” he says. “I tell you, now, every morning, I can look at myself and be really proud of who I am. If other people now look at me differently because of this I’ll do what I can to change minds back. I can’t promise to, but I’ll try.”

“I didn’t speak about my diagnosis, like my sexuality, to be a campaigner. But I’m in a position where that’s what I’ve become. This is a life or death matter for lots of people. I take it seriously.” Despite the allegations, stepping back has rarely felt tempting. “Over the past few years I’ve been even more motivated to not take the easy way out. I have a beautiful husband. Family who love and support me. A lovely home. I played rugby all my career. I could put my feet up and drink cups of tea for the rest of my life, and read the Sunday papers. I could, but I choose not to. Because not everyone has the choice. Other people don’t have the time I do. The platform. The access to drugs. The supportive family. The security. So I see this as a responsibility I choose to take on. And I’m all in. I’m here. I’m proud of what I represent.” He picks up a pile of papers for the campaign meetings he’s heading to next. “And I will be that voice, because it could be you, or someone you love, affected by HIV. I won’t be derailed. I have this platform. People need to see and hear me.”

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