Retired rugby ace Gareth Thomas admitted he avoided dinner with friends and didn’t hug his niece for months after contracting HIV as he announced the start of a new campaign to tackle stigma attached to the virus
Rugby legend Gareth Thomas has started a new campaign to tackle HIV stigma.
When retired rugby ace Gareth Thomas completed a gruelling Ironman triathlon the day after announcing he was living with HIV in 2019, the message was loud and clear: people with HIV are capable of extraordinary things.
“For me,” Gareth says, “doing the Ironman was bigger than a physical challenge.” But the lead-up to this astonishing show of strength had involved years of mental anguish.
After receiving his diagnosis during a routine health screening, the former Welsh rugby captain had been plunged into despair, considering suicide and feeling tormented by the effect the news would have on his family.
Guided by NHS staff, Gareth, now 47, learned life with HIV has changed immeasurably since the terrifying days of the 1980s.
The Terrence Higgins Trust reports modern anti-retroviral treatment means very few people in the UK develop serious HIV-related illnesses and can expect to live as long as anyone else.
Studies have also shown a person on effective treatment can’t pass on HIV. Gareth is one of them, and now he has become vocal about ending the stigma – leading the campaign Tackle HIV in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust.
The stigma was something he had internalised while growing up in Bridgend .
“I was a product of my surroundings – there was nothing wrong with any of it, but we didn’t have the information,” he says. “It was very much this horrible, dirty thing we never spoke about. So when I was told I had it, I thought what a lot of people think: that it’s the beginning of the end of your life.”
When he came out as gay in 2009, Gareth says, he felt he could make his family proud. But announcing his HIV status was different. “I felt like I would leave them to have to deal with the consequences because I didn’t know how long I would be living.
“I felt the discrimination would affect my parents. They were the proud mum and dad of the rugby player who represented his country and did what he could for the LGBT community. Then it would all be wiped away when he contracted HIV and died, and left his family to deal with it… I was trying to comprehend how I could put this on the doorstep of everyone I loved and cared for.”
Convinced he could pass on HIV to his loved ones, it took months before Gareth even had the confidence to go out for dinner with his friends or hug his niece. “I was absolutely petrified. I thought HIV or AIDS would be transmitted in the simplest way, like I saw on TV 30 years ago.”
Sensing he wasn’t coping, the hospital kept a close eye on him. He initially thought their reassurances were platitudes to make him feel better. “I only started to believe what they were saying when I scientifically started to understand more about HIV.”
He began to realise a diagnosis can have a positive impact on life, with many people getting fitter than they’ve ever been. “You have a light bulb moment where you understand the preciousness of life. You want to do everything you can, as well as taking that tablet every day, to feel fit and healthy.”
Yet stigma still lingers, along with homophobia. “Discrimination isn’t as obvious or as regular as it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Some people get up and very obviously leave a place when Gareth and his husband Stephen Williams-Thomas walk in.
“Or – and this is a regular occurrence – somebody pats my husband on the back and says to him, ‘you know, you’re a good man’.
“It’s like, ‘good man, because you’ve taken on this half-broken person who has a virus.” In spite of this, Gareth says: “Right now, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. I feel a sense of liberation. I have nothing to hide.
“Sometimes the interest can feel intrusive, but I have ways of dealing with it and ways of being able to speak to other people about it, which I never had before.” He’s found an unusual coping method. “This might sound bizarre, but the best thing for me is swimming in the sea.” He says it’s “exhilarating” and keeps him in the present, rather than fixating on the past or worrying about the future.
“I don’t live in Miami, I live in Ogmore-by-Sea near Bridgend and it’s not the most tropical place in the world, but I’m blessed to live here.”
Just like the confident face he put on when announcing his HIV status though, getting to the point where he could swim in the sea involved a lot of behind-the-scenes work from Gareth, aided by his friend and swimming teacher Dave Tongue. “I couldn’t swim a couple of years ago, but I really wanted to do the Ironman – I had panic attacks, I was crying, I was so afraid of the sea.
“Dave would say to me, ‘remember why you’re doing this’. There was the message I wanted everybody else to see, but I was thinking, ‘you’re still not quite sure of what somebody with HIV is capable of because you’ve never really pushed yourself’. It was me, willing me to show myself how far I’d come.”