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Rugby player Gareth Thomas is one of his Wales' most prominent athletes in his field. Known for his tough exterior, Thomas most notably led the British Lions to a Grand Slam title in 2005, the team's first since 1978. He also made international headlines when he came out in 2009, making him the only openly gay professional athlete currently on a major team sport.
But as Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Smith writes in the May 3 issue, under the exterior of tattoos, bruises and a mouth of missing teeth was a tormented man struggling with his identity. Now, months after coming out, Thomas and Smith both ask, when will the U.S. have its turn at a gay athlete?
"The e-mails and letters and Twitter I get tells me there is so much confusion on this issue, and so many gay kids who love sports but get pushed away from it," Thomas says in the article. "A lot of the notes are from America. I love the United States...but why wouldn't the people who run your sports and who sponsor them make a public announcement that they welcome gay people and will support them? Because even if they feel that's bringing too much attention to something that should be a private matter, at this point that's what's needed."
Smith talks to The Advocate about his experience with Thomas, and about what kind of athlete it will take to make the big announcement first.
The Advocate: How was your experience in Wales?
Gary Smith: Gareth -- or Alf as he goes by -- was super outgoing and very candid. He had been wrestling with this for a long, long time, but now that he made the step he really wanted to go out there and be a role model for others struggling with this. He was particularly interested in the United States. He seems to be fascinated by the states. It blew his mind that he had taken the step before any other major male sportsmen had done this, so he would love to help "midwife" -- if that's the word -- anyone in America who is struggling with this. He doesn't want to necessarily urge them to come out because he knows that depends on the circumstances of the individual. It was not right for him for a long time, but if the stars are aligning, and the person is ready to do it, just to help them with that, and knowing what kind of domino effect this could have if more people could do it. It just makes it easier for other athletes to come out down the road.
When do you think we'll have an out athlete in the U.S.?
In a major sport? It's going to take such the individual, that it's so hard to predict. When the individual rises in the human species, that jumps the whole equation. It takes it to another place -- that could happen in the next five minutes or the next 50 years. Part of me thinks it would be a lot easier if it was an athlete who came out as gay as a teenager, through high school, or even through their college years, so it's just a progression instead of taking the big step at age 30 when he has so much to protect at that point.
The other fact is that America is so diverse, but part of that diversity is a conservative element that could make it a little more uncertain for even frightening for a person to make that step. You'd think America would be an easier place to come out with this, but there's also some things that are in the American dynamic that make it more challenging.
Is there a particular sport or league that has a culture that would be more accepting of players coming out? Perhaps baseball versus football?
I'm thinking basketball may be a little easier. So much has to do with the cultural elements involved. There's different elements involved in the African Americans and the Caucasians that come into play. Perhaps there's a little less of a macho in basketball than perhaps baseball or football. I think it will just have a lot more to do with the circumstances in the person's life than the sport or the structure at large.