by Gareth Thomas with Michael Calvin
Ebury Press/Random House
Proud, the story of Wales and Lions rugby great Gareth Thomas, who came out after hiding his homosexuality almost all of his career, is a compelling book, despite being rather heavy on angst and preachiness and a little too light on life as a gay man.
It's the story of a kid from the hard-scrabble valleys of Wales who developed into one of the greatest rugby players the British Isles have produced, all the while desperately hiding his homosexuality. Thomas is a driven man and, although he doesn't explicitly say it in this book co-written by Michael Calvin, it's clear his determination to be 'all man' and deflect any suspicion of his secret was a definite part of his obsessive approach to the game. In fact the whole book is almost as much about obsession as it is about coming out.
There's a grim obsession to his closeted life, his training and determination to be one of the boys in an agressively macho environment. And, the gay thing aside, it's one of the best warts-and-all recounting of life as an international sports star I've ever read.
The biggest surprise is dished up on page one, as Thomas teeters on the verge of suicide, unable to reconcile his sexuality and his life. Proud gets as close as anything I have yet read about what it must be like to be driven to suicide by the strain of being gay in a mostly straight world. Too many of our glbti youth take their own lives and this book should help us understand their mental anguish.
We learn of Thomas's upbringing, his development as a player, some of what goes on in the board and changing rooms of highly competitive rugby union and, briefly, league. We learn he's not a fan of Graham Henry (neither was I when he was the sports teacher at my high school) but he clicked better with Steve Hansen.
We learn of the anguish surrounding his fronting up to his wife and her almost instant departure. And there is where a problem I have with this book becomes apparent. Thomas's wife remains a cypher, we learn nothing about her as a woman or their relationship before and after his coming out. His recounting of the situation is therefore too one-sided.
Later, as he comes out publicly, Thomas is strong on details about the way he felt and was supported by close friends and rugby mentors but there is strangely little about his interaction with other gay or bi men. A few glimpses of furtive hanging out in a gay bar and that's your lot. How he met his partner, who would be almost invisible in this book if it weren't for a photo of them as a pair, and the myriad issues which can derive from being an openly gay couple with an enormously high profile are absent.
So there's a lot on the angst of being a gay man in Proud but not much of the life of a man who has come out as gay. It's an outpouring of frequently raw emotion and none the less compelling reading for that. My main quibble is actually with the final two chapters when Thomas seems to feel the need to preach and declaim on the joy of being out, it's the passion of the 'recently converted' and as such his proselytising comes across as rather heavy-handed.
So there are heaps of reservations and yet it's a damn good read. My advice is to get your hands on a copy and read it with an open mind. There is much to absorb and I suspect every gay reader is going to react to it a little differently and, inevitably, very personally as well.
- Jay Bennie