Thank you, Gareth Thomas, for showing how a real man deals with prejudice
Response to gay hate crimes perhaps shows us a better way, of progress rather than retribution
Threads long enough that are woven strongly enough to hold two halves of a shoe snugly together, capped with a tiny tube to keep them for fraying back into threads.
There doesn’t seem to be much to a bootlace. But rugby is tying itself into knots about them.
If you’re still with us, lock up your prejudices. Of course, you don’t have them. But please ensure everyone else, especially your children, remain within earshot. If only to hear you air those prejudices – the ones you don’t have – as you read further. And for you to hear yourself.
Rugby’s suits in Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, Wales and the US made “rainbow laces” available to their players for matches at the weekend in response to Gareth Thomas falling victim to a vicious attack by a 16-year-old on the streets of Cardiff.
That doesn’t add up for a man 1.91m tall and 103kg heavy, who in 2005 was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £1,900 in compensation for his role in a bar brawl in France in which he and his mates were so pissed they moered each other.
Thomas owns 100 caps for Wales, 23 as captain, including in 2005 when they won the Grand Slam for the first time in 11 years – and with that the Six Nations – three appearances for the British and Irish Lions, leading them twice, and four for Wales’s rugby league side.
Bar behaviour aside, surely the only Gareth in all of Wales who has earned more respect never has to open a door or pay for a drink and is invariably called, with a small, reverent bow, Mr Edwards? Thing is, there’s more to Gareth Thomas than all that. He is also something a 16-year-old on a beery night in Cardiff refused to accept as part of reality: gay.
So out came the rainbow laces in solidarity, as shown by match officials as well as players. Rugby has flirted with them before, but this time, thanks to the dramatic images of Thomas’s bloodied, swollen face on social media in the preceding days, the connection was visceral.
Big ups, then, to rugby. Except that backing for the call was scant and not universal even in the teams whose administrators said they were on board.
On Friday, England flank Sam Underhill explained why he wouldn’t lace up more colourfully than usual to run out against Australia at Twickenham the next day: “It sounds a bit ridiculous given the size of the issue they are representing, [but] it is more to do with the thickness of the laces. They are actually really uncomfortable in my boots. And they are really long.”
He had me at uncomfortable. He lost me at long. No one in a dressing room filled with all sorts of tape and flunkies to apply it to all sorts of body parts packs a pair of scissors?
As for the Aussies, they have to put up with the Neanderthal views of Israel Folau, who has hid his fascism behind religion to say: “Gays can go to hell.” How many agree with him is not known.
SA? The Springboks didn’t wear rainbow laces against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, and while team sources said “SA Rugby supported the initiative”, I could find no such support. Perhaps that’s what we should expect from a society that preaches progressive but is poltroon in practice.
Unsurprisingly, the bilious stinking underbelly of online comments sections rumbled with rancour in response to all this. Everything from the “disgusting, satanic Jew-owned corporations who tried to kill God and own rugby” variety to “would anyone have worn special laces if he was not a homo” was out there.
The owner of the first view needs a doctor, probably more than one. The person who made the second point should remember that Thomas was attacked precisely because he is gay.
And they might want to think about his response. “This morning I’ve decided to make what I hope will be a positive video,” he said in a video posted online on November 18. “Last night I was the victim in my home city of a hate crime for my sexuality.
“Why [do] I want it to be positive? Because I want to say thank you to the police, who were involved and were very helpful and allowed me to do restorative justice with the people who did this because I thought they could learn more that way than any other way.
“And also to the people of Cardiff, who supported me and helped me. Because there’s a lot of people out there who want to hurt us. But, unfortunately for them, there’s a lot more who want to help us heal.”
Referee Nigel Owens – also Welsh, also gay – took a similar course of action after he suffered abuse in 2015.
“I didn’t see the tweet until it was brought to my attention,” Owens told the BBC on Sunday. “It was reported to the police by other people.
“It was from an 18-year-old lad who lived … 10, 12 miles away from the village where I live. He tweeted a homophobic comment that was deemed serious enough to be dealt with by the police.”
Owens also opted for restorative justice, which entails the offender apologising to the victim in writing or in person.
The teenager sent Owens an apology on Facebook and agreed to meet him under police supervision.
“You had a sense that this was a young man who was apologetic for a moment of stupidness,” Owens said. “We shook hands and we moved on, and he won’t have a record for the rest of his life.
“Hopefully he would have learnt from that, and more importantly he’ll be able to pass that message on to people around him if something similar crops up again.”
If you’re part of the LGBTIQ community, you’re entitled to be angry at Thomas and Owens for not holding their offenders up to the glare of what they deserved, law courts and all, and cheated out of justice.
But you might also wonder whether they aren’t showing all of us a better way; a way that is about building instead of breaking down, of going forward rather than going back, of progress rather than retribution.
And you have to wonder whether people like Thomas and Owens are fine men – of rugby and beyond – not despite the fact that they’re gay but because they are gay.
Lace that thought into your boots, kids, and make the world a better place.