I was intending to write something about gay athletes for a long time but there never seemed to be a catalyst for it. Now Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas has provided that.
Thomas admitted to living a lie for most of his life, including marrying his wife in 2002 (they split in 2006). Rugby players aren't poofs and all that I suppose. The story naturally says how accepting his fellow teammates are and how he's still good friends with his wife. It must help that he retired two years ago.
Still it seems that his teammates and coaches knew and supported him at the time. Though "support" seemed to also mean helping Thomas hide that he was gay to the rest of the world. There was talk amongst media at the 2007 World Cup that after the tournament one of the Welsh players would be "outed", a story that was quickly quashed.
Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out in 2007 after he retired, rightfully says that the problem now becomes that Thomas is not seen as some great Welsh rugby hero, but as "that guy who was gay".
The sports world is obviously one of the toughest work environments for someone to be homosexual. For women the claims are of increased testosterone and cabals, for men it's increased femininity and weakness. Note the difference in these two articles: on the Daily Mail's sports page; on the Daily Mail's (sigh) Femail page. Same article, but the pictures on the sports page show Thomas as a blood-soaked, tackle-breaking, manly man.
There is still also the problem of homophobic sports-people and coaches. Stories of coaches setting players against teammates in general are sadly common (though hopefully declining), and knowing a kid is gay can be worse. So Thomas' revelation and the fact that his teammates knew before he went public, can only be a positive thing.
Oddly though I think that Thomas' case, a gay sportsman at international level in a physical sport like rugby, is a rare one. Is say this because of something I've actually been asked many times: which All Blacks were gay? To be honest it's normally in the form of a statement like "Player X was totally gay" or "I bet there were heaps of gay All Blacks". It's a bet I'm willing to take not because I think that a gay athlete could never be good enough for the All Blacks, but because the probability of such an event is quite low.
Consider the current squad. I've had some people tell me that anywhere from one in ten to one in four people are gay so at least one All Black must be. This works if the All Blacks are a demographically consistent subset of the population. They aren't. It also works if that ratio is correct. It isn't.
An estimate from a gay travel site suggests there are "100,622 gay and lesbian people between 16-64 years living in New Zealand" (with no reference). According to Sex in Australia: The Australian study of health and relationships, from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (and filtered through Wikipedia):
The largest and most thorough survey in Australia to date was conducted by telephone interview with 19,307 respondents between the ages of 16 and 59 in 2001/2002. The study found that 97.4% of men identified as heterosexual, 1.6% as gay and 0.9% as bisexual. For women 97.7% identified as heterosexual, 0.8% as lesbian and 1.4% as bisexual. Nevertheless, 8.6% of men and 15.1% of women reported either feelings of attraction to the same gender or some sexual experience with the same gender. Half the men and two thirds of the women who had same-sex sexual experience regarded themselves as heterosexual rather than homosexual
So the number of bisexuals is, probably unsurprisingly, high, but the percentage of gay men is quite low. Note: I really wanted StatsNZ data here but they don't collect information on sexuality and have no plans to.
This means that the proportion of gay men who are also rugby players will be even smaller. The first capped All Black was in 1884, 125 years later and we've had caps for 1,100 All Blacks. At any given time the All Blacks account for much less than one percent of the population. So these are very small chances to start with.
And given the number of rugby players in the country compared to the number who are selected for the All Blacks, you can reduce the chances again. While Thomas is the case against this argument, I would say that any young gay man coming through the ranks of provincial and professional rugby to get to the All Blacks would have to get through some intense bigotry to get there and remain there.
Does this mean that Thomas being a gay rugby international is one in a billion? Possibly. If you look across sports as a whole, the number of athletes who are gay is probably representative of the general population and they aren't all clustered in one or two sports… unless those cabal rumours were true.