“Even though all I ever wanted to do was play sport and I feel blessed to have done that, I feel what I do now has a much bigger impact on individuals, on society in general,” says Gareth Thomas. “And for me that is a better legacy and a more rewarding thing than winning a trophy or a medal that will rust away”.
Rugby is still a passion for Gareth Thomas and, 14 years after his last match for Wales, it still provides a livelihood, through his role as a popular and engaging pundit.
But it is his work since revealing, in September 2019, that he is HIV positive that brings him the greatest joy.
In June, it is 40 years since the first reported case of HIV. To mark that milestone, Thomas has been involved in a survey with Tackle HIV (Prince Harry is also a supporter) that has revealed a major lack of understanding about the virus, deepening stigma and discrimination. It shows that 49 per cent would not consider taking an HIV test, and only 18 per cent know that someone living with HIV (who is on effective treatment) cannot pass it onto their sexual partner.
“I can live a happy normal life with HIV, but we did this recent survey and realised that these statistics mean we haven’t moved on as fast as the science has,” Thomas says. “People are afraid of getting tested. People think it is only gay men or black African people affected. In reality half the people living with HIV in the UK are heterosexual and around a third are women. Half of those women are white. There is still a lot more talking needs to be done.”
Thomas believes that the stigma around HIV is so strong because of misinformation and the prevalence of old statistics. The survey showed that 23 per cent of respondents (wrongly) thought someone living with HIV cannot become a doctor or a nurse, 41 per cent thought they cannot have an active sex life and 61 per cent did not believe they can start a family. “There is a lot of misinformation out there,” he says.
Thomas was delighted that It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies’ stunning Channel 4 drama about the the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, has “sent the topic into people’s living rooms and started conversations”, even if he found the experience of watching it extremely emotive.
“For me it was a very difficult programme to watch,” he says. “I’m lucky that I have some great friends who lived through that era who told me the stories. But I never really quite believed it or could never quite understand it.
“To watch it was kind of heartbreaking. If I’d been a few years older, that could have been me. Locked in a room alone in a hospital bed. Being arrested, or people only touching me wearing gloves, or being verbally abused walking down the street.
“What I thought was so good about it was that it had such a huge audience, it set the topic of conversation around HIV and AIDs, around the stigma, discrimination. It sent it into people’s living room, started conversations, with children asking their parents about it. From those conversations people then start saying ‘I talk that way, I think that way, and maybe I should stop’. They look in the mirror. Any form of conversation that started around a subject we haven’t spoken enough about as a society can only be a good thing.”
The show was a reminder that discrimination around the topic has changed.
“For someone living with HIV it showed how we sometimes perceive discrimination to be is being screamed at or obvious discrimination,” he says. “Now that obvious discrimination might not be around so much, but there’s still discrimination. It’s just less obvious.
“Sometimes people who are maybe not affected by whatever discrimination is being used doesn’t see it, or doesn’t respond because it’s so subtle. Just because people don’t get locked in the room, or there’s no loud shouting in the street does not mean there isn’t discrimination. We do still live in a society that has discrimination.”
As ever with Thomas, the conversation does wind back to rugby, and this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour. Thomas captained the iconic touring side in two Tests in New Zealand in 2005, and “cannot wait” for a “very different” tour.
“Sadly for South Africa and us, it’s going to be different and like other Lions tour, a unique moment when players and fans come together and create an atmosphere and lifelong memories for so many people,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it in a different way, because I don’t know what to expect.”
Who should captain the Lions this time? Thomas hopes Warren Gatland thinks outside the box.
“It is a really difficult one,” he says. “I’m not sure any of the 23 places in the matchday squad are nailed on for selection. Usually you get one or two of them. Everybody seems to have decided that because it’s South Africa and they are forward dominated it has to be someone who’s in the action, a forward.
“I played full-back, and look at Stuart Hogg, someone who has high standards, plays well for Scotland, he plays well for Exeter. At full-back you can be outside, not getting combative, or constantly in the action. I’d like it to be him. At full-back you are constantly watching, but not in the heart of it. You can make decisions quite rationally and clinically based on what’s going on in front of you.”
And with that thought, Thomas returns to his far more important day job.
Tackle HIV, a campaign led by Gareth Thomas in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV. Visit www.tacklehiv.org and follow @tacklehiv