Former star Gareth Thomas chases away prejudices about HIV

2023-09-20 12:38:45

At 49 years old, Gareth Thomas displays exactly the same impressive and sharp physique as when he tore through opposing defenses in the Wales jersey. Retired since 2011, the former versatile three-quarterback with 40 tries in 100 caps had become two years earlier the first international rugby player to come out.

In 2019, the former Stade Toulousain player revealed his HIV status. It is to dismantle the clichés on the subject that the Welshman is traveling around France during this World Cup aboard a bus bearing the “Tackle HIV” logo. In French: “Let’s put HIV to rest”, an initiative carried out in partnership with the ViiV Healthcare laboratory and the French association AIDES.

Gareth Thomas between Yannick Jauzion and Benoît Baby during Stade Toulousain – Biarritz in the French championship, May 28, 2005 at the Ernest-Wallon stadium. – Eric Cabanis / AFP

“Science has evolved impressively in forty years, but mentalities take much longer to change,” underlines Camille Spire, president of AIDES. However, when we see Gareth, the fear of screening and the disease changes a little. » After Paris and before Nice, this Wednesday and Thursday, his unmissable blue coach made a stop last weekend on the Filters meadow, cradle of the Toulouse oval at the beginning of the 20th century, and home of the rugby village of the Mondial, on the banks of the Garonne.

A survey as a trigger

“It all started with a survey carried out in the United Kingdom, according to which a third of people playing contact sports did not want to play if an opponent was HIV positive,” explains “Alfie”, a nickname which dates back to his sporting career, when the brilliant player tried to cohabit with the man trapped in his secret, as he details in his autobiography Ironreleased in 2015.

“There are still many preconceived ideas that HIV only affects homosexual or bisexual men, which is absolutely false. Many people at high risk of infections think they don’t need to be tested, because they are not gay, or because they are women. Furthermore, people who live with the virus, if they undergo treatment, cannot transmit it to a sexual partner, contrary to what people generally believe. »

Concretely, the “Tackle HIV” bus contains awareness-raising documentation and videos, with virtual reality headsets to better absorb the testimonies of people concerned. Addressing such a serious theme in a place that is primarily intended to be festive can seem daunting. Gareth Thomas is aware of this, but for him, being present to testify about the rugby villages of the World Cup is already a victory.

“We can see the bus from afar, it’s intriguing”

“If someone comes to have fun, to see a match on a giant screen, while drinking a beer, they may say that the subject is too serious,” agrees the 2005 Grand Slam winner. “But the message has gotten through. And maybe tomorrow he will find out on the Internet. If people get on the bus, that’s great, if they don’t get on and they talk about it among themselves, that’s great too. » “We can see it from afar, it’s intriguing, it’s a premium product,” confirms Camille Spire.

A presence all the more essential as issues linked to HIV and AIDS have almost disappeared from the news, swept away by a global storm called Covid. “There is a lot more ignorance today than in the 1990s,” judges the president of AIDES. This will lead people either to take risks or to discriminate. A French study indicates that 25% of employees would not like to work with HIV-positive people. »

On September 15, 2019, Gareth Thomas achieved a huge challenge: finishing the Tenby triathlon, in Wales.
On September 15, 2019, Gareth Thomas achieved a huge challenge: finishing the Tenby triathlon, in Wales. – Dimitris Legakis / Rex / Sipa

Convinced of the usefulness of his fight, Gareth Thomas continues his media interventions with affability. Far from the discomfort that he often suffered from Ernest-Wallon’s side when he played in Rouge et Noir, from 2004 to 2007. In his autobiography, he says in particular that he was very close to committing suicide in 2006, first in the swimming pool of his Toulouse residence, then from the top of a Welsh cliff.

First return to Toulouse in sixteen years

“It’s the first time I’ve come back to Toulouse,” he confides, quietly sitting on a bench on the banks of the Garonne. I kept memories of happiness but also of very difficult moments, because I was far from home and I had problems with my sexuality. With the language barrier, I couldn’t confide in anyone. »

16 years later, everything has changed. “It’s a good time to come back, being a different person, happy. I met my former teammates Trevor Brennan, Vincent Clerc, Xavier Garbajosa, Fabien Pelous but also Guy Novès. I wanted to explain to him why I had left. I wanted to write him a message, a letter, but he always told me that if we had something to say to each other, it was face to face. That’s what I did and we hugged each other. » On board his bus which travels the roads of the Rugby World Cup, Gareth Thomas is a calm man. And proud.

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