Some might say that it would take a lot to move a roomful of hardened lawyers to tears, but that’s precisely what rugby legend Gareth Thomas did last night as guest of honor at Clifford Chance’s headquarters in London.
Thomas, who came out in 2010, was invited to speak at an event to mark the launch of the annual Clifford Chance Pride art show.
Arcus, the organization’s global LGBT and allies network, chose Thomas because of his experience of coming out in the macho world of rugby, and because Clifford Chance is the ‘official law firm’ for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Thomas took to the lectern in the company’s in-house auditorium and spoke movingly about his upbringing and the impact that trying to stay in the closet had on his life and mental health.
He recounted how tough life had sometimes been as a child. The son of a miner, he had vivid memories of experiencing Christmas during the 1984 miner’s strike, when the only gift his parents had been able to give him was his father’s old mining lamp.
Growing up in Bridgend, he discovered his passion for sport early in life, and threw himself into rugby – often spending hours in training and re-playing the moves of games again and again in order to hone his skills.
The hard work paid off, resulting in an international sporting career that exceeded his wildest dreams.
However, inside, he was a mess; living a lie and terrified of anyone finding out his secret. At his lowest point, he told the assembled audience, he found himself sitting on the edge of a freezing cold swimming pool, a half-drunk bottle of vodka in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other, hoping that one or both would give him ‘the courage to sink to the bottom.
On another occasion, he would find himself walking along cliff tops, ‘hoping that the next gust of wind might blow me off the edge.’
Thomas knew that he was gay, but it took him many years to accept the fact, and more still before he felt able to reveal his secret to his family – or his then wife.
Asked by a member of the audience whether he had thought about calling the Samaritans, Thomas said that his own fear – and the fact that he had worked with the helpline Childline – dissuaded him.
‘I had a big fear they would know who I was from my voice. It was a secret I would not take any risk for. If I had, I would probably have been stronger quicker.’
Thomas’ own voice faltered as he recounted how his parents went quiet after he told them that he was gay. Several weeks passed without it being mentioned again, until one day they summoned him to their house, where he found the family’s best glasses set out on the table.
‘My mum sent me to the kitchen to get the Champagne … then my dad said he wanted to raise a toast to my future life.’
His parents had accepted the fact that he was gay; it gave him the courage to tell others, and eventually reveal all to the world.
He said that he had felt moved to write his recent autobiography, Proud, for anyone who wanted to find out his life story – and not just ‘a journalist’s view on it.’
Acknowledging that it’s not only sportspeople that find it hard to come out, but also those in the corporate world, Thomas hoped that his story might inspire others, and to make others think twice before choosing to live a lie.
‘I believe we all have the right to control our own destiny. But if you lie, you give up that right.’
His words obviously stuck home with the assembled crowd – made up largely of Clifford Chance employees, other LGBT network members, politicians and artists and their guests – and they gave him a thunderous round of applause at the end.
Afterwards, the party moved up to the 30th floor of the Canary Wharf building to enjoy drinks and this year’s art show.
Curated by artist Michael Petry, the theme of this year’s show – now in its eighth year – was Pioneers. Artists featured include Christopher Brown, David Edmond, Duggie Fields, Nancy Fouts, Maggi Hambling, Christopher Hobbs, David Ivie, Andrew Logan and Mandy McCartin.
As the introduction the show explains, besides all being based in London at some stage in their career, another thing the artists all have in common is a shared drive to make work, ‘often against the tide of art world fashions and, in the early years, against social approval.’
Hambling, Logan and Fields were among those who were able to attend the launch event.
Similar Pride art shows are taking place at the same time in Clifford Chance’s headquarters in New York and – for the first time – in Amsterdam and Hong Kong.
The annual Clifford Chance art shows have become something of a Pride season highlight, and are open to the public by appointment.
If the Amsterdam, New York and Hong Kong exhibitions are all as strong as the London one, it’s definitely worth taking the trouble to make a booking. As an added bonus, the London office also offers the most incredible 360-degree views over the capital.
To make an appointment to see the Pride Art Exhibition at the London offices of Clifford Chance (running till 10 July), email [email protected]
Images – from top to bottom: Adam and Adam (after Cranach) by Nancy Fouts, Screaming Perky by Mandy McCartin, and Maggi Hambling by Andrew Logan.