Gareth Thomas, Wales’ first openly gay professional rugby player, posted a video this weekend describing a homophobic attack in Cardiff that left him with cuts and bruises on his head.
Specific details on the attack were not available, but South Wales Police confirmed that a 16-year-old was apprehended not long after the incident. According to a police spokesperson, Thomas requested “restorative justice,” a method of policing in which perpetrators are given an opportunity to make amends directly to their victims as an alternative to entering the prison system.
The youth was allowed to apologize to Thomas, according to police. Authorities released a statement reading, in part, “hate crime has no place in society and has always been a priority for South Wales Police.”
Thomas thanked their police for their response and for the opportunity to employ restorative justice. He opted for that measure rather than asking for charges to be filed against his attacker, he said, “Because I thought they could learn more this way than any other way.”
Restorative justice is a relatively new option in the UK, launched formally in 2014. A study indicates that by avoiding prosecution and discouraging repeat offenses by about 14 percent, the program saves 8 pounds for every pound that it costs.
The attack occurred sometime around 9pm on Saturday, following a match with Tonga in which Wales triumphed 74 to 24.
Thomas, who played for Toulouse and Cardiff Blues, publicly came out in 2009 to a generally positive reaction. He retired from playing in 2011, and since then has enjoyed a career as a teacher, rugby analyst, and occasional reality show contestant. He’s also pursued activism, working with politicians to draft legal reforms that would target homophobic behavior at sporting events.
Since Thomas posted the video, there has been an outpouring of support from fans, politicians, and sports organizations.
“To us, Gareth is a hero, one of the few brave enough in men’s rugby to stand up and be open about who he is,” read a statement from International Gay Rugby. “It shouldn’t take bravery to be who you are or to go out for a few pints to celebrate your team winning.”
The statement went on, “International Gay Rugby will continue to work at a grassroots level, with national unions and with World Rugby to make sure rugby remains a sport for all – a sport that says no the intolerance and bigotry that was seen in Cardiff on Saturday night.”
Nigel Owens, an openly gay referee, reported a similar experience several years ago when a young fan sent him homophobic abuse online. Owens arranged to meet the 18-year-old at a police station for an apology.
Stonewall Cymru, the Welsh wing of an LGBTQ nonprofit co-founded by Ian McKellan, weighed in as well. Research indicates that about a quarter of queer people in Wales have experienced a hate crime in the last year, according to Director Andrew White.
Like most sports, professional rugby has struggled to eliminate homophobic bullying among players and fans. An Australian study this year showed that 78 percent of players heard teammates use slurs like “fag” and “poof” during a two-week study period.
But despite that toxic atmosphere, most study participants claimed that they had no homophobic intent. Most said that they used such language “as a joke,” with only a small number of players admitting that they intended to deliberately bully a gay teammate.
Most respondents said that they would be comfortable having a gay teammate, and 71 percent said that the sport would be “more fun” without the homophobia.
Researchers suggested that this shows a disconnect between intention and behavior, and proposed that anti-gay attitudes exist simply because they haven’t been corrected. In response, organizations including Rugby Australia and Rugby Victoria launched a pilot program in August of 2018 to educate players about the negative effects of derogatory language.
Results from the program are still preliminary but indicate that players exposed to the training are less likely to use slurs and more likely to intervene to prevent others from engaging in bullying.
That echoes the results of a 2015 study in which 85 percent of respondents said that UK sporting events were unsafe for gay spectators. In response, World Rugby initiated an anti-bullying program in collaboration with International Gay Rugby. Through policy changes and interventions with fans, the program was able to significantly reduce homophobia, with one team reporting a reduction in abuse at away games from 72 percent to 5 percent.
Professional organizations around the world have taken a more active role recently to combat homophobia. FIFA, which governs soccer, has recently imposed multiple hefty fines against teams when their fans engage in abusive chants.
In his message to followers on social media, Thomas maintained an upbeat attitude as he recovered from his wounds.
“There’s a lot of people out there who want to hurt us,” he said. “But unfortunately for them, there’s a lot more that want to help us heal. So this, I hope, will be a positive message.”
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