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Ex-rugby star Gareth Thomas gets honorary doctorate for his HIV advocacy

The Welsh rugby star, who came out as gay in 2009, is making it his mission to remove the stigma around people with HIV.

Gareth Thomas, shown in 2019, was a star on the Wales national rugby team.
Gareth Thomas, shown in 2019, was a star on the Wales national rugby team.
Photo by MelMedia/Getty Images

Former Welsh national rugby player Gareth Thomas, who became the first gay professional rugby union player when he came out in 2009, is now Dr. Thomas after becoming an honorary doctor of science at Queen Mary University in London for his HIV advocacy work.

Thomas shared the news on Instagram:

“Today I became a Doctor of science, at the Queen Mary university London. They chose to recognise the advocacy wirk I do with my campaigning with @tacklehiv To them on behalf of a community often silenced and not listened to, , I thank you for all your hard work and research.”

Thomas, 49, became a media sensation after coming out as gay in 2009. Rugby is huge in Wales and Thomas was a star on the national team as his bio attests to: “He was the first Wales rugby union player to play in 100 test matches, and is currently the sixth-most capped Wales player. He is 15th among international try scorers, and is the third-highest Wales try scorer. He also won four rugby league caps for Wales, scoring three tries.” At one point, a bio-pic with Mickey Rourke in the lead role was planned, but it fell through.

In 2019 Thomas announced he was HIV-positive undetectable (he was diagnosed in 2012) and since then he has been an advocate for ending the stigma around people with HIV. In January 2023, Thomas paid $95,000 to settle a claim without admitting guilt to a man who said Thomas “deceptively” transmitted HIV to him.

The publicity surrounding his HIV status came to define him ( polling found 74% of British adults know Thomas has HIV, the Guardian reported) and that harden his resolve to be an advocate. “It means I’m defined by this diagnosis, more than anyone else in the country. I am the definition of HIV to a lot of people. So, I have to do something about that definition. To radically change it. To educate people, and fight stigma. It also means I have to try to respond to the allegations, which compound stigma and harm this community,” he said.

Thomas’ Tackle HIV initiative is his way of helping to destigmatize HIV and has had high-profile people like Prince Harry speak out. His honorary doctorate recognizes Thomas’ important contributions and he said he considers the issue his life’s work.

“Over the past few years I’ve been even more motivated to not take the easy way out,” Thomas said. “I have a beautiful husband. Family who love and support me. A lovely home. I played rugby all my career. I could put my feet up and drink cups of tea for the rest of my life, and read the Sunday papers. I could, but I choose not to.

“Because not everyone has the choice. Other people don’t have the time I do. The platform. The access to drugs. The supportive family. The security. So I see this as a responsibility I choose to take on. And I’m all in. I’m here. I’m proud of what I represent. ... And I will be that voice, because it could be you, or someone you love, affected by HIV. I won’t be derailed. I have this platform. People need to see and hear me.”