At 52 years old, Dame Kelly Holmes shows it’s never too late to come out.
In an exclusive video interview with the Sunday Mirror’s Amy Sharpe, the English runner and Olympic champion reflected on her life as a closeted athlete, her struggles with mental health, and how a breaking point amid the tumult of 2020 led her to finally come out publicly and live life her own terms.
Holmes revealed that she first realized she was gay at 17 years old, when she was kissed by a fellow soldier in the British Army. At that time however, the Army strictly enforced homophobic policies that precluded even the thought of coming out during her tenure in the 1980s and 90s.
“Everyone knew who was gay, but you’d never talk about it,” Holmes said. “There was this pub that had a back dance floor and a pool table, and everyone we knew was gay used to go to this place. You could be yourself, then come back to your barracks.”
But the stakes for any kind of relationship was high, and six years into her service, Holmes’ residence was searched by Royal Military Police in a “humiliating” check, which she believed was to “root out secret lesbians.”
If the police would’ve found anything that revealed her true sexuality, she recalls facing the possibility of arrest or even jail.
After departing the Army 10 years later, Holmes finally felt empowered to come out to her family, and was met with an incredibly supportive reaction.
With her newfound freedom at 27, Holmes began dating a woman and pursuing international athletics full-time, though she would break off their relationship in the lead up to the Athens Olympics so she could focus on her training.
At Athens 2004, Holmes immediately rose to superstardom in the British public eye after winning two gold medals, one in the 800m and one in the 1500m. But behind the scenes, the picture was more complicated.
Holmes was plagued by injuries while training for the 2004 Games, and she now looks back at that time as a period of self-harm and suicidal ideation. Her mental struggles were only compounded by the fact that she still felt her past as a soldier prevented her from ever truly coming out publicly.
“I’d think, ‘No one talks about it in the sport, how do I suddenly say I’m gay? I can’t because I’m admitting that I broke the law in the Army,’” she said.
It wasn’t until 2020, decades after first realizing she was gay, that Holmes finally found a measure of closure from the trauma she experienced living a “secret life” all these years. The opportunity came after she contracted COVID in the first year of the pandemic, and the health scare was enough to make her realize the importance of living life as her “real self”.
Holmes contacted the military to ask if she could still face sanctions for her relationships with other women during her time in the Army, and was reassured that those restrictions were long in the past.
“I felt like I could breathe again. One little call could have saved 28 years of heartache,” she said.
Now speaking on her own terms, Holmes is proud to share that she’s currently in a relationship.
“It’s the first time I’ve had someone who I don’t introduce as a PA or friend,” she said.
Holmes has also spent the past years working on a personal documentary about her life called, “Being Me.” The film will be broadcast for U.K. audiences on June 26.