It is great to see the positive public reaction to Gareth Thomas, former captain of the Welsh rugby team, announcing that he is living with HIV. While celebrities are of course ordinary people, their announcements can have a big impact on public perceptions of HIV and funding for HIV research.
Thomas has followed actor Charlie Sheen in making this public announcement. When Sheen announced in 2015 that he had been living with HIV for four years, it led to nearly 3 million new google searches for HIV, and a doubling of sales of home HIV testing kits.
Thomas is the first major British sports star to make such an announcement. But nearly thirty years ago, American tennis player Arthur Ashe, a former Wimbledon champion, publicly said he was living with HIV.
Though it ideally shouldn’t, celebrity brings public influence. Many people, who didn’t know whether they knew anyone with HIV, felt that they knew Arthur Ashe, having followed his epic Wimbledon victory over hot favourite Jimmy Connors in 1975.
Sadly, both Thomas and Ashe made their announcements to pre-empt somebody else doing so. Gareth Thomas was being threatened by blackmailers, and USA Today had threatened to publish a story about Ashe in 1992.
But happily, the reaction to both revelations was positive. Arthur Ashe started a foundation to raise awareness about AIDS. A celebrity tennis tournament quickly raised over $100,000. Later that year Ashe addressed the United Nations General Assembly on World AIDS Day.
Today, fans cheered Gareth Thomas as he took part in the Ironman Wales race in Tenby. It consists of a 2.4 mile swim in Carmarthen Bay, a 112 mile bicycle race across South Pembrokeshire, and a 26.2 mile marathon through Tenby.
Arthur Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia, but decades later, Gareth Thomas can today promote a more positive message: that with modern medicine, people with HIV can control the condition and prevent it from developing into AIDS.
This is not the first time that Thomas has used his celebrity to challenge prejudice. In 2009, he became the first major British sportsman to continue to play his sport after coming out as gay.
He was delighted by the positive reaction from his team mates and the public. And he has recently started campaigning with Cardiff City FC to challenge homophobia in professional soccer.
Yesterday on Twitter he said of living with HIV:
“I want to share my secret with you. Why? because it’s mine to tell you, not the evils who have made my life hell, threatening to tell you before I do. And because I believe in you, and I trust you.
I am living with HIV. Now that you have that information, it makes me extremely vulnerable, but it does not make me weak.
Even though I have been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight, to educate, and break the stigma around this subject.
And that begins today when I take on the toughest ironman in the world in Tenby, and I push myself physically to the limit.
I am asking you to help me to show that everyone lives in fear of people’s reactions and opinions about something about them, but that doesn’t mean that we have to hide.
But to do this, I really really need your support.”