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What a piece of worke…

Gareth Thomas, Welsh rugby player

Gareth Thomas

Reading an article by Hammer & Good (2010) about masculinity and positive psychology, I am struck by two things. Namely, that there has been an immediate critique of their stance for not being sufficiently negative about ‘man and all his works’ and, secondly, by the courage and strength of those caught in the mesh of homophobia in British sport.

Hammer and Good studied 250 American men aged 18-79 and found that the endorsement of traditional masculine norms (risk-taking, dominance, primacy of work, and pursuit of status) was positively associated with higher levels of personal courage, autonomy, endurance, and resilience. However, the need for emotional control, the pursuit of status and to win at all costs was associated with lower levels of these characteristics.

One impact of this seemingly innocuous study has been to provide an opportunity for some in the arcane world of gender studies to argue for a jettisoning of all aspects of masculinity, especially in therapeutic work with male clients. Yet there is much to admire about the traditional human values described above.

For evidence of this, look no further than the description, in The Guardian newspaper, of the experiences of Welsh rugby union icon Gareth Thomas, when he took the decision to come out as a gay man. Thomas is a heroic figure within Welsh rugby. The holder of 103 Test caps, he is a former captain both of Wales and of the British Lions: a man among men.

Having achieved so much playing for Welsh and then French clubs, last year Thomas joined rugby league club Crusaders. At the same time, almost, he took the decision to come out about his sexuality and he found his team-mates supportive and respectful. That is not to say that there haven’t been problems. On occasion, opposition supporters have taunted him from the stands, but the authorities acted swiftly and openly to support him and imposed a heavy fine on the visiting club, nipping it in the bud. Although Thomas knows he has had some problems simply because he is a pioneer, his experiences have been generally positive, he says.

If you contrast this experience with that of Graham Le Saux – the England football star of the 1990s – you see how markedly different various masculine cultures can be. Le Saux – a highly skilled and successful footballer made the great mistake of having been to university, reading The Guardian and enjoying collecting antiques. This marked him out as an outsider within the boorish and bigoted world of professional soccer. It marked him out as ‘gay’ – although his happily settled hetero family life would seem to say otherwise. During his career, for club and country, little was ever done to prevent homophobic behaviour among fans or opposition teams on the pitch.

Neither, thankfully, took the route of the only prominent gay footballer to have come out. Twenty years ago, Justin Fashanu came out as gay in an interview with the tabloid press. He wasn’t prepared for the damage his career suffered. Many former colleagues spoke out in anger against him, stating that gays had no place in a team sport. Unable to secure a long-term contract, Fashanu was the target of  malicious jokes among his team-mates and also became the target of constant crowd abuse. This was the start of a decline which, less than eight years later, ended in suicide.

To this day, professional football (soccer) retains a shameful reputation for homophobia, which rugby does not. There are many reasons suggested including, typically,  differences in education and social class. The Hammer and Good study would seem to imply that there is much within the norms and values of the two sporting cultures that is different and that football might learn some very important lessons from the world of rugby.

The point that one should take from this is surely that it is not ‘man and all his works’ that is at fault but some men and some of their works. Prejudice is learned group behaviour and can be unlearned. It is high time it was.

What a piece of worke is a man! How noble in reason? How infinite in faculty? In forme and moving how expresse and admirable? In action, how like an angel? In apprehension, how like a God?” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312)


Hammer J & Good G (2010); Positive psychology: An empirical examination of beneficial aspects of endorsement of masculine norms. Psychology of Men , 11(4), 303-318. DOI: 10.1037/a0019056

McRae D (2010); Gareth Thomas: on being gay in sport and switching to rugby league; The Guardian; 04.05.10

From → Communities, Research

  1. Just an update – Gareth Thomas to be keynote speaker at LGBT conference at Twickenham –

  2. Always I have been glad to be a woman and glad that there were men around. How glad I am we have diversity! And that you write about it!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • Likewise. It always amazes me that some of my fellow researchers build careers on stigmatising difference. It would be a very boring place if they had their way!!

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