Two-time gold medalist Dame Kelly Holmes announced that she is gay after 34 years in the closet. The UK athlete shared the news with The Sunday Mirror, stating she felt like she was going to “explode with excitement.”
Holmes, a former solider in the army, shared her experience of serving while closeted: “It was illegal to be gay in the army. The risk, if you were caught, was to be arrested, court-martialled, thrown out, sometimes jailed. I had wanted to be in the armed forces since I was 14 and was desperate to stay in, so couldn’t let them know. But it was really hard because it consumed my life with fear.”
Holmes won gold medals in the 800m and 1500m race in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympic Games. She continued to be silent about her sexuality out of continued fear and lack of representation. “The ban in the army had only been lifted four years [before] and I had never asked anyone if there was any sort of retribution if I said something. I was still absolutely petrified,” she said.
When Holmes first realized she was gay, in 1988, the UK was severely stigmatizing the LGBTQ community. According to The Guardian, “Britain was gripped by the Aids panic, which stigmatised gay people. Schools were prohibited from the “promotion of homosexuality” under the section 28 rule that operated from 1988 to 2003 in England and Wales, and until 2000 in Scotland. Gay people in the military could be sacked until 2000 and some were court-martialled.”
Holmes had secret relationships with other female soldiers, but the army worked tirelessly to try to “weed out” any gay soldiers. Holmes recalled an instance where her bunk was raided to try to “uncover” any gay soldiers: “They pulled everything out of your cupboard, turned out the beds and drawers, read letters – everything – trying to catch us out, so we could be arrested, court martialled and potentially go to jail.”
Holmes’ strength to come out after decades of silence sheds light on older generations’ resistance to come, but also provides hope. LGBTQ+ rights leaders are thrilled, including gay rights activist Peter Thatcher, who called Holmes “the tip of the iceberg.” Robbie de Santos, a spokesperson for the campaigning charity Stonewall, stated “I really hope that this is a wake-up call for anyone engaging in prejudice and exclusion today.”