Gay rights campaigners have welcomed Dame Kelly Holmes’ decision to come out at the age of 52, in a move that sparked questions about how many older people remain afraid to be open about their sexuality after growing up in more homophobic times.
The double Olympic gold medallist lifted a painful 34-year public silence on her sexuality on Sunday, saying that she felt as if she was going to “explode with excitement” by finally coming out after years in which she felt depressed, anxious and even suicidal , keeping her secret from all but close family and friends.
Holmes, who realized she was a lesbian when she kissed a fellow female soldier in the army in 1988, told the Sunday Mirror: “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.”
She described how after winning gold medals in the 800m and 1,500m at the Athens Olympics in 2004, she was plagued with worry that she would be outed.
“The reason I didn’t want it to come out was that I didn’t really know people in sport … that were gay,” she said. “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.
“I needed to do this now, for me,” she told the Sunday Mirror. “It was my decision. I’m nervous about saying it. I feel like I’m going to explode with excitement. Sometimes I cry with relief. The moment this comes out, I’m essentially getting rid of that fear.”
Office for National Statistics figures released last month showed that far fewer people from Holmes’ generation were willing to identify as homosexual than younger adults. In 2020, only 2% of 50- to 64-year-old people said they were gay, lesbian or bisexual, compared with 4.5% among 25- to 34-year-olds.
Holmes said that when she first realized she was gay, in 1988, Britain was gripped by the Aids panic, which stigmatized 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.
“Kelly Holmes is the tip of the iceberg,” said the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, adding that there were “several other huge British sports starts who haven’t been able to come out”.
“They grew up in an era of often toxic homophobia and even though Britain is more liberal today they have been scarred by that experience for life,” he said.
Holmes said: “There have been lots of dark times where I wished I could scream that I am gay – but I couldn’t. I was convinced throughout my whole life that if I admitted to being gay in the army, I’d still be in trouble.”
Holmes told the Sunday Mirror that when she was 23 her barracks were searched by the Royal Military police and she believed it was to find out whether any of the soldiers were lesbians.
In 2003 she cut herself with scissors before the World Athletics Championships in France. She recalled: “I was in a holding camp bathroom and literally wanted to scream so loud, I put the tap on to dull my tears. I did not want to be here any more.”
“I really hope that this is a wake-up call for anyone engaging in prejudice and exclusion today,” said Robbie de Santos, a spokesperson for the campaigning charity Stonewall, which said it was “wonderful that Dame Kelly Holmes feels able to share her truth with the world”.
“This isn’t just about a culture war,” said De Santos. “This is about the long-term impact on people.”
“We expect there are going to be many more people living in the shadow of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia for many decades; many people feeling they would be judged by friends and family,” he said. “It can be harder if you feel like you have been living a lie with people very close to you, and people worry about sending a signal that they didn’t trust those around them.”