I can be a bit cynical about Pride month, with her corporate ties washed out in pink and her rainbow-colored tattoo. But then a documentary such as Kelly Holmes: Being Me (ITV) arrives to serve as a vital reminder of what LGBTQ+ pride is really about. Holmes came out publicly as a gay woman just a week ago, in what appears to have been the culmination of a long and carefully considered process. This film follows her as she prepares to break the news and explores some of the many reasons why the two-time Olympic gold medalist felt unable to make it for over 30 years.
“I’m a gay woman, but I haven’t been able to live my life authentically,” Holmes tells the camera. His nerves are visible and the emotion is raw; she often cries during the hour-long program and repeatedly holds back tears. It begins with scenes of adulation, following her triumph on the track at the Athens Olympics in 2004, when 80,000 fans took to the streets to wave flags for her. A year later, she became a lady. But, she explains, she was terrified of being in the spotlight, fearing people would find out about her sexuality.
Being Me is Holmes’ story, but it’s so much bigger than her. She explains that her fear of being exposed stems from her time in the army, which she joined at 17. She served in the 80’s and 90’s (there is wonderful archive footage of a young Holmes doing his job as a physical training instructor), back when it was illegal to be gay in the ‘army. The ban was lifted in 2000 and an apology to the thousands affected was finally issued in 2020, but what she calls “this absolute fear” of being discovered has never left her. She talks about the Royal Military Police, who are said to be actively trying to find gay people in the army, and having her room turned around and looking for ‘evidence’ of her sexuality, despite being warned so she was able to s sure there were none.
Others weren’t so lucky, though that sounds crude, with the impact this terror clearly had on his adult life, to call it luck. She meets two other veterans who were discharged from the military for being gay. David spent six months in prison and had his medal taken away. At a party, Emma told a friend that she thought she might be gay; the next morning she was arrested, after being reported to the military police. Their conversation with Holmes is brutally candid, but their understanding of the overwhelming pressure of secrecy matters. Later, Holmes meets two young Olympic boxers, a lesbian couple, one of whom also served in the military. Until she heard Holmes’ story, the young boxer had no idea it was illegal to be gay in the British Army. Such a generational divide seemed to me like a sign of immense progress, and like a very powerful reason why Holmes had the courage to make this film.
Having been private for so many years, Being Me offers Holmes the opportunity to tell her story on her own terms. One would then expect it to be a sanitized version of events. While it’s obviously nice, it’s not fuzzy or fluffy. It’s precise and compelling, addressing the many reactions audiences can have when a famous person comes out of the closet. There’s the “Who cares?” squad; those who say, “Why post it? » ; and those who say: “We have always known”. What Holmes is doing here is explaining, with great care and empathy, why coming out matters and the agony of having to hide who you are.
His coming out is significant because even at his greatest outward success, Holmes lived in such fear. It’s important because she couldn’t be happy for a long period of her adult life, because she wasn’t true to herself. This matters because of the complicated notions of shame and inner struggle that many, if not all, LGBTQ+ people have experienced on some level, at some point. His mental health suffered greatly. When she was sick with Covid, she thought about her funeral and how few people would have known who she really was. “I need people to see that it hurts,” she says at one point, and her bravery in trying to fight her own turmoil for such a clear purpose – that she could help other people who feel this – is remarkable.
At one point, she calls her friend Alan Carr for advice. He tells her she will feel lighter when the news gets out. I hope this moving film helped Holmes feel lighter. It is a victory in many ways.