Kelly Holmes: Being Me review – a victory in so many ways

The Guardian
The Guardian
Kelly Holmes: Being Me Photograph: ITV

I can be a bit cynical about Pride month, with its pink-washed corporate tie-ins and rainbow-coloured tat. But then a documentary such as Kelly Holmes: Being Me (ITV) arrives to serve as a vital reminder of what LGBTQ+ Pride is really all about. Holmes publicly came out 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 the double Olympic gold medallist felt unable to do so for more than 30 years.

“I’m a gay woman, but I’ve been unable to live my life authentically,” Holmes says to camera. Her nerves are visible and the emotion is raw; she cries often during the hour-long programme, and holds back tears many times again. It begins with scenes of adulation, following her triumph on the track at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, when 80,000 fans came out on to the streets to wave flags for her. A year later, she was made a dame. But, she explains, she was terrified to be in the spotlight, fearful that people might learn about her sexuality.

Being Me is Holmes’s story, but it is 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 80s and 90s (there is wonderful archive footage of a young Holmes doing her job as a physical training instructor), at which time it was illegal to be gay in the military. The ban was lifted in 2000, and an apology to the thousands affected by it was finally issued in 2020, but what she calls “this absolute fear” of being found out never left her. She talks about the Royal Military Police, who would actively try to find gay people in the army, and about having her room turned over and searched for “evidence” of her sexuality, though she had been tipped off, so she was able to ensure that there was none.

Others were not so lucky, though it feels crass, with the impact this terror clearly had on her 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. On a night out, Emma told a friend she thought she might be gay; the next morning, she was arrested, having been reported to the military police. Their conversation with Holmes is brutally frank, but their understanding of the crushing pressure of secrecy is important. Later, Holmes meets two young Olympic boxers, a lesbian couple, one of whom also served in the army. Until she heard Holmes’s story, the young boxer had no idea that it used to be illegal to be gay in the British military. Such a generational divide struck me as a sign of vast progress, and as a very powerful reason for Holmes to have had the courage to make this film.

Having been private for so many years, Being Me affords Holmes an opportunity to tell her story on her own terms. There might be an expectation, then, that this is a sanitised version of events. Though it is obviously kind, it is not soft-focus or fluffy. It is precise and convincing, addressing the many responses that the public may have when a famous person comes out of the closet. There is the “Who cares?” brigade; those who say, “Why flaunt it?”; and the ones who say, “We always knew”. What Holmes does here is explain, with great care and empathy, why coming out matters, and the agony of having to hide who you are.

Her coming out matters because even at her most outwardly successful, Holmes was living in such fear. It matters because she could not be happy for a long period in her adult life, because she wasn’t being true to herself. It matters because of complicated notions of shame and inner struggle that many, if not all, LGBTQ+ people have experienced on some level, at some point. Her mental health suffered greatly. When she was ill 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 wrestle her own turmoil into such a clear sense of purpose – that she might help other people who feel this way – is remarkable.

At one point, she calls her friend Alan Carr for advice. He tells her she will feel lighter when the news is out. I hope this moving film has helped Holmes to feel lighter. It is a victory in so many ways.

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