LGBT History Month: Meet Dame Kelly Holmes

Posted on February, 2024

This week, in our series celebrating the contribution of LGBT people to society for LGBT History Month, we’re exploring the life of Dame Kelly Holmes.

RISE LGBT History Month Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes is a British athlete, Olympic medal winner, ex army member and passionate advocate for mental health awareness and the empowerment of young people. She came out as a gay woman in June 2022.

Born in 1970, in Pembury, Kent, England, Dame Kelly discovered her passion for running at a young age. She joined the local athletics club at 12 years old and quickly began to excel in competitive middle-distance events. She soon earned a spot on the British national team and represented her country in various international competitions.

At 17, Dame Kelly joined the Army, where she became an HGV driver and later a basic physical training instructor. Her athletic ability was clear and she transferred to the Royal Army Physical Training Corps. Kelly combined army life with athletics for many years.

Dame Kelly's breakthrough moment as an athlete came at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Competing in the 800 metres and 1500 metres events, she won gold medals in both events, becoming the first British female athlete to achieve such a double victory at the same Olympic Games in over 80 years. But those wins were not without shadows.

Dame Kelly came out as a gay woman in June 2022, when she was 52, breaking a 34 year silence. As reported first in the Sunday Mirror and then in many other newspapers, she said, “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.”

Dame Kelly then described how scared she had been, after winning those gold medals, that she would be outed. At that time, she was not aware of other gay or lesbian sportspeople, and there had been a ban on being gay or lesbian within the army until the year 2000 – just four years earlier than her Olympic success. Here fears were not ungrounded – LGBT people veterans who served during the time of the ban *were* discharged, removed from military bases, stripped of their medals or convicted , and a debate on undoing those convictions is scheduled to happen this year.

Her relief in coming out was clear - she told the Sunday Mirror. “...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.”

Dame Kelly has been honoured with numerous awards and accolades, including being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2005 for her services to athletics. She has also been inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame and the England Athletics Hall of Fame.

Dame Kelly has spoken openly about her own struggles with depression and self harm, and has worked tirelessly to break down stigmas surrounding mental illness.

In 2008 Dame Kelly set up the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. The Trust is a youth development charity founded on the belief that every young person needs a champion. It puts world class athletes shoulder to shoulder with young people, equipping them with a winning mindset and shaping their futures. It supports retired athletes as they transition from sport, and uses their skills and experience to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people through mentoring programmes.