15 July 2014
Australian swimming star Ian Thorpe becomes the latest sports celebrity to admit he’s gay. But is this really a cause for celebration?
This week, Australian swimmer and multi Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe admitted in a televised interview that he was gay. Thorpe is the latest in a row of gay sportsmen from around the world – including English diver Tom Daley, American football player Michael Sam, and Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz – who have publicly declared their sexuality. The revelations have come in quick succession, like a row of tumbling dominoes, one almost touching and perhaps inspiring the next.
Thorpe’s revelation feels especially significant, given the turbulent context in which he made his statement, and his long history of denial of his sexuality. For most of his adult life, Thorpe (now 31 and retired from competitive sport) has responded to questions about his sexuality, politely but firmly denying rumours that he was gay. As little as two years ago, he wrote in his autobiography, with the (now unfortunate) title This Is Me: “For the record, I am not gay and all my sexual experiences have been straight. I’m attracted to women, I love children and aspire to have a family one day.” His statement reveals this position as a lie, but one that he felt compelled to continue. “The lie had become so big”, he said, “that I didn’t want people to question my integrity.” Telling a lie to maintain a public reputation as a nice guy: such is the paranoid doublespeak with which the closeted gay man justifies his own tenuous moral position.
As it’s transpired, the hollowness of that position has had a devastating effect on Thorpe’s life and career. In the interview, conducted with grandfatherly concern by English celebrity interviewer Michael Parkinson, Thorpe explained that he’d been suffering from serious depression for years, had considered suicide at one point, and was receiving clinical treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. He admitted that his concealing the truth of his sexuality “hadn’t helped” and was a contributing factor to his mental health problems. Thorpe’s new approach of truth-telling was, he said, comparatively new. He noted that he hadn’t even revealed his sexuality to a psychiatrist who treating him for depression last year, and that he had only told his parents a few weeks before the TV interview.
The international response to Thorpe’s admission has been, on the whole, encouraging and supportive. He’s been applauded for his bravery and courage. The Guardian’s Steve Dow was especially effusive, writing his column as a love letter addressed to Thorpe, thanking him for coming out, calling him a “gay sporting hero” and reassuring him not to feel guilt or shame for not coming out earlier. Methinks Mr Dow has a bit of a man-crush on Thorpey, to whom he says “You have always carried yourself with such grace, intelligence and charm; who wouldn’t want you on their team?” Who indeed?
Commentators have been quick to cite Thorpe’s reluctance to come out as evidence of the homophobia existing in sport and in Australian society generally. It doesn’t take much to back up this view. Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott is a conservative Catholic who is adamantly opposed to legal recognition of same-sex relationships. On the same night that the Thorpe interview was broadcast, Australian sports commentator Brian Taylor described a football player as a “big poofter” during a television broadcast. Casual homophobia and outdated gender stereotypes are, it seems, still alive and well Down Under.
More puzzlingly, Thorpe has been held up almost immediately as a role model for young people struggling with their sexuality. Thorpe referred to this in his interview, saying that one of the reasons for his coming out was “I don’t want young people to feel the same way I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable” – as he is, presumably – “and you can be gay.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it seems strange coming out of the mouth of a man who wasn’t that comfortable with his sexuality until about five minutes ago.
I have mixed feelings about Thorpe’s revelation, and the way he chose to break the news. Though the ranks of public figures who are gay, lesbian, transsexual or queer are growing, sportspeople who publicly come out are still so rare that every coming out feels like it should be celebrated. LGBT people are still comparatively starved of role models, so when someone in a position of public prominence chooses to make this news public, it becomes something that can encourage and inspire those who’ve been through the same experience, as well as those who have yet to take the plunge.
The appeal of watching Thorpe do a Big Televised Celebrity Coming Out Interview fulfils a certain voyeuristic charge, which probably isn’t that healthy, but it’s also a recognition of a shared experience. Coming out narratives are the foundational text for much of gay and lesbian culture: they’re the means by which we shape our identities as gay people and form allegiances with the LGBT community. They are also the means by which we signal our critical resistance to the homophobic culture we live in, and start to overcome the sense of guilt and shame that we grew up with.
With that in mind, it disappointed me that Thorpe’s coming out narrative was so underwhelming and incoherent. He tactfully avoided any statements about pressure he was put under by coaches, managers or sponsors not to come out, confining himself to saying “Part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay”. His declaration that “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man,” felt unconvincing, given everything that he’d explained about his depression and drug abuse, and the coyness with which he confronted the issue in the interview. Like a plane circling above the runway hesitantly before deciding to make a crash landing, he pussy-footed around, starting with “I’m not straight” before finally saying the magic words. To me, this wasn’t someone comfortable in his skin, but more the first signs of life from someone emerging from the depths of a profound personal crisis. The rumours of Thorpe being paid for the interview also leave a bad taste in the mouth – can anyone really justify commanding a six-figure fee simply for telling the truth?
Thorpe’s story is, of course, his own, and not something that’s been scripted by a public relations team. I’ve recoiled from identification with Thorpe or a wish to heroise him, which I sense is based on my (possibly unrealistic) expectations that gay heroes be courageous, fearless, articulate and untarnished by dirty little secrets. I don’t want a hero who can’t say the word “gay” and chooses a kindly old English chat show host to come out to, rather than a journalist from his own country who might give him a harder time. I don’t want someone who crawls, Lindsey Lohan-style, straight out of rehab and into the confessional chair of a celebrity interview to tell us about their sudden enlightenment, pocketing a cheque as they leave. Most of all, I don’t want yet another reminder of the guilt and shame and self-hatred that punctuate gay men’s lives, as it punctuated mine in my youth.
This is, I appreciate, an awful lot of projection to put on a man in his early 30s. Thorpe’s reticence is understandable, given the high levels of speculation about his sexuality that he’s already had to face. Coming out can be extraordinarily difficult, and, as much as we’d like it not to be the case, everyone has to come to it in their own time and on their own terms.
Then again, I can think of half a dozen sportsmen and women who’ve come out with far more bravery and grace than Thorpe has. Ian Roberts, the Australian rugby league player who came out in 1995, in a time where homosexuality was nowhere near as fashionable as it is now. Greg Louganis, the American diver, who also came out (as gay and HIV positive) in 1995. Matt Mitchum, the Australian diver, who came out in 2008 aged just 20, answering a question about who he lived with by casually referencing his then-boyfriend. The great Martina Navratilova, who came out as lesbian in 1981, before most people knew what a lesbian was, let alone how to pronounce her surname. For all Thorpe’s prowess in the pool and his magnificent flipper-like size 17 feet, he’s a tadpole by comparison with those trailblazers.
I’m delighted that Thorpe has, finally, decided to tell the truth. I hope this will be the start of a healing process for him, and that he will find his way back towards full physical and mental health. I’m also delighted that so many people can take pleasure in his news and clock it up as another one for Team LGBT. (I for one have certainly welcomed the reprinting of archival photos and videos of Thorpe in his speedos in his glory days).
But if his coming out interview was anything to go by, I think Thorpe has exempted himself from any need to be a role model – at least for now. He needs a long time out of the spotlight, and a bit of practice being an openly gay man before he can claim to be a hero of mine. I wish him well.