November 1999: I am 17 years old, and my water polo team has had a win. We’re not great swimmers, but enjoy the fitness, competition and (to be frank) violence of the sport. We’re off for a post-victory ice-cream at the kiosk (swimming fast for 32 minutes works up a wicked hunger) and a sunny Saturday afternoon at the most glorious time of the year. Over in the lap pool there’s a boy our age. When he gets out of the water people stare at him. Some kids tentatively ask him to sign things and he obliges, smiling and looking sheepish. Even though he’s not yet out of high school, Ian Thorpe is famous and must endure our pointing and whispering.
Since he became a national sporting hero as a teenager, Thorpe has lived in public, whether he wanted to or not. Our blokey media has hounded him for years about his sexuality, because God forbid a sportsman be articulate, gentle and well-dressed. Last night, aged 31, he came out. ‘Finally!’ shout some (including segments of the media who should know better), excited in their own prejudices about men who don’t conform to a mythic masculine ideal.
No. Not ‘finally’. Celebrities don’t owe you anything. You don’t have a right to know about their private lives, and you don’t have a right to a role model. Curiosity about other people’s lives is perfectly natural, but they remain people, with autonomy over their decisions and the ability to disclose or reveal as much about their lives as they are comfortable with. Whether it’s Ian Thorpe, Jodie Foster or your best friend, no-one owes anyone else a public discussion of their sexuality.
But it’s not ‘who cares?’ either. If you’ve never come out (I haven’t) you can’t possibly know what it’s like. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersexed or queer puts you firmly in the minority, even in societies that think themselves enlightened. Coming out takes courage. It risks rejection by your peers, especially in the hyper-masculine sporting fraternity. It automatically appends an adjective to your name. But still, it is a worthwhile act, and Thorpe must be applauded for his bravery. Representation matters. It is important to see more women, non-white, LGBTTIQ and disabled people in public life, because if you can’t see you, you can’t be it.
Men’s sport has a long history of homophobia. Even in 2014, the number of high profile gay sportsmen in Australia can be counted on one hand. While lesbians in women’s sport are common (there’s a whole other article about perceptions of women’s sport and non-conformance with gender stereotypes), in men’s sport being openly gay is rare, and tends to be clustered in more ‘feminine’ sports like diving and figure skating.
Sport is firmly associated with the masculine, and male homosexuality with the feminine. Ingrained misogyny means men bond through their rejection of the feminine, no more so than in the locker room. Men deride their under-performing teammates as ‘pussies’ and ‘bitches’, and old-fashioned gay slurs can be heard from the commentary box. We’re not much better in the schoolyard and workplace either, using ‘gay’ to mean awful, and elevating a euphemism for vagina to the status of worst possible swear word.
I can’t imagine what this must do to a young gay man, hearing decades of this kind of talk, but it can’t be helpful. Hiding probably seems easier than standing out, especially when your talent does the standing out for you, and the onset of celebrity arrives shortly after the onset of puberty.
Congratulations Ian Thorpe on your ongoing courage and grace. You remain, as always, an inspiration.
What do you think? Does Ian Thorpe coming out matter to you?