Olympic diver Tom Daley created a media splash on Tuesday when he announced that he was having a relationship with a man. The response provides an interesting insight into community attitudes towards sexuality and suggests that while there is growing acceptance of difference, most people still have a pretty narrow view of what it means to be “not straight”.
Some media outlets greeted the news with rapture, enthusiastically proclaiming that Tom Daley had “come out as gay” while others on Facebook and Twitter burst into spontaneous applause as Daley finally confirmed what “everybody already knew”.
While Daley didn’t define himself as gay and made it clear that “he still fancies girls”, this has been airbrushed over by many commentators. According to them, he’s cynically leaving the door open to appease his legion of female fans; he’s in denial; he’s still coming to terms with who he is; he’s bi now, gay later.
Implicit in these responses is a common view of bisexuality: it doesn’t exist or is merely transitional.
So why in an era of unparalleled sexual freedom and diversity do we still hold such rigid views? The answer lies in the way we construct straight and gay identities. The coming out experience is a case in point.
A rite of passage for gay men in particular, the coming out story is now firmly engrained in popular culture. After years of living with a dark secret, the truth is finally revealed to friends and family as the closet doors are flung open. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, the gay man is born. The act of disclosure is so powerful and (often) traumatic that it is final. The transition from straight to gay is absolute. There is no turning back.
The problem with this narrative, of course, is that sexuality is much more complex than that.
Short of being the final act, coming out in a straight world is a life-long process involving ongoing disclosures in various social contexts. In this sense, one is never truly free of the closet and sexuality is never really finished business.
Further, the coming out narrative assumes that human sexuality is binary. It neatly compartmentalises sexual differences: straight versus gay. You start straight and then you transition. But never the other way around. It is through the process of coming out that the gay identity is born. It represents both a resolution and a new beginning.
Bisexually challenges these assumptions. For many people, this can be confronting as it strikes at the heart of identity. For instance, for many gay people, the baptism of fire that is the coming out experience infuses sexuality so strongly with the sense of self that any ambiguity is almost impossible to comprehend and often met with zealous denialism. It is as if the process of coming out is so profound that someone else talking about their own unique experience somehow diminishes it. Meanwhile for many straight people, the notion that sexuality is not set in stone can raise uncomfortable questions about their own sexuality and place in the world.
Despite this resistance, these assumptions represent serious barriers to genuine equality and must be challenged.
In his famous study of human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s, ground-breaking sexologist Alfred Kinsey found that sexuality was gradiented, on a scale, rather than slotted neatly into two exclusive categories. Indeed, the Ancient Greeks and the Romans had much more fluid approaches to sexuality and in this sense, today’s more rigid interpretation is a contemporary, Judeo-Christian construct.
Only once this reality is acknowledged can we finally open the door to a future free of discrimination on the basis of sexuality. For, ultimately, of course, gay, straight, bi or somewhere in between, the capacity to love and be loved is the foundation of the human condition.
It is this love, not labels, that should define our relationships. Here Daley’s announcement was striking for its simplicity: “In an ideal world I shouldn’t be doing this video, as it shouldn’t matter.”
We’re not there yet, but with people like Daley brave enough to swim against the tide, we will get there.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on 5 December 2013.