Ian Thorpe’s declaration that he’s gay has been met with a combination of celebration and mockery. While many have praised the Olympian for speaking out, others have joked that he has simply revealed what everybody already knew.
Finally! What took him so long?
But did we really already know and who determines when it’s time to come out?
The obsession with Thorpe’s sexuality began almost from the moment he exploded onto the national sporting scene 15 years ago. As he grew into adulthood, so too did the speculation, prompting Thorpe to remark in his autobiography:
“I know what it’s like to grow up and be told what your sexuality is, then realising that it’s not the full reality. I was accused of being gay before I knew who I was.”
But why exactly was Thorpe so accused? Was it the way he walked, or perhaps the way he talked? Or was it that he had his own fashion label and a refined sense of style?
Surely we have reached the point in Australia where our understanding of sexuality is a little more sophisticated than simply making snap judgements about people on the basis of how they dress or speak? Alas not.
As a sporting legend Thorpe personifies the Australian masculine ideal, yet he has always acted in a way that is different to those who usually enjoy this (traditionally) heterosexual privilege. A man in sport who didn’t quite act the way we thought he should? Of course, he must be gay.
Unfortunately, despite the positive shifts in attitudes towards homosexuality in recent years, Australia still has a culture of naming and shaming gay men. From the schoolyard to the sporting field, if you’re not “man enough”, you must be gay. And by extension, that’s not a good thing for a man to be.
The quest to brand gay men is driven by two competing forces within our culture:
The first is a narrow conception of Australian masculinity that fails to recognise difference. “Real” Australian men are tough, strong and laconic and here sport is a powerful cultural symbol. The longer a man’s sexuality remains ambiguous, the more threatening he is to these traditional conceptions of masculinity.
For only once he’s branded gay can he be neatly categorised and marginalised. “Gay” occupies a unique place in popular culture – both an identity label and an insult. A phrase a schoolkid might use to describe something that’s bad or defective. That’s so gay! Through this marginalisation, the primacy of traditional masculinity is preserved.
The second force within our culture is the growing acceptance of sexual difference and emphasis on disclosure. After coming out, many gay men feel a sense of superiority over those we suspect are still struggling with their demons. This newfound strength all too often results in a desire to drag others out of the closet in the hope that this will transform their lives too. “If we can do it, so can you and so should you!”
But those gay men who are quick to judge Thorpe for taking so long to announce who he really is, might like to ponder whether as a teenager in the naughties they would have had the courage to come out on the international stage. Telling your friends and family can be hard enough, imagine doing it when the whole world is watching!
It is easy to forget that Australia is still a homophobic place. In coming out on his own terms, Thorpe is like many of us who choose to do so at a time when we feel secure and safe. And strong enough to face whatever may follow.
Of course, many young people don’t necessarily know whether they are gay or straight or somewhere in between. For many, the formation of sexual identify is a lifelong journey. In the case of Thorpe, despite the constant refrain that “we already knew”, the only person who could know was him. And it was for him to decide when, how and if he wanted to define himself.
It’s easy to look to people in public life as trailblazers and to expect them to lead the way. But ultimately we all have our own individual experiences with sexuality and have a right to define ourselves on our terms.
Thorpe’s status as an Australian sporting hero means his story will naturally serve as an inspiration for those still on their own journey. And for that, having reached his destination, he should be very proud.
This piece was originally published on the ABC’s The Drum on the 14th July 2014.