Ian Thorpe and I are almost exactly the same age, give or a take a few weeks. In 2000 when we were both 17, we were in slightly different places. I was at home in my regional Queensland town of Toowoomba, watching the Sydney Olympics with my family. At the same time, he was becoming the most successful athlete at those Olympics, and the most talked about person in Australia.
A lot of this talk was admiration for his amazing achievements in swimming, but another part of it was discussion about his sexuality. About the way he talked, his voice, his soft-spoken way, and the fact that maybe he was gay. That he probably was gay. In the following years he was asked about his sexuality over and over again. It was discussed in the media, and by the public (don’t kid yourselves), constantly. And he was forced to answer the question, over and over again. And he chose to deny it. Until now. For whatever reason, he has decided to go on television and make it final, to tell us for once and for all that he is not heterosexual.
When I was 17, 18, 19, 20, I knew I was a lesbian. Nobody was hounding me about it; nobody was telling me I must be a lesbian because of my mannerisms. Nobody was speculating about it in newspapers. And yet, if you had asked me flat out during those times, even if you told me that everyone was supportive, and that ‘we all know anyway’, I definitely would have denied it straight (lol) out. I wasn’t ready. I came out to two people when I was 20 years old, and it took me another three years before I was out to everyone.
But maybe if i had been forced to deny it so early on, i would have continued to deny it, stuck in a denial that is very hard to get out of. The fact that the first instinct of some people is to claim that they ‘knew’ all along because of his mannerisms, to be sarcastic about his coming out, is very unhelpful. Those kinds of comments can have a negative impact on young people who may share those mannerisms, gay or not, and it may encourage more people to pressure those they ‘think’ are gay. There are friends of mine who have had people speculate about their sexuality (because they ‘seemed’ gay, which is a whole new issue), from when they were teenagers, who have had people tell them that ‘everyone knows you are gay anyway, and we don’t care’, who have stayed in the closet for a LOT longer than they otherwise would have without that pressure. I cannot even imagine what that must have been like for someone like Ian Thorpe.
And this is assuming, as everyone seems to be, that he even knew he wasn’t straight this entire time. People are giving him a hard time for ‘lying’ about his sexuality. To this I would say, nobody’s sexuality belongs to you. Thorpe could have been denying it because he was in denial, or maybe he didn’t feel comfortable identifying as gay, maybe for a long time he identified as bisexual, or any number of things. When he told us he was straight, he could have been pushing it so far down that he believed it. And even if he knew from day one he wasn’t straight, he owed us nothing. None of us know what kind of pressure he was under, what he was feeling, and why he didn’t feel safe or comfortable to come out.
Being a closeted nobody in a small town was hard enough, and led me to deny my sexuality for a long time. I can only imagine it would have been a million times harder being a famous professional athlete, with all that it entails. Judging someone for when and how they decide to come out is, in my opinion, unacceptable. Judging someone for being closeted (especially if they are an athlete and not an anti-gay politician enacting anti-gay legislation) is totally unfair. Especially when that person has lived under the spotlight of a society obsessed with their sexuality since they were a teenager.
And this brings me to the ‘who cares’ and ‘why does he have to announce’ it chorus of today. It is beyond unhelpful, especially as a heterosexual person, to have your reaction be ‘it shouldn’t matter’. Of course it shouldn’t. Nobody thinks it should. True, maybe now, fourteen years later, more people don’t care about someone’s sexuality than ever before. But Ian Thorpe hasn’t had that luxury; he endured many years of people absolutely caring. And this fantasy world where sexuality is irrelevant and nobody cares and we are treated the same is just that, a fantasy.
In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case. In the perfect world, football commentators in 2014 wouldn’t be calling people ‘poofters’ on national television. People wouldn’t be sending in complaints when a gay athlete is shown kissing his boyfriend in celebration. To think that in 2014 it isn’t a big deal for someone as well known as Ian to come out of the closet, is frankly kidding yourself. It is also really unfair to deny him the feeling of relief and closure that ending the years of speculation will hopefully bring. If anyone deserves that, it is him.