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The backlash to Ian Thorpe’s sexuality is coming from us
Jul13

The backlash to Ian Thorpe’s sexuality is coming from us

CREATED ON // Sunday, 13 July 2014 Author // Nic Holas

The negative reaction to Ian Thorpe’s coming out is being served up by the very people that should be embracing him: the gays. By Nic Holas.

What a weekend it has been for LGTBIQ issues hitting the mainstream media. After much speculation, Australia’s own Ian Thorpe has swum out of the closet. The resulting backlash, or in this case backsplash, should sadly surprise no-one familiar with the way we respond to high-profile people coming out. So why are we serving Ian such bitchy resting face?

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Take a walk down your news feed or stroll through Twitter to cherry pick any number of opinions on the topic (99% of them from gay men). Currently your options are A) “Duh, we all knew already” *insert lame joke about pearl necklace*; B) “I don't see what the big deal is!” (…because I came out ages ago); C) “I'm genuinely angry someone who denied their sexuality so persistently and litigiously is now profiting from coming out” (to the tune of $400K); or D) LEAVE THORPIE ALONE (the Chris Crocker remix).

These are variations on similar themes we’ve heard before, namely that often high-profile people come out when it poses no threat to their careers, a criticism especially valid for professional athletes. This argument at least has some merit, whereas the “DUH” response is neither helpful nor witty. In Thorpe’s case in particular, we’re treated to jokes about just how “obvious” it was: the necklace business, the metrosexuality, the lilt, lisp and frosted tips etc.

At moments like this I am reminded that we no longer need the straight majority to enforce discriminatory gay stereotypes, as we’re doing very well ourselves with this constant disdain for anything not “#masc”. It’s pretty hard to accept gay men’s criticism of Thorpe’s lifelong sexuality denial when countless Grindr profile read “straight acting, UB2.”

This flows on to another oft-witnessed reaction: that Thorpe’s coming out “doesn’t mean anything”, motivated either by the very noble idea being gay shouldn’t be such a big deal, or the very ungrateful one that smacks of relative privilege. It will be wonderful when the day comes that high-profile people are openly accepted as LGBTIQ, presumably reflecting the change in how us non-famous people are accepted. What should be is not what is, unfortunately.

Conversely, when that “it doesn’t mean anything” opinion is shared smugly, it smacks of the privileges and rights we enjoy as (largely white) gay people of the developed world. Here’s the thing though: those freedoms you enjoy have been earned after many years of visible activism from previous (and current) generations. That includes high-profile people coming out and saying, “I am one too”. That same freedom you claim is not a big deal is still denied to thousands of people around the world. So when you tinge your “but it shouldn't matter” argument with eye-rolling, it leaves all those LGBTIQ behind in places like prisons, arranged marriages, high-risk sexual encounters, or depression while you go on demanding the symbolic right to add a toaster to your gift registry.  

Critiquing the manner in which a celebrity comes out and its effect on the perception of LGBTIQ is certainly valid, and Thorpe's history of denial are definitely questionable; as is the reported $400K interview fee he collected. However, there is a difference between critical viewing and shovelling shade.

Yes, it would have been of greater impact if Thorpe won those gold medals as an out gay man. Yes, coming out now at this point does send a message that being gay was something he had to suppress in order to succeed. Yes, there are braver things non-famous LGBTIQ do all the time that will receive no attention and most certainly no financial recompense. Is it still incredibly significant that our Greatest Olympic Athlete also happens to be gay? Yes, it is.

Just 24 hours prior to Thorpe’s outing, an AFL commentator called a professional athlete a “big poofter”, symptomatic of wider problems relating to acceptance, in particular with our nation’s sport-as-religion identity. To have our most successful athlete be openly on our team sends a powerful message and adds some much-needed wattage to the light we constantly attempt to shine on LGBTIQ issues.

Ultimately, despite our community’s love of in-fighting, we’re all working towards the one goal: the right to be ourselves. When a high-profile person publicly comes out, by all means ask what this means for the entire community, but do it by adding to that light we’re trying to shine, and lose the shade.

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Nic Holas

Nic Holas

Nic Holas is a writer focusing on living with HIV and the contemporary gay experience, and has been published in Hello Mr., Junkee, Star Observer, Cosmopolitan, and more. Nic is co-founder of The Institute of Many (TIM), a social umbrella for HIV positive people, and an ENUF Ambassador. Tweet him your feels @nicheholas

Comments (14)

  • thomas

    18 July 2014 at 18:38 |
    I wonder when it is we consider the possibility that Ian would not have had the career he has had if he was out. Would it have been possible for a young gay man (a child essentially) to go be openly gay, to survive not just some random name calling but what would have no doubt been targeted and sustained attack, and grown and developed athletically and personally? I doubt it. Ian Thorpe is a celebrity and as such would have a very different time of it than the rest of us as suburban queers.

    There are broader questions to ask, to my mind, around the social structures and contexts that mean it is unlikely young men and women have every right to be concerned that ther queerness might hamper a successful public career.

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  • thomas

    18 July 2014 at 18:37 |
    I wonder when it is we consider the possibility that Ian would not have had the career he has had if he was out. Would it have been possible for a young gay man (a child essentially) to go be openly gay, to survive not just some random name calling but what would have no doubt been targeted and sustained attack, and grown and developed athletically and personally? I doubt it. Ian Thorpe is a celebrity and as such would have a very different time of it than the rest of us as suburban queers.

    There are broader questions to ask, to my mind, around the social structures and contexts that mean it is unlikely young men and women have every right to be concerned that ther queerness might hamper a successful public career.

    reply

  • David

    16 July 2014 at 11:42 |
    Much is made if the $400k, but I am sure I read somewhere that payment was for a package that included the interview and commentating at the commonwealth games. Anyway, obviously he was battling lots of demons to get to this point, and let's not forgot it's not all about the public either. Family, and how family may react are just as important, and who knows what sort of pressures the man was under from his family. Anyway, good on him, hopefully he can move on from his problems now.

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  • Osvaldo

    14 July 2014 at 17:14 |
    “Who has shown no fear. Then cast the first stone in the mirror”

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  • gary

    14 July 2014 at 16:42 |
    ya still the greatest swimmer we had mate even if ya a poofter!!!!

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  • Catherine

    14 July 2014 at 16:08 |
    Thankyou. Amazing that people could so twist it that he is in the wrong for not overcoming the oppression that made him silent and so unhappy rather than the opression being in the wrong for the hell it put him through. How could anyone hear such a heartbreaking story of struggle and not just feel admiration and compassion? Detractors, gay or straight, take yourself back to 16 years old and imagine having the world watching you and the pressure to be a hero and struglling with depression and tell me what you would have done. I think we can safely assume Thorpe has probably just saved the lives of a lot of young people. And has probably done more worthwhile in the world than all the detractors put together. Deep gratitude for this man.

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  • Ex

    14 July 2014 at 14:29 |
    The thing that I found profoundly offensive was the way he discounted every other gay person's experience of being 'out'. He complained about the fear of walking down the street and people yelling 'faggot'? That's been happening to the rest of us for decades but we held our heads up because we couldn't live any other way, and we were proud to be 'different'. We've been bashed, spat on, hated. We endured through our teens and twenties instead of hiding during those difficult years when we did face greater scrutiny from our peers. Let alone the greater intolerance faced by those that came before us. So good on him for accepting $400,000 to go through what the rest of us have. It's a difficult thing but there was no need to use that platform or imply that what he's done should be inspiring to any young person facing the same struggle. Nobody should feel ashamed.

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  • Nigel

    14 July 2014 at 11:53 |
    Hes coming out is not an issue its more so constant denial about himself and really I would have had much more respect for him if he came out openly and bravely without having to hide behind a mask. What annoys me is that his coming out is unique and that he is the only gay in the village. The media just focuses on his sexuality all the time he is gay, Guess what guys I am gay to and so are others in Yarraville, Footscray and Seddon shut your face and mouth and go disappear Ian you should have been more true to yourself as an outgay sportsman Matthew Mitcham, Ian Roberts had more guts and balls than you and more HONEST than you will ever be

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  • Anna

    14 July 2014 at 11:40 |
    Whilst it's a shame there's negative reactions from the gay community, sadly there's more from straight people. Also of varying types: a) we know already, this is just attention seeking, b) I don't want to know, keep it private and c) different types of who cares - which unfortunately includes the deluded: gay people don't need to make a fuss. Just check out any mainstream news piece

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  • Barrie

    14 July 2014 at 09:55 |
    Elton John, George Michael and Ricky Martin all took their time to come out. What's the difference here?
    Well it's one of our own - an Australian - who, to top it off, is a sporting 'hero'. All the bile directed at Ian just shows how parochial and immature we can be as a community and a nation.

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  • Ryan

    14 July 2014 at 03:00 |
    Until now, i was wondering why now is he coming out. I dont even want to watch the interview. I wish all gay people even lesser in our society are mentors for those who struggle to come out. That they not use only ian thorpe as a platform to come out.

    To accept themselves in whole and not treat their sexuality as the final frontier but another facet in their wonderful personality

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  • Nathan

    13 July 2014 at 22:50 |
    Initially I thought this article was a beat up so I read it and its a great little article.

    I'm gay totally out and proud. Im proud Thorpe has had the courage to do so too now.

    But decisions on coming out is different for everyone and surely we must all respect that.

    I rarely see the bitchy gays these article talk about. But then again I dont live in Darlinghurst and I rarely frequent the gay scene.

    Perhaps the scene is dying because the people in the scene are nasty and negative. Just a thought - I dont know but what I do know is that Im glad all my gay friends are lovely, caring, happy people.

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  • David

    13 July 2014 at 22:45 |
    I live for the day that this will no longer cause so much as ripple but Thopey's coming out will help a lot of kids who are struggling with their own identity. If only there had been someone high profile come out when I was 18 growing up in the bush I may not have contemplated pulling that trigger on the gun I held... Something stopped me but for others they had no role model. Till the day when this no longer matters we should all say thank you. It's another step in the right direction to making this a non event.

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  • Matthew

    13 July 2014 at 22:28 |
    Well said.

    reply

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