The backlash to Ian Thorpe’s sexuality is coming from us
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?
- Ian Thorpe talks coming out with Michael Parkinson
- Overwhelming support for Ian Thorpe on his coming out
- Does coming out still matter?
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.