Australian Olympic swimming legend Ian Thorpe, 31, answered years of press hounding on Sunday and confirmed in an interview with Michael Parkinson that, yes, he is gay.
Thorpe, dogged by the press on this issue, had previously and consistently denied the label. However, when asked by Parkinson, the now retired (at least for the moment) record-breaking swimming star was finally able to open up. He said:
“I‘m not straight. And this is only something that very recently – in the past two weeks – I‘ve been comfortable telling the closest people around me exactly that.”
When asked why he didn‘t come out aged 16 when he began top-flight swimming, he said, “I didn’t know at the stage, I was too young,” and then as to why he didn’t come out as he got older, “I didn’t accept it in myself. I didn’t want to be gay. I was still gay at the end of the day.”
Yet, today, he says, “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man.”
Thorpe also revealed that he had always feared talk over his sexuality hurting those closest to him. One particular incident seems to have left a lasting impression when, at the beginning of his career, members of the press labelled a housemate his “lover” while they were holidaying in Brazil. The man was just a friend, but it seems to have had a solidifying effect and helped to keep Thorpe in the closet. The swimmer also touched on the fact that he’d been told by people around him that being openly gay could hurt his chances of sponsorship, undermining his then fledgling swimming career.
Thorpe also revealed in the interview that he has suffered what he describes as crippling depression, and when his anti-depressants didn’t help he turned to alcohol to self-medicate. He has now sought proper assistance for all those issues, and is looking forward to a future which, if he gets his wish, will involve a partner and children.
Thorpe has gratefully received massive amounts of praise for his coming out, with sporting stars, celebrities, people in the media and just general well wishers taking to social media and to press interviews, to say a hearty well done. However, Thorpe hasn’t been without his detractors.
Some have said that they are “uncomfortable” that Ian Thorpe lied about his sexuality for so long; that he willfully misled the public as recently as in his 2012 autobiography in which he categorically stated that all his sexual experiences have been with women and that he is not gay. This turned out to still be a partial truth as Thorpe has said that he has never pursued a relationship with a man because he always feared what the press would make of it–and, given his holiday experience, perhaps these fears were somewhat founded.
Those same critics tend to believe Thorpe owed the world some honesty, and that he owed gay kids everywhere a figurehead. To be blunt, though: no.
Ian Thorpe did not owe the world his coming out. Instead, the world owes him, like it owes every LGBT person, never having to talk about this in the first place. It owes him never having to be hounded by a press that smells a story. It owes him never having to apologize for hiding something that is none of the world’s business.
It doesn’t matter if he got paid for this interview–apparently he did, and apparently a large sum–and it doesn’t matter if he has kept all that money as some reports say, or if he has given it away. It also doesn’t matter if moving forward he never again talks about being gay–in fact, I hope it becomes so uninteresting that we all feel positively bored by it.
Could Thorpe have made a difference if at 16 he announced his sexuality and went on to be the sporting superstar we now know he would become? Yes, but let’s not forget what a different world it was 14 years ago. In fact, just go back to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the erasure from coverage of diving gold medalist and record breaker Matthew Mitcham and his same-sex partner. Seen with this in mind, the criticisms appear not just to lack compassion, they’re also arrogant.
That doesn’t mean that concealing your sexual orientation doesn’t come without a cost. It is both detrimental personally and for those with whom a person might form close relationships, and there does need to be accountability for those actions when a life concealing one’s sexuality also means living a lie with a spouse who isn’t aware of your identity. Of course, this isn’t Thorpe’s situation but he no doubt feels some sense of accountability for those people he might have deceived along the way.
The point is, though, that this is his to deal with, not ours to dissect. The very fact that we feel entitled to even start pegging our own opinions onto the private lives of others comes from media intrusion and this false sense of entitlement the media manages to perpetuate in us: that we have made people like Thorpe stars, and that we own a piece of them. This of course quite forgets the years he spent in the pool honing his craft and the many sacrifices he made in his personal life to try to achieve excellence–and Thorpe did sacrifice. The Parkinson interview makes that quite clear. He even withheld the fact of his sexuality from his psychotherapist, probably hindering his recovery from depression, if not perpetuating the condition.
As such, there’s a lesson Thorpe’s coming out should teach us.
It’s wonderful to think that Thorpe might now be able to use his earned celebrity to be catalyst for change, and in particular to help combat the institutionalized homophobia in Australia’s presiding Abbott government, as well as in the sporting world, the latter of which continues to lag behind in terms of LGBT inclusion. Yet, whatever Thorpe does next, advocacy is not something he owes us, either. It is not a debt to be repaid and it is not a price for his years in the closet. He’s paid for that, highly and at his own hand. No, any advocacy or future plans, whatever they may be, should be his own choice, made freely and without press intrusion. We, at least, owe him that much.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.