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Ian Thorpe Doesn’t Owe Us His Coming Out

Ian Thorpe Doesn’t Owe Us His Coming Out

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:

Im not straight. And this is only something that very recently – in the past two weeks – Ive been comfortable telling the closest people around me exactly that.

When asked why he didnt 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.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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76 comments

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10:06PM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

I don't understand the need to know whether someone is gay or straight to the point of hounding them for years. It doesn't matter/shouldn't matter to anyone except for that person. I don't feel the world is owed anything from anyone just because of sexuality. It is just wrong and is no ones business but their own. If someone wants people to know, fine; if not, leave them alone.

5:04PM PDT on Jul 30, 2014

thanks

12:26PM PDT on Jul 20, 2014

It's tremendously sad that societal bigotry caused this great guy so much anguish; to doubt himself. That he now feels enough freedom to come out is great, but he owes us nothing. Unaccepting society owes him a huge apology for all his years of pain and struggle.

5:13AM PDT on Jul 20, 2014

ty

1:24PM PDT on Jul 19, 2014

Great article which reinforces the fact that someone else's sexual orientation is no-one elses business but their own. People are never approached with the question 'Are you heterosexual?', so why do we feel the need to know if someone is LGBT? We owe Ian Thorpe, and in fact, should be apologising to him, because whether directly or indirectly, the years of hounding by the media were probably why he has suffered, and yet through it all, he kept on swimming and blowing away previous records. He is a champion, in every sense of the word.

5:51PM PDT on Jul 18, 2014

Very excellent story. "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."

There ARE people who SHOULD be "outed" for their homosexuality or bi-sexuality - and Sports Stars and Film and Music Industry Stars are NOT among them!
The ones who SHOULD DEFINITELY be outed, and yes, even HOUNDED about their Sexuality, are:
those Politicians who CONSISTENTLY VOTE AGAINST LGBT EQUALITY, yet secretly enjoy being Gay themselves, with lovers, trysts in Public restrooms, Gay porn, prostitutes, whatever....
and those Priests and Religious Figures {and there are AMAZINGLY MANY of them!} who are also closeted Gays, have Porn on their Computers, and, even worse, are Pedophiles or Hebephiles {lovers of teenagers}. These are the very ones URGING the Politicians to Vote against Equality; and try to scare and guilt-trip everyone else with a Hell they obviously DON'T BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES...

Other than THOSE, who DEFINITELY DESERVE THE SHINING SPOTLIGHT, THE FULL GLARE OF PUBLICITY...
Other than those, LEAVE EVERYBODY ELSE'S PRIVATE LIFE PRIVATE unless they CHOOSE to make an issue of it...

2:25AM PDT on Jul 18, 2014

Thanks or sharing!

10:20AM PDT on Jul 17, 2014

AWESOME ARTICLE, THANK YOU & THE MEDIA & 'IN THE CLOSET' CELEBRITIES BADDLY NEEDS TO HEED THIS ARTICLE!!!!!!

I COULD NOT AGREE MORE WITH THIS ARTICLE!!!!!

9:30AM PDT on Jul 17, 2014

SO GLAD HE IS OUT.ONE MORE FREE SOUL.

8:50AM PDT on Jul 17, 2014

TY

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