On the surface, the overwhelming response to last night’s big revelation seems to be “who cares?”. Journalists and talk-show hosts and celebrities and media types have been jumping up and down all day about how much it “doesn’t matter” and how nobody should even feel the need to ask the question, let alone be put in a position where they have to answer it. “It’s 2014! Surely this stuff can’t matter any more?” and “why does anyone even care one way or the other?” and other such platitudes. Certainly there’s a bit of a case for arguing most, if not all, of those points, but clearly it isn’t so, not entirely. Given the amount of airtime, press coverage and social media (and blog) space the issue’s gobbled up in the past 24 hours, clearly lots and lots of people care.
Did we all really “know” that Ian Thorpe was gay the whole time? Of course we didn’t. The first person who knew for a fact that Ian Thorpe was gay was the first person who Ian Thorpe actually told. And unless you’re a man who’s had actual sex with Ian Thorpe, you could never have put your hand on your heart and claimed that you knew it for a fact… and even if you had managed to bed the Thorpedo, that wouldn’t necessarily have proven anything anyway. Lots of people have spent many years assuming Ian Thorpe was gay, some with an almost accusatory fervor. Certainly the media have made a circus out of asking the question over and over and, arguably, Ian Thorpe himself has fed into that circus just as often with his repeated denials.
In the end, Ian Thorpe can be enormously grateful that he was competing for gold in the pool rather than in the art of repudiation, because if denial was an Olympic sport he probably wouldn’t have made it to the qualifiers. I read a magazine interview eleven or twelve years ago in which he rattled off a list of his favourite things: Kylie Minogue, the Pet Shop Boys and Absolutely Fabulous. Now call it stereotyping if you will, but stereotypes exist for good reason and, as a fellow gay man (welcome to the family, Ian!) who’s had a fondness for Kylie, Pet Shop Boys and Ab Fab for many years, I must admit to being about as surprised by last night’s “announcement” as I was the first time I read that interview. Deny you’re gay all you like if that’s what gets you through the day – but seriously, at least think your story through a little bit first! Surely Chisel, Acca Dacca and The Footy Show would’ve more successfully painted the picture he wanted the public to see?
Ian Thorpe’s been a some-time model, done fashion shoots and started his own design label; he’s had strong ties to the fashion house Armani since the early 2000s and has always presented as an eloquent, articulate and generally dapper kinda guy. Again, of course these are all stereotypes and damn me for using stereotypes to identify or define ‘one of my own’… but you know what? Bollocks to all that PC indignation! If it looks, smells, walks and sounds like a duck, there’s a very good chance of someone putting two and two together and jumping to the conclusion that the answer is four. Funniest thing about it is that it turns out everyone who jumped to that conclusion was actually right! How dare they be so intuitive! How dare so many Australians spend so many years trying to convince Ian Thorpe – who, let’s remember, might’ve been any number of things, be it gay, straight or otherwise – to come out into the light and be whoever and whatever he wanted to be! Coz that’s the thing here – I’ve never once heard anybody say a single bad word about Ian Thorpe. Never. Not for any reason. I’ve never heard anyone call him names, nor suggest that his prowess as an athlete or his achievements as an Australian Olympic champion were any the less for his (perceived) homosexuality.
So welcome back to the “Ian Thorpe’s Sexuality Media Circus” – established in the year 2000 and still going strong! That’s all this is. All this kerfuffle is just a continuation of the same thing that’s been happening for the better part of fifteen years. Only this time, Ian Thorpe changed his mind and gave the answer that ‘Australia’ had been encouraging him to give the whole time. And surprise, surprise! It all happened on the very same night that the very same network began promoting our Thorpey as the face of their 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games telecast – in fact the very first ad for it came right smack in the middle of the interview! Fast forward 24 hours and a usually prickly presenter on the same network’s usually ‘edgy’ nightly news program was gushing in his praise of what our Thorpey did and Australia’s marvelous reaction to it throughout today… really? Is anybody actually taking any of this seriously? This surely has to be one of the most well-planned, tightly scripted and specifically timed cross-promotional media campaigns in the history of everything!
Apparently, according to last night’s interview, it was only in “the past two weeks” that Ian Thorpe has even felt comfortable coming clean with his nearest and dearest. As he navigated his way through what must have been an emotionally fraught and challenging fortnight, the obvious next step was to come out to the entire world in an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson. Yes, of course it was. Good old Parky, beavering away in his typically restrained way, doing his best to get candid, emotional responses without sounding too forthright or offensive: “And your close friends similarly too did they say maybe ‘we’ve known that all along’?”. Ian Thorpe’s close friends apparently “had some suspicions”. Suspicions?! Had these so-called close friends ever actually met Ian Thorpe before? Or were they simply harbouring the same suspicions that other Australians had harboured for the past decade? Coz if it’s OK for Ian Thorpe’s close friends…
So is Ian Thorpe the new poster boy for troubled gay teens, struggling with their sexuality and grappling with the consequences of coming out? Has he given new hope to pubescent gays and lesbians, for whom the attempted suicide rate is an unacceptably high 30%? Maybe. Maybe not. Who can say. As an almost 32-year-old man who’s been in the spotlight since the age of 15, who’s gone through the highs of being Australia’s most successful swimmer of all time and the lows of post-competitive depression, it’s hard to know who he’ll actually help with his whole “you can grow up, you can be comfortable, and you can be gay” routine. At nearly 32 years of age, until quite recently he was apparently still scared of people finding out he was gay. He was scared of losing lucrative sponsorship deals and income streams worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He suggested that going to an all boys school probably had something to do with it and who can say how traumatic the whole experience must have been if he still hasn’t gotten past it after all these years? He saw a psychiatrist who he didn’t fess up to. He even wrote an autobiography just two years ago in which he propagated the lie by denying the same thing he’d denied for years – this time in print, as part of his own story.
Then suddenly, as if by magic, the story changes and out he comes. On television. Interviewed by one of the most famous TV interviewers of our time. With a paid deal involving his manager, who also happens to be Sir Michael Parkinson’s manager. He’s done all of this surrounded by supportive open-minded media-types who gush over him and love him and support him without question; supported by family and friends who, by his own admission, have known for “the past two weeks” and who’ve been nothing but supportive and accepting over that entire fourteen day period; surrounded by money and sponsorship deals and TV gigs. He is, after all, a sporting icon, one of the most successful Australian athletes of all time – he might even be a national treasure! So our national treasure has done all of this surrounded by more money, respect, adoration, support and love than the average gay teenager will ever know in their entire life. So has Ian Thorpe helped any of them by doing what he’s done? Isn’t the most important thing that he’s finally told his story and made it clear that he wants to empower others so they don’t go through what he’s been through? Would a troubled gay teen likely even notice any of the quite significant differences between Ian Thorpe’s situation and their own, let alone care about them? Maybe. Maybe not. Who can say.
Was Ian Thorpe brave? Coming out is a deeply personal experience and it’s different for everyone. As someone who’s been there, I’d be more inclined to describe a teenager who isn’t sure if they’ll even have a roof over their head after coming out as ‘brave’ . A teenager who doesn’t know if their family or friends will accept them after coming out is ‘brave’. At nearly 32 years of age Ian Thorpe was probably brave too when he finally found the courage after all these years to come out to his own family and friends. But what he did last night? That wasn’t brave. It was a calculated risk. You can take calculated risks when you know the odds are firmly stacked in your favour.
Sadly, 30% of gay teenagers obviously don’t believe their odds are quite so favourable.