Ian Thorpe is not dead! He’s gay!

Article by Rohan Salmond /
July 14, 2014 /
Click here to view original /

Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympic hero, has come out. In an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson the former swimmer said “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay.”

It’s unsurprising that a person with that level of celebrity coming out in such a public way has set the media abuzz. Everyone (including me, now) wants to give their two cents. The internet is awash with opinions. Some have been great, but one in particular put a bee in my bonnet, and if you’d indulge me I’d like to talk about it here.

I find Lauren Rosewarne’s piece, Thorpedo and the rewriting of history on ABC’s The Drum, pretty troubling. On Twitter I called it “by far the nastiest thing I’ve read today and that includes [what I read on] Facebook”. I should clarify that I don’t think Lauren is nasty, but the article is deeply problematic in that it perpetuates myths that (I hope) she would actually rather see extinguished.

Lauren asks, “If Ian Thorpe is a role model for coming out, is he not also a role model for lying about sexuality on the journey to the top, and proving that homosexuality is so shameful in our culture?”

Ian’s closeted-ness is the reason this story has whipped up such interest. He’s denied being gay for 15 years, and even denied it in writing. Ian says it himself: it was a lie. It’s okay to acknowledge that he lied—that’s what being in the closet means—but my problem is in the implication that being closeted is somehow a malicious deceit: that he made it to the top by pulling the wool over the nation’s eyes.

“Is he not also a role model of keeping mum until you’ve got nothing left to lose?”

Although supportive of out LGBT people, the article clears room for the idea that being closeted is a stain on your character. Ian could have been braver. He could have been more honest. What were his motivations for lying, really?

The commenters have jumped right into this breach. Ian withheld information about his sexuality, they say, so he is no longer trustworthy. But you don’t stay in the closet to screw other people over, you’re there to protect yourself from a culture hostile to anyone outside the cishet norm. Ian’s closeted life caused him serious emotional damage. Why on earth would he be in the closet voluntarily?

We often lament the dearth of out, gay sportspeople to be role models for the next generation, but when someone does come out they are greeted with suspicion and called a coward.

Honestly, I know what the author is getting at. The source of Ian’s problems lies with the shame our society attaches to homosexuality and there would be no need to come out if that shame didn’t exist.

The problem is the article goes on to reinforce that shame. There’s a bizarre expression of “devastation” from the author about “the sad loss of a gender diversity icon.” The idea is that because Ian “did manhood differently and elegantly and showcased that there were innumerable ways to speak as a man”—yet he was still sexually attracted to women—”he gave hope to all those people whose sex sits uncomfortably with social expectations.”

Sure, but Ian Thorpe is not dead! He’s still here—he just happens to be gay. He still represents an alternative model for manhood regardless of who turns him on. But the author discards Ian’s model of masculinity on the basis of his sexuality saying, “in the Parky revision, the Thorpedo becomes less revolutionary and much more of a stereotype.”

The implication here (intended or not) is that gay men are not “real men”. Only masculinity, (alternative or not) practiced by heterosexual men is valid and praiseworthy. Alternative models of masculinity practiced by gay men are silly stereotypes which can be safely ignored.

But Ian Thorpe continues to do manhood differently and is he is gay. Coming out doesn’t invalidate that! He can still be admired for being soft-spoken and avoiding sexual scandal. Those admirable traits didn’t disappear when he came out. Ian is still a gender diversity icon and young straight men can still emulate him without compromising their masculinity. Gay men are not toxic to straight men.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Lauren, the author, is reading this and rolling her eyes saying “Of course I don’t believe gay men are toxic!” She’s a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne in the School of Social and Political Sciences. She regularly talks sex, gender and feminism in the media. Surely—surely!—it’s a miscommunication. I wouldn’t bother writing this if I thought she was genuinely mean-spirited. But this article casts suspicion on the character of gay men who have been closeted, then dismisses any admirable traits they still possess on the basis of sexuality.

It’s not ok. If we’re going to talk about LGBT people in the media we can do it better than this.