The World Reacts to Ian Thorpe Coming Out

Ian-ThorpeFive time Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe came out as a gay man on Sunday night in a widely publicised interview with Sir Michael Parkinson.

The champion swimmer’s declaration ignited a firestorm of comments and opinions from the public and the media covering a range of different perspectives.

While many applauded Thorpe’s decision to share his experience of struggling with his sexuality, his experiences of homophobia and his hopes for the future, others were critical of the timing and business deals around his decision.

Many have heralded Thorpe’s coming out interview for the beneficial effect it could have on young LGBT people still coming to terms with their identities.

Some have criticised the swimmer for not coming out sooner, while others have argued that homophobia in the Australian sporting world remains rife, especially for an athlete who has been in the public eye from the age of fourteen.

While the long term effects of Thorpe’s announcement are yet to reveal themselves, the event has undoubtedly ignited a widespread discussion on the responsibilities of high profile athletes undergoing the coming out process, as well as homophobia in sport and whether or not a person’s sexuality should be a point of public discussion.

The following is an excerpt from the Channel Ten interview in which the swimmer discussed his sexuality:

The swimmer went on to discuss how he felt he was unable to talk openly about his sexuality until now.

“The problem was I was asked at such a young age about my sexuality and you know I went to an all boys school. And I hate that it’s called an accusation because it isn’t a negative thing but this is usually the terminology we use. But I went to an all boys school so if you’re accused of being gay, the first answer is ‘no’, and you get ready for a fight! This is what happens, and I didn’t know at this age, I’m too young. And so the answer was no. Then, I carried this, the next way I answered this was telling people that I thought it was inappropriate to be asking a child such kind of questions.” he said.

“…also that it’s not appropriate for that question to be asked of anyone. But what happened was I felt the lie had become so big that I didn’t want people to question my integrity. And, a little bit of ego comes into this. I didn’t want people to question that, have I lied about everything?

“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. I was concerned about the reaction from my family, my friends and I’m pleased to say that in telling them, especially my parents, they told me that they love me, and they support me. And for young people out there, know that that’s usually what the answer is.”

The revelation has garnered a wide variety of different responses. A great number of people have expressed support for Thorpe’s acceptance of his sexuality, including fellow gay Olympic gold medalist, diving champion Matthew Mitcham. Mitcham said he sympathized with the struggle for same sex attracted athletes to face public speculation from an age where they are yet to come to terms with their identities.

“It would have been much harder with people asking continuously, especially when you’re just not ready.

“[For athletes in their teens], it’s too young to make a choice, you’re not going to come out and say something that you haven’t decided on.” he said.

Twitter Responses

The Twitter-sphere, the great cosmic bulletin board of our times has been flooded with messages of support for Thorpe:

Many have responded to the news with the sentiment that Thorpe’s sexuality is old news, having been steeped in rumours for years. Some have also commented that the revelation is not surprising due to Channel Ten’s promotion for the interview promising discussion of the swimmer’s sexuality.




Hildebrand was criticized for these tweets by a large number of people including writer Benjamin Law:  

Thorpe was also criticized for not being open about his sexuality sooner:

Media Responses

Comedian and former Triple J breakfast host Tom Ballard responded to the “Who cares?” attitude of some commentators with an article in The Age entitled ‘Who cares if Ian Thorpe is gay? 15-year-old closeted me, that’s who’. In it, he expresses what a difference Thorpe’s openness will make to younger same sex attracted people. He also responded to the sentiment that the athlete had left it too late:

“For those who’ve heard this news and shrug and casually asks “who cares?”, I’d simply answer “15-year-old closeted me”. Scared, little, questioning Tom Ballard would have cared a lot if nine years ago he’d seen swimming champion and national treasure Ian Thorpe on the news, proudly identifying as a successful sportsman and a bloke who liked blokes.

“And I’m sure there will be thousands of questioning kids tuning in to the interview who will care just as much and who might find themselves a new gay role model.”

He went on to state that although he was disappointed that the swimmer didn’t come out sooner, he couldn’t blame him for the decision in the midst of a world where homophobia in sporting is still very much rife. Ballard then pointed out that an AFL commentator had described a player as a “big poofter” the same night the news of Thorpe’s coming out was leaked.

Some have made comments regarding Thorpe’s reportedly being paid $400 000 for the interview in question, which was broadcast in the lead up to him calling swimming at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this month. Professor Kerryn Phelps wrote about her ambivalence towards Thorpe’s interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, stating that Thorpe owed it to himself to be honest, “but also to the public he lied to.”

“Call me a purist, but I think that the issue of same-sex attracted youth depression and suicide is so significant that I feel it warrants an act of altruism.” she wrote.

“Thorpe’s motives for doing the interview would have also been far less muddy if he had either done the interview for no money, or given that the media were prepared to pay such a huge sum, at least some of it could have been donated to one of the charities or support groups trying to help young people who are struggling with depression or contemplating suicide.”

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Chief Sports Writer Andrew Webster wrote that Thorpe’s positive message in the interview was “cheapened by the fact it is part of a lucrative deal – and comes following reports in recent years of Thorpe’s financial troubles.” He wrote about his late colleague and ‘Inside Sport’ editor Greg Hunter’s work on the swimmer’s biography, where he struggled to breach a topic so steeped in rumour.  Webster believes this was a missed opportunity for Thorpe to “set the truth free with dignity”. ”

Webster does concede that whatever financial benefits Thorpe’s coming out are, his public acknowledgement of his sexuality will have a beneficial effect on Australia’s acceptance of homosexuality, in particular for those who are still coming to terms with their own identities, that surpasses monetary gains.

“Thorpe’s public declaration will save lives.”

“It will make it easier for those who are struggling to come to terms with who they are and where they fit in this world. Thorpe remains outrageously popular, despite his indifference towards being a public figure.” Webster wrote, concurring with Mitcham.

As for the man in question, Thorpe has publicly expressed gratitude for those showing him support. It will be enlightening to see how Thorpe’s public revelation, and the ensuing public discussion, affects how diverse sexuality is viewed in the Australian media, public and sporting worlds.

Sophie Joske

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