Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It STILL matters

We’ve heard this before: A famous person comes out, and people say they “don’t care”. They say “it shouldn’t matter”. They’re helping to prove why it matters, and why they should care.

Over the weekend, Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe came out as gay. Part of the immediate reaction was typical: Expressions of disinterest, sometimes well-meaning declarations that it shouldn’t matter, and, sadly, sometimes open hostility and even hatred. This is what happens whenever a famous person comes out.

However, this time there was a strong reaction in support.

Writing Sunday on Australian web-based news site, The New Daily, sports editor Patrick Smithers talked about Thorpe’s coming out as a lesson in why homophobia in sports is wrong—in particular, an on-air anti-gay slur used by a sports commentator. He said: “[the commentator’s] homophobic language gives further licence to the casual, exclusionist prejudice that isolates so many vulnerable young Australians.”

Exactly so. Dana Johannsen, a New Zealand Herald sport writer, also gets it. She said today: “Homophobia is still rife in the sporting world, and Thorpe's decision to come out is not as inconsequential as some of us tend to believe.” She also knows the folks to whom a high-profile person coming out matters most:
“There's another group of people who would have cared a great deal about Thorpe's announcement. For youths who may be questioning or struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, seeing Thorpe, fair dinkum Aussie sporting hero, tell the world he likes men can only be positive. You may or may not care to know, but having a sporting role model matters greatly to them.”
This is the point I keep making and, as it happens, yesterday Stuff’s “Rugby Heaven” provided a real-world example. New Zealand rugby player Jay Claydon, then 18, was asked to leave his Christchurch rugby club because he’s gay.

The next year, Claydon moved to Australia, where he “found homophobic slurs were an accepted part of sporting culture. At the clubs he played for in Perth and Sydney, he felt compelled to keep his sexuality secret for fear of being ostracised.”

In Thorpe’s interview, he said he felt ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to come out earlier, “as though this somehow reflects on him, not those judging him,” as Patrick Smithers put it so well. Homophobia kept Jay Claydon in the closet as it had Thorpe. It shouldn’t be this way!

Back in February, after some high-profile people came out, I published a sort of open letter to straight people on why coming out matters so much. What I said back then is still true:
“Every time a celebrity comes out publicly, they’re sending a message to some scared, lonely LGBT teen that there’s hope for a better life, that they, too, can be happy and find love. It also sends a message to that teen’s parents and friends and neighbours that gay people are GOOD people, damn it, and you must never—ever—hate people for being who they are—gay, straight, bi, pansexual, trans*, whatever. When someone does, they’re not hating “them”, they’re hating ALL OF US—every type of human.”
So, this is why Ian Thorpe coming out matters so much. The reason he denied his sexuality in the past is precisely what he’s now helping to fix: Homophobia kept Thorpe from being honest—he internalised anti-gay attitudes that left him fearing rejection by family, friends, fans and the general public, and he lied to himself and everyone else. Many LGBT people do the same thing before they find the courage and safety to live in freedom. This takes a terrible toll on people, and it’s so very unnecessary.

I personally know a lot of people who are helping to speed the day when coming out won’t be necessary because it truly won’t matter. But we’re a long, long way from that time. To help make it happen sooner, we all need to be ready for the inevitable “I don’t care” or “it shouldn’t matter” comments when a famous person comes out, and we should say something positive in reply: Actually, it matters a LOT to scared, closeted LGBT young people and their families.

Because, it STILL matters.

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