Today’s big news in LGBT world, at least in my corner of the Internet, is that the British diver and Olympian Tom Daley has come out as bisexual in a YouTube video to his fans. This is obviously good news. My respect for him, already significant for his athletic achievements and all-around, handsome good-naturedness, only increases with the announcement. But let me step back for a moment to ponder the question of why I, and so many other LGBT people, often take it as a sign of self-affirmation when someone like Tom Daley comes out.
There are some things about my own coming out and what happened in the years hence that I’m still sorting out, and if I muster the courage to put them into words that ring true to me I want to return to the subject in a future post. But the bottom line remains that it’s one of the things in my life I’m most proud of. The concept of “gay pride” continues to puzzle, if not downright anger, many straight people. Proclaiming that they’ve never had the urge to “declare” their heterosexuality, they question the very need to “come out” as gay. What they’re really putting on display, however, is how deeply ingrained their sense of heteronormative superiority is. I’ve never understood the inherent defensiveness of this argument. I can only speak for me, but my pride in being gay has more to do with finding the courage to claim for myself the right to fully be myself in the way heteronormativity by default affords to straight people, than with claiming that being gay is somehow “better” than being bisexual or straight. And even more than asserting my right to be gay and proud of it, coming out for me had to do with actually realizing and accepting who I really am. That is liberating, although it may be harder for straight people to understand that for members of a sexual minority, getting to that point can in fact take both time and effort.
Tom Daley may have just made the process of self-realization easier for a lot of people, especially young people searching for affirmation that their thoughts and desires are something they should accept and embrace. I understand if Daley doesn’t want to be a “role model”, but in a cultural climate that, although it is quickly becoming more open to LGBT people, is still unwelcoming to many, he probably will be no matter what. There are many ways to be helpful to the cause, but simply by making the video, Daley made a huge contribution. His coming out video is itself interesting, for at least a couple of reasons.
Firstly, let’s remember who he is. He’s one of Britain’s most admired and most famous athletes. To come out at this stage of his career, knowing that it’ll generate a lot of attention and abuse, takes courage. Granted, those stakes are there in their own way for everyone who decides to come out, but Daley knows that his revelation will inevitably lead to an even more fervent interest in his private life from tabloids and gossip-mongers, something, thankfully, that very few of us regular folks have to endure.
I also think it matters that he’s an athlete. By all accounts, Australian Olympic gold medalist Matthew Mitcham is openly gay (although he didn’t come out until after the 2008 Olympics), but increased visibility is always welcome. Daley’s success has inspired many young people to try the sport, some of whom will be LGBT, and it’s a good thing that they’ll now have another hero to look up to.
As for the “impact” of the news (a word which imbues them with an importance that, unfortunately, runs counter to the relatively casual way in which Daley dropped them), however, I was particularly struck by two things. One is that he didn’t use the words “gay” or “bisexual” to define himself, but it wasn’t because he was being evasive. Rather, it came off as the most natural thing in the world: “Right now I’m dating a guy, and I couldn’t be happier. (…) Is it a big deal? I don’t think it is.”
If it is a big deal, in a positive way, it could be because Tom Daley just brought a vey public, young face to bisexuality. There are still many, not least in the gay community, who think it’s okay to treat bisexuality as something “lesser” or less real than being straight or being gay, with the result that people who are bi often feel that they’re not really understood by either. It brings a lot of pain and confusion to guys and girls who deserve to have their self-realization taken as seriously and greeted as warmly as anyone else’s. By adding, “of course I still fancy girls”, Daley might have validated the the thoughts and feelings of people who don’t feel that their experience is really talked about in the same way that being gay is.
I realize as I’m writing this that I’m in danger of making a bigger deal of it than Daley himself wants it to be, but I mean well. I wrote about being a Tom Daley fan in this very homosexual post during the London Olympics, and I stand by all that. But there are even more reasons to admire the guy now.