Ian Thorpe’s coming out is not about us

Ben Pobjie Columnist

By , Ben Pobjie is a Roar Expert

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    Thorpey was one of many Aussies to gain experience at the Commonwealth Games. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    I remember when Ian Thorpe announced his retirement – the first time. I was listening to talkback radio, and I was struck by how many people were treating his decision to call it a day at a relatively young age as some sort of personal betrayal.

    The sense of entitlement was palpable: it was clear there was a widespread belief that Thorpe ‘owed’ us something, and was chucking in the towel before settling this debt.

    It was as if the man was our property, and by deciding that after many years of single-mindedly pushing his body to the very limits of physical possibility, he had somehow stolen himself from us.

    It was as if, having dedicated his entire adult life – and a hefty slab of his pre-adult life – to the obsessive pursuit of the black line at the bottom of a pool, he had thereby forfeited the right to do anything else.

    We, the proprietary public, the nation of spread-bellied sofa-slugs which had convinced itself that these extraordinary achievements borne of individual talent, determination and self-sacrifice were in some way our own, weren’t ready to give him permission to cast off the yoke we’d placed on him.

    If ever a man was taught from an early age that his life was not his own, it’s Ian James Thorpe.

    There has already been too much written about Ian Thorpe. Not necessarily bad things, just… too much. The best thing I’ve seen written about it, in fact, has been by author Benjamin Law, who noted, “It’s not about you” – a message many would do well to heed.

    And here I pause while you go to Twitter and denounce the wanker who’s writing an article about Ian Thorpe just to say that people shouldn’t write articles about Ian Thorpe. Yes, haha. It is ironic isn’t it. Now shut up.

    Look, if I were any good at keeping my opinions to myself I’d be in a different job. So yes, there has been too much written about Ian Thorpe. And yes I’m adding to the problem. So you probably shouldn’t even read this. Go get some exercise instead. It’s a much smarter choice.

    There are, I’ve no doubt, many people around the world who will now see Thorpe as a pervert, a deviant, a godless hellbound violator of heavenly laws. Funnily enough, the mountains of opinion being offered on the subject haven’t been revolving around this theme at all – I’ve not seen many arguments regarding the morality of homosexuality, and three cheers for that.

    At the very least we do not have to perform the tedious task of refuting lunatics that so often accompanies public controversies.

    No, the arguments swirling about Thorpe in the opinion-sphere right now centre on a couple of apparently common reactions to his coming out: ‘Who cares’ and ‘Not surprised’.

    OK, let’s deal with that second one first. No, it probably isn’t a big surprise to many of us that Ian Thorpe is gay. However, there is no actual philosophical principle stating that unsurprising news should not be imparted. It wasn’t surprising when Lisa McCune won the Gold Logie either, but nobody demanded the envelope remain sealed and the canapes cancelled.

    As for ‘who cares’? Well. I don’t care. You don’t care. Why should we, right? Nobody should care about what other people choose to do in the privacy of their bedrooms, or kitchens, or living rooms, or toilet cubicles, with other consenting adults.

    Humanity contains within it an enormous variety of different individual tastes regarding who or what one chooses to rub one’s nethers up against, and whatever our own preferences may be is really nobody else’s business, is it? So really… who cares?

    Well, yes. This would be lovely. It would be marvellous to live in a world where everybody cared as little about others’ sexuality as you and I, enlightened folk as we be, do.

    It would be wonderful to find ourselves in a world where Ian Thorpe had no need to come out, where the closet did not exist, where it was a matter of profound indifference how we might label ourselves and we could all just get on with our love lives in whatever configuration we liked and in total peace.

    It would be simply glorious if we had here a world where nobody cared whether you were gay or straight – in fact, where gay and straight weren’t even things and nobody was forced to fit into someone else’s concept of identity purely because of what they may or may not wish to do with their genitals from time to time.

    That would be a beautiful world.

    But it’s not this world. We don’t live in a world where nobody cares. And Ian Thorpe has spent half his life having it drummed into him that he sure as hell doesn’t live in that world. He knows he doesn’t live in a world where his sexuality ‘doesn’t matter’ to anyone.

    He knows he lives in a world where, even if he didn’t decide to make an announcement in a TV interview with Parky, every media outlet would bellow ‘Thorpe Comes Out’ the moment he was seen in public holding hands with a man or going to an awards night with a new boyfriend.

    Because that’s the world we live in: if you’re famous, this world is going to stick its nose in. If you’re famous and athletic, this world is going to get into a tizz over the slightest hint you’re deviating from the norm.

    This world is not a world in which the level of caring which you, or I, or Ian Thorpe, might devote to the issue of a famous swimmer’s sexual preference, can hold back the tide of caring that the rest of the world is going to bring to bear.

    This is the world we are in. It’s much better than the worlds many people had to live in in the past. It’s much worse than the worlds we wish we could create for ourselves. But one characteristic it possesses with solid certainty is unavoidability.

    One might love this world or hate it, praise it or rail against it, try to change it or try to preserve it. But what one may not do is get out of its way. It’s coming for you whether you like it or not. And when you’re a legendary sporting champion, it comes for you harder and more ferociously than most people could know.

    I don’t know how to make this world into that world: the one we want to have instead. Maybe the best way is, indeed, to say ‘who cares’, to simply refuse to buy into this world’s nonsense or play its silly coming-out games. Maybe we should, by our example, demonstrate to others how absurd the labels we impose on each other are, and by rejecting them, hope that others will too.

    Or maybe the best way is to celebrate each coming-out of the Thorpe kind, to applaud the courage and celebrate the honesty, to encourage others to take that momentous step, so that more and more prominent people – in particular those in the machismo-infested world of sport – feel confident in following suit.

    Or maybe there’s another way. Maybe there is a perfect way to respond to Ian Thorpe’s news that I haven’t even conceived of. Because I do not know what the best way to move us forward on this is, and believe me, as a professional loudmouth blowhard I am pretty proud of myself for displaying the humble strength of will required to own up to that. I do not know.

    But I do know one thing: when a kid is thrown into a white-hot spotlight in his mid-teens, and from that moment on carries the hopes of a nation on his huge shoulders and enormous feet; when he is forced, as he grows from boy into man, to endure the ceaseless scrutiny of millions of people whom he has never met but who nevertheless feel free to pass judgment on his every success or failure when he must live his life beneath the peering eyes of a public whose desire to deify him every time he touches the wall first is matched only by its eagerness to condemn him every time someone else does…

    When all this is accompanied by speculation and innuendo and interrogation and accusation and snide giggles and winking gags about who he might want to have sex with; when from the age of 16 he is forced to field questions about his sexual proclivities alongside those about his performance in the water; when this is the life he is forced to lead because an entire country decided that cheering while they watched him on TV granted them ownership of the man; when that kid has been through all that and survived, and knows it’s never really likely to end…

    Well then, he can say whatever he damn well likes about himself, in whatever forum, at whatever time, and to whatever elderly twinkly-eyed Yorkshire interviewer he chooses, and he gets to decide just how important it is.

    He’s been through what we could only strive to imagine, and if he has something to say, he’s earned the right to say it. We don’t have to care, but if we don’t, we should feel free to quietly step aside and give this rather extraordinary man some room.

    Because it’s not about us.

    Ben Pobjie
    Ben Pobjie

    Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. His book, Error Australis is out through Affirm Press.