Why We Need to Talk About Tom Daley

The media response to British Olympic diver and teen pin-up Tom Daley announcing this week that he is in a relationship with a man only confirms why we need more coming-out narratives.
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TV personality Tom Daley arrives at the 26th annual Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards on Saturday, March 23, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
TV personality Tom Daley arrives at the 26th annual Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards on Saturday, March 23, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

The media response to British Olympic diver and teen pin-up Tom Daley announcing this week that he is in a relationship with a man only confirms why we need more coming-out narratives.

This week, 19-year-old British diver and Olympic bronze medalist Tom Daley joined a small group of professional sportsmen, publicly announcing (via a self-recorded video that he posted on YouTube) that he is happily in a relationship with a man. Despite the impromptu nature of the recording, he chose his words carefully, stating that he is happy and that something had "clicked" in the relationship, but avoiding any label about his sexuality and noting that he has dated and still fancies girls.

Though a sport's star's sex life is hardly as newsworthy as Syria, the recession, global warming and all the other "important" stories that we're meant to be focused on as informed citizens of a developed-world democracy, Daley's news has gripped the public consciousness. Within hours Daley's story became the top story on the Guardian and Times of London websites, and it has literally flooded Facebook and Twitter. (By midday Monday I considered turning off Facebook on my work computer, for fear that IT surveillance would pick up on the multiple photos in my News Feed of near-naked Tom in his sparingly cut diving briefs.)

I'm not sure whether Daley is well-known outside the UK, though his orange permatan is surely vivid enough to be seen from space. Here in Britain he's a poster boy for a bewildering cross-section of the British public, for whom he's somewhere between a boy band crush, the object of dark sexual fantasies of men and women alike, and more benign sympathies for his youthful vulnerability and his very publicly reported grief over his coach-father's death from cancer. With millions of followers on Twitter and a bronze medal at last year's Olympics, and now as the star of a popular reality TV show, Splash, Daley is an athlete who, like David Beckham before him, has successfully straddled the austere, highly disciplined world of professional athleticism and the razzle and showbiz of modern celebrity. Given Daley's popularity, this kind of reaction to a major shift in his public persona was in some ways inevitable.

Modern Anglo-American culture has moved along in leaps and bounds in recent years in its approach to homosexuality. The campaign for gay marriage, once very much a marginalized "special rights" movement, has now become a fashionable badge of modern liberalism, and the widespread horror over Vladimir Putin's homophobic laws in Russia suggests that homophobia, while it hasn't disappeared, has become as unacceptable in the developed world as racism or sexism. With that in mind, I was suspecting, perhaps too optimistically, that Daley would get an easier ride than his predecessors in professional sports who've placed an athletically toned foot outside the closet.

Most responses in the UK press have been fairly positive. While the tabloid reportage has been typically sensationalist, panting breathlessly like an elderly flasher at a playground, there's been a bit less prurience and much less of an exposé or witch-hunt feel. And as media-enflamed sex stories go, this one is relatively innocent. Daley chose to make a statement himself rather than being caught pants down in a public toilet like George Michael. He isn't leaving a wife or children devastated in his wake like Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas did, and he wasn't weighed down with the added anxiety of revealing his HIV status like American diver Greg Louganis. As Daley's video shows, he seems delighted rather than suicidal about his new relationship status, giving the news something of a Richard Curtis-scripted rom-com ambience.

Interestingly, most of the commentary has focused less on the fact of Daley's same-sex attraction and more on his decision not to identify himself as gay. In particular, his proviso in the video that he still fancies girls seems to have raised heckles on all sides of the rainbow coalition. As a child of the sexually ambiguous, queer theory-infused 1990s, I have some sympathy for Daley's position. After he tried so carefully in his video not to label himself as "gay" or "bisexual," the media and onlookers have ignored this and labeled him themselves, declaring, "Daley comes out as gay," reporting that he's in "a gay relationship" or nicknaming him (the rather ghastly) "Tom Gayley." There's a cruel irony in all this, as one of Daley's stated intentions for making the video was to dispel a recent "misquotation" of him in the press. Though Daley didn't name the story in question, it's likely to have been the article that ran in the Sunday Mirror in September, in which Daley is quoted as saying that he isn't gay. The article has Daley going on to say, "But even if I was, I wouldn't be ashamed. It wouldn't bother me in the slightest what people thought." Given that Daley must have been in his current relationship when the interview was published, he's clearly had an interesting three months of soul-searching since, which has hopefully now found resolution in this week's statement.

It's a sad truth that even in our post-Bowie, post-Gaga culture, bisexuality is still viewed with suspicion and confusion. Even within lesbian and gay communities, bisexuality is often dismissed as a temporary pose rather than a permanent status, a form of sexual fence sitting before the neophyte subject acquires sufficient courage to settle into their permanent, essentialist sexual identity. For better or for worse, Daley's youth seems to be on his side. At 19 he's still young enough to be seen as "experimenting" with his sexuality, so he can be "forgiven" for some wavering on the subject -- that is, if you still think there's anything to forgive about liking boys as well as girls.

Apart from a smattering of homophobic trolling, the majority of Twitter commentary has followed a live-and-let-live argument, noting that it doesn't really matter how Daley chooses to define himself as long as he's happy. Amid the pre-Christmassy goodwill, there's been a fair amount of sniping from commentators who should know better, all falling over themselves to tell us how Daley's announcement "isn't important" or "shouldn't be news." Others have echoed something Daley said in his video, that in "the ideal world" he wouldn't have to have this conversation, playing up a sense of distaste at even having to consider or discuss the story.

Maybe I've been a homo for too long, but something in the back of my fillings aches at this kind of sentiment, which I'm not sure is a self-congratulatory kind of liberalism or just good old-fashioned homophobia hiding behind a polite veneer of old-school politeness. In my experience over the years, I've found it's usually the latter. While my fellow middle-class liberals might consider a conversation about a 19-year-old's sexuality beneath them, very few would question a gay person's right to speak their own truth. The people who'd rather not talk about celebrities coming out are much more likely to be speaking from a deep-seated dislike and disapproval of homosexuality, so when I hear these kinds of protestations toward good taste, I tend to ignore them and plow on regardless.

What this kind of "why do we need to talk about it?" naysaying misses is that we still do need to talk about Tom. Daley's own reluctance to announce his news until now demonstrates that the decision to go public with his sexuality was a difficult one and came with risks of criticism, rejection and abuse. Such is the lot of most people who identify as LGBTQ (that's "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer," for the un-acronymed) and don't have Daley's legions or supporters or celebrity status. While gay-friendly folk might imagine that we're living in an enlightened age where sexuality is no longer "an issue," this seems an incredibly naïve and dangerous position to take. Identifying as LGBTQ is still incredibly difficult, especially for young people, and the risks of negative fallout are huge, hence why stories like Daley's become so important for the LGBTQ community, and why his declaration will almost certainly provide a glimmer of encouragement for other young people in a similar situation.

For that reason alone, it seems to me that we need more statements like Daley's. People who argue that we don't need to talk about sexuality clearly have very little understanding of the pernicious effects of homophobia, the isolation and trauma of existing in the closet, and the unacceptably high levels of suicide, depression and substance abuse among LGBTQ people -- and, by extension, how important and necessary coming =-out narratives are to encourage others to live openly and honestly. As a young gay man living in a small, conservative town in the pre-Internet era, I scoured the library and newspapers thoroughly for any inkling that other people were or might have been gay. Even today, my ear is still fine-tuned to pick up on same-sex pronouns when someone refers to their partner in conversation or on the news, and I react with surprise as well as delight when someone in the public realm opts to out himself or herself. The world has indeed changed since the un-sepia-tinted days of my youth. Though social media can sometimes seem like an irritating skin condition, persistent, painful and impossible to treat, today they have the magical ability to broadcast Tom's video to LGBTQ people around the world. For some of Tom's audience, his news will be fortifying and inspiring rather than evidence of the decline and fall of civilization or another nail in the coffin of middle-class ennui.

The co-opting of Daley's story and the smoothing down of the edges around his narrative, in an attempt to make him "gay," are unfortunate, but it seems inevitable in a society where so few LGBTQ people of any profession are out and proud. The number of professional sportsmen who have identified as gay or admitted to same-sex attraction is still worryingly small, a testament to the cult of compulsory heterosexuality in sports culture. Personally I don't see that there's anything very much the matter with the LGBTQ community wanting to claim Daley for their own. It doesn't seem terribly different from the way straight society "claims" every bride and groom or every pregnant woman who waddles by as public property and yet another affirmation of the dominant social order. With that in mind, I'm cautiously happy for the LGBTQ community to celebrate Daley's news as a victory for their team. Daley can, hopefully, choose his own level of involvement with the LGBTQers, if any, at a later date.

I've also been disappointed to read so many comments along the lines of "we knew Tom was gay," which once again underscores the tired old clichés existing in our culture about what behavior constitutes "masculine" and "heterosexual" identity. These gay stereotypes are now so well-worn that it feels as painful as a shin splint to retread them: Daley's boyishly sweet face, his lack of alpha-male aggression, his tendency to soap himself under a shower in his speedos with the cameras rolling, and his hours of time spent sculpting his physique and working on his diving technique are all seen as just a big cultural shorthand for his homosexuality. This week the thousands of gay men, straight women and slightly lascivious grandmas who lusted over Tom in various states of undress had their fantasies come true or get destroyed, depending on their perspective. The clichés were true! Let's disco!

This all seems harmless enough, but as Mark Simpson pointed out in his excellent Guardian piece about Daley in the wake of the Mirror interview, this kind of thinking "reinforces straight-and-narrow and increasingly obsolete ideas about what boys should and shouldn't be -- if they don't conform to that, then they 'must' be gay." I'm with Mark. A stereotype is still a stereotype and just as limiting and damaging, even if it's "positive" or kindly intentioned. No one says "blacks have great rhythm" or "Asians are good at math" anymore, so why are we allowing ourselves the same kind of lazy stereotyping about sex and sexuality?

Any kind of public declaration about the truth of one's sexuality, whether made via YouTube to millions of followers or made quietly in a room to one or two people, is a blow for truth and honesty and a counterattack against the suffocating and damaging effects of homophobia. This week Daley has joined that club of truth tellers, making a statement that's personal and meaningful for him and, because of his celebrity, also has the potential to be meaningful to other people. It's a decision that I (and everyone else who's made a similar decision) can assure him will change his life for the better. Whether he is gay and just fence sitting, bisexual and sure to end up with a woman, or secretly trans and at the start of his journey toward becoming a lady weightlifter named Thomasina is anyone's guess and almost seems beside the point. For today, anyway, he faced his fears, took on the capricious and frequently cruel tide of public opinion, and spoke his truth. And for that I congratulate him.

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