Dear Straight People: Sorry, but you don't get to be cynical about Ian Thorpe coming out.
It happens every time a public figure comes out of the closet.
The general consensus is that celebrities coming out of the closet isn’t important. It’s trivial. Boring. Old news.
Thing is, if you’re a straight person, you don’t get to decide that (and I lied in the title; I’m not sorry at all). Your opinion on the subject doesn’t matter, and even if it did, you’d still be wrong.
You’d be wrong because, no matter what, Ian Thorpe’s coming out is a net good. When a public figure comes out - as gay, bi, pan, asexual, demisexual, intersex, non-binary, or trans - that very action challenges heteronormative assumptions, and forces people to confront the idea that queer people exist in every space of society. Because, y’know, we do.
Even if it’s a poorly-kept secret like in the case of Ian Thorpe, it’s still important that public figures are able to stand up and own it, because every time it happens, the world learns all over again that queer people are everywhere, and that’s a lesson that needs to continue being taught. Over and over again, people need to be reminded that we exist, not because people really forget, but because that’s what coming out actually feels like.
No one tells us when we’re 13 and in the closet that coming out doesn’t just happen once. No one tells us that we don’t get to just sit our folks down, tell them where we sit on the gender/orientation spectrum, and that’s that.
We figure it out when we’re out at school but not at home, or when we start our first jobs and are trying to figure out how our coworkers will react, or when we start uni and maybe want to find some cool queer kids to hang out with. We figure it out when our coming out doesn’t happen all at once, but piece-by-piece.
We start to spend our days testing the waters, getting a feel for the people around us, correcting people who assume incorrectly that we’re straight or cisgender. Even when you settle into a comfortable support network, it doesn’t really stop, and that’s when it begins to dawn on us that we never get to stop coming out. We realise that we get to spend the rest of our lives being mistaken for straight or cis, trying to correct people, trying to challenge assumptions and hoping each time that we haven’t just come out to the wrong person. It’s like opening Schrödinger’s box, except the cat inside is either playful or rabid.
The LGBTQA+ people reading this all know this of course. This information is just the background radiation to our everyday lives, and we’ve learned to deal with it. Tweaking our speech and behaviour here and there to safely drop clues for new friends, or to throw other people off the trail. We don’t need a refresher on the revolving closet door that is our lives.
It might, however, be news to quite a few straight, cisgender people up and down my Facebook and Twitter feeds, who are snidely posting things like, “Does anyone actually care that Ian Thorpe is gay?” or, “YAWN. Can we pay attention to the real news?”
Whether you like it or not, Ian Thorpe coming out publicly is important (maybe not as important as visibility for trans people, but that’s another discussion). When it comes down to it, the more people who come out as queer, the fewer straight people there are. And that’s good. That’s really good, because it means it’s harder to sweep us under the rug, and there’s fewer of you out there to try.
With each person that comes out as queer, it becomes less and less reasonable for society to assume we’re all straight and cisgender. That means fewer misunderstandings, less trepidation about having to come out again and again, and just less heteronormative thinking in general. Sure, Ian Thorpe is just one dude, just a drop in a river, but when a river has enough drops in it, it breaks its banks and starts a flood.
A great, big, queer flood.
So yes, Ian Thorpe should be celebrated for coming out publicly. Just like he should be celebrated for taking the time to talk about mental health, and the health of Indigenous Australians. More than anyone, public figures like him have to live their entire lives carefully figuring out whom to share their identity with, and whom they should keep it from, and he’s now taken a huge step out into the open, to tell everyone in the country at once, for better or for worse. Given some our great nation’s penchant for homophobia and general intolerance, that takes tremendous courage.
You might be bored of coming out narratives - hell, some queer people out there might be bored of them, too, and that’s their prerogative - but my advice for that would be to calmly tell you to bloody well get over it. It’s not your place to decide that a constant, unrelenting fact of our lives is ‘old news,’ not when, by and large, it’s your assumptions and reactions that keep us in these closets.
We don’t come out for you. We come out for ourselves. We do it almost every day of our lives, sometimes at personal risk, so don’t begrudge us that we try and celebrate it.