Ian Thorpe, Sexuality and the Process of Discovering One’s Identity

By Tamara Cherny

When children are sent to school by their parents, anxious and apprehensive for the social jungle and adventure that awaits them, they are told simply and almost without real thought that they “must just be themselves.” But as they mature they soon learn that this is not necessarily possible, as often a person does not quite know who they are, and when they do finally express their identity, they might be met with rejection or hostility.

Champion Olympian swimmer Ian Thorpe’s recent revelation that he is gay raises significant issues about this concept of identity. Thorpe “came out” in a televised interview with Sir Michael Parkinson that aired on Channel Ten on 13 July.

Thorpe’s so called “lie” reflects badly on his environment, not himself.

For the most part, Thorpe has been commended for his decision and is perceived to have set an important milestone in the history of Australian Sport. His public acknowledgment of his homosexuality will serve as an inspiration and a beacon of strength for other Australians, youth or adults, who have felt uncomfortable in revealing this integral element of their identity. It will also hopefully set the ball rolling for a greater acceptance of homosexuality in male-dominated sports such as the AFL, where there unfortunately remains a strong stigma attached to gay players and a serious homophobia problem.

Thorpe’s timing has, however, met some criticism in the media. It is well known that the swimmer has consistently denied his homosexuality, including in his official autobiography. His friends, relatives and representatives have been known to label him a “ladies man” and to shrug off any questions regarding his sexual orientation. For many years, this public figure had consciously chosen not to “be himself,” to omit a fundamental element of his identity from his public image, and to allegedly hide it from his closest friends and family.

Any accusations that Thorpe is a liar or has wrongfully misled the public, should, however, be dismissed. A person’s identity is the one thing that is wholly his or her own. Yet it is by no means something we can fully understand or articulate, nor something constant and unchanging. The fact that Thorpe has come out at the relatively late age of 31 indicates just how difficult it can be to pinpoint or define one’s very own identity, and moreover, how hard it can be to present certain aspects of it to a judgmental community or society that is not fully accepting of diversity.

“Be yourself”? But who is that?

Thorpe admits that he has been aware of his homosexuality for a long time. Yet like all aspects of identity, labeling one’s sexual orientation is a gradual and exploratory process. Many adults have not quite figured out their religious or political alignments or opinions. Indeed, they may be well aware of their cultural heritage, and have certain views about how the world should be run. Yet many people may not be able to string a sentence together defining their identity without ambivalence or a degree of doubt. When discovering one’s sexuality, similar doubts and confusion may often arise.

“Be yourself”? Easier said than done

Thorpe’s raw comments are also confronting in the sense that they highlight the fear that can be associated with revealing an aspect of one’s identity. He claimed that he wanted to come out for a long time, “but didn’t feel as though [he] could.” This reflects the long way that Australian society has to go to quash the underlying presence of homophobia and to embrace diversity. Too often, people who have struggled internally whilst discovering who they are, are only met with the further hurdle of having to battle criticism and rejection when they decide to portray their true self.

Thorpe explains that “what happened was I felt the lie had become so big that I didn’t want people to question my integrity.” This sentence goes beyond the issue of homophobia. It seems to illustrate a greater misunderstanding about identity in general. The choice to present a personal aspect of one’s identity in a certain way should not be labeled with the negative phrase “lie.” This term presupposes full certainty, consistency and constancy in relation to one’s identity. Indeed, Thorpe admits that he claimed to be straight when he was aware of his homosexuality. Yet everyone has a right to come to terms with who they are at their own pace and should not be criticised for hiding something when they were fearful of being subject to scrutiny upon its revelation. Thorpe’s so called “lie” reflects badly on his environment, not himself.

With the regular discussion and political debate surrounding marriage-equality, it is clear that there is a greater awareness of LGBT rights. It is important to take a step back, however, and look at the issue of sexual orientation in relation to the general concept of identity. People have the right to take their time in determining who exactly they are. Characteristics are malleable, confusing, abstract things that cannot simply be described at the snap of a finger. Even something as substantial as sexual orientation is not black and white, and may require many, many years of introspection before a person can definitely characterise whom they love or whom they are sexually attracted to.

That said, this process would be easier, less painful and perhaps quicker for many homosexual people if they were guaranteed to be fully accepted and treated no differently to their heterosexual peers. People have the right to be embraced for who they are. It is necessary to foster a nurturing and open-minded society, so that when individuals like Thorpe do discover an important element of their identity, they do not feel as though they must hide it.

Tamara Cherny is an Arts (Philosophy)/Law student at Monash University.