Ian Thorpe is one of the world’s greatest-ever swimmers, and one of Australia’s most successful athletes, having won five Olympic gold medals, 11 World Championship golds and set 13 world records in a career that began in 1998, when he became the youngest-ever world champion, aged 14.
Thorpe is also gay, and recently admitted struggling for years with depression and alcoholism, in part as a result of his efforts to come to terms with his sexual identity while maintaining a high profile in the macho world of professional sports.
In the interview, broadcast on Australia’s Channel 10, Thorpe said: “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want people to feel the same way I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay.”
A straightforward acknowledgement, on the face of it, and many commenters have expressed surprise that Thorpe’s statement is news, in this day and age. “Who cares if Ian is gay?”, “Why does it matter?” they say.
In some respects, Thorpe’s sexuality doesn’t matter, except perhaps to a few friends and family members.
But in another sense, it does matter.
Homophobia is still rampant (even as Thorpe was coming out, an Australian TV commentator was referring to another sportsman as “a big poofter”), and in a number of countries homosexuality is a criminal offense. The sports world has a long and undistinguished history of sexual (and racial) intolerance, and machismo dominates many locker rooms.
While a handful of top sportspeople have “come out,” the number is tiny compared to the presumed percentage of gay athletes. (And it is not only the sports world that imposes pressures on people to conceal their sexual identity. There are astonishingly few openly gay men and women among the chief executive officers of the world’s top corporations, for example.)
It matters that Thorpe has made his announcement because he can now serve as one of the very few role models for young gay men in Australia and other countries where cultural pressures force many — like Thorpe — to conceal aspects of their identities, often with profoundly damaging emotional consequences.
By some measures, Japan has been and is more tolerant of homosexuality than many other countries, but homophobia is still an issue for many young (and not so young) gay men and women here.
At TELL (Tokyo English Life Line), which for over 40 years has provided mental health support and counseling services to Japan’s international community and the community at large, we often deal with callers who are struggling with their sexual or gender identities and are having difficulty being true to themselves in the workplace and among friends and family.
The mental health costs of discrimination — of any kind — extend far beyond individual sufferers and their families and friends. People who are bullied and face discrimination run a higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Employers and societies pay a far greater economic price for discrimination through loss of productivity than direct expenditure on mental health care costs.
Ian Thorpe’s willingness to be open and honest and true to himself is a brave step, and it will make a difference in many people’s lives. So yes, it does matter.
Ian de Stains, OBE, is the executive director of TELL. The TELL Lifeline is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day; it is free, anonymous and confidential. Call 03-5774-0992. Foreign Agenda offers a space for opinion on Thursdays. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org