Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thoughts on Thorpe. So Ian Thorpe has come out as gay in an interview with Michael Parkinson, who clearly is not taking this 'retirement' caper seriously.

My main feeling about this is compassion. It didn't surprise me to learn that Thorpe is gay; it's something about him that pretty much the entire Australian public has always assumed. And that's shameful. What a burden that assumption must have been for him – and it's only a burden because of the negative baggage that non-heterosexuality still carries in our society.

Even if we fancy ourselves 'cool with' gay people, and approve of them when they mirror conservative heterosexual morality by marrying monogamously and raising children in stable, two-parent households, the fact it's still 'news' when a famous person declares themselves queer, and the fact it changes our perceptions of them, is a terrible shame.

I feel like the 'outing' activism in some sections of the queer media has played a damaging role here, reminding us that sexuality matters, that someone can't be respected or understood unless it's widely known, and suggesting it's weak, cowardly and not 'true to yourself' to withhold it from those you know, and the general public.

I realise that the political purpose of outing is celebratory: to show that queerness doesn't make someone weird, different or unacceptable, and that there is a spectrum of sexualities in the public sphere. But unfortunately, this impulse to talk publicly about sexuality also makes it a means of dividing people into 'tribes' or 'teams' to which they might not want to belong – or sidelining the other qualities for which they'd much rather be known.

Nobody should ever be held to be hypocritical if they seek to protect this part of themselves from being discovered and publicly discussed – even by lying or equivocating in public. Your sexuality is yours. It doesn't belong to anyone else. It's an interior monologue: do I want this, that or the other? What feels right to me? What – and who – makes me happy? Who do I want to know this about me?

It is just nobody else's business, and poor Ian Thorpe shouldn't be tormented now with his previous on-record comments, or pictures of him in pearl necklaces or that truly unfortunate party mask. Everyone seeks ways to express themselves, and they can change those expressions any time they want. Thorpe says he's gay now. Maybe he's been reticent to say so in the past because he's feared losing professional opportunities, or being thought lesser. But perhaps it's just taken him a while to figure out.

The 'born this way' narrative was another political rebuttal to homophobia – in this case, to the homophobic notion that queerness is an aberrant choice. But its determinism also squishes the reality that not everyone 'has always known' their sexuality or had a name for what they felt.

Some people have, and that's great. But sometimes they only recognise their sexuality suddenly, and in retrospect their lives make sense. It's this sense of 'rightness' and security, of feeling at home with yourself, that is the kernel of sexuality. And it's a lifelong quest. It doesn't always need to come from the same source throughout your life. You have the right to discover these things about yourself without being condemned for self-delusion or inconstancy.

The worst bit about Thorpe's coming-out is the blasé reaction of "So what? I always knew." What is revolting about this is that we seek mastery over people by claiming to know who they are before they tell us. Unlike race, which is visibly inscribed on the body, sexuality is an interior attribute. Unless you see someone having sex or they tell you their sexuality, our 'knowledge' about it is only ever gained in stereotypical ways that are inscribed by culture. Stereotypes are no use in reliably identifying what individuals do.

Just finally, I feel really sad at the way that Thorpe's personal life has been so comprehensively subsumed into a mediated self. I've read some comments to the effect that this is yet another diva move from someone who performs his life in public out of either narcissism or commercial cynicism. But I really feel as though Thorpe is trapped in a media persona based on second-guessing from a young age what sponsors and 'the public' want of him.

Two years ago I saw the documentary profile of Thorpe, The Swimmer, on TV and, as I blogged at that time, I was struck not really by the dissonance between Thorpe's 'private' and 'public' selves, but rather by the the permeability of the boundary between them:
Thorpe is a stolid, physically imposing presence with a strikingly classical face. Over the course of endless press conferences and TV interviews, he has taught himself an inscrutable composure and an uneasily anodyne manner of speaking. At some points he seems relaxed and chatty over lattes, the way we are with friends; but when Thorpe scents a 'serious' moment may be happening, he slips into his public persona as cleanly and neatly as diving into a pool.
I can only feel sorry for someone whose private self has been eroded like that. Surely the ultimate horror would be to have no private self: to be constantly what the public expects you to be. This is the same kind of horror as any narrative in which one is replaced by a robot or alien replica.

When I was a kid I was profoundly disturbed by the Ray Bradbury short story 'Fever Dream', in which a sick boy insists that his body is being gradually colonised at a cellular level by some malevolent microbe, only to be disbelieved by adults. Then he wakes, seemingly well and fully composed: the polite, mature antithesis of the scared child he had been. Only we, the readers, know what this public 'recovery' has cost him.

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