Different ways of coming out

Rupert Everett in Pygmalion. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Last night another Olympic sportsman officially came out: after Tom Daley's announcement of his sexuality last December, Australian five time Olympic gold medal winner Ian Thorpe revealed in an interview with Michael Parkinson on Australia's Network Ten that he was gay, after years of officially, and even vehemently, denying it.

In his autobiography published in 2012, he had declared, "For the record, I am not gay and all my sexual experiences have been straight. I'm attracted to women, I love children and aspire to have a family one day … I know what it's like to grow up and be told what your sexuality is, then realising that it's not the full reality. I was accused of being gay before I knew who I was.''

So the courage to now admit the truth is even greater. As he told Parkinson,

What happened was, I felt that the lie had become so big that I didn't want people to question my integrity and a little bit of ego comes into this. I didn't want people to think that I had lied about everything.

Thorpe, who is now 31, has however long admitted fighting another demon: depression, that he had self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. In his autobiography, he had revealed his fears about telling his family of his depression:

I know how Mum will react; she’ll cry and ask me why I didn’t tell her and then she’ll tell me how proud she is that I’ve finally talked about it. Dad is different. I’m not sure how he’ll react. I know it’ll take time for him to come to terms with it and how it fits in with his religious beliefs. I hope it does, because family means a lot to me. He once said that he felt he’d lost me as a son [when Thorpe was 15 and competing on the world stage]. I hope, in my honesty, he’ll feel as though he’s gained me back.

Those are exactly the same fears that he might have had around coming out, too, and the same reactions he could have anticipated. And he duly revealed,

I was concerned about the reaction from my family, my friends. I'm pleased to say that in telling them, and especially my parents, they told me that they love me and they support me. And for young people out there, know that that's usually what the answer is.

It's all about being true to yourself – and to your friends, family and fans. I've been through the same double coming out as Ian Thorpe, but the other way around – first as a gay man, and then as someone suffering from depression.

And I used to be far more militant about the idea that others should join me in being honest about themselves. As Ian Thorpe admitted,

I'm a little bit ashamed that I didn't come out earlier, that I didn't have the strength to do it, I didn't have the courage to do it, to break that lie. But everyone goes on their own path to do this.

Exactly so. As Steve Dow has said in a column in The Guardian today, cast as an open letter to Thorpe,

If there’s a point of public frustration, it may be that you felt the need to actively deny your sexuality right throughout your 20s. Some people take this denial personally. But your coming out is not about them. This is all about you, and your healing.

Yes, it is. But what Ian will discover, as many before him have, is the effect that his declaration has on healing others, too. Two days after Daley's youtube coming out, he was flying to Houston, when an elderly lady in a wheelchair came up to him to thank him for his bravery. She told him that he had inspired her son to be able to tell her that he was gay, despite the fact that he was married with three children.

Fortunately the closet doors are not locked quite as tight in the entertainment world as they are in the sports one. But the battle is not yet fully won even there, especially among so-called A-listers in the movie world where there's still a lot of secrecy.

Matters were not helped a few years ago when Rupert Everett said about coming out in an interview:

It's not that advisable to be honest. It's not very easy. And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out.

Everett was unable then to name any famous gay Hollywood stars, and said that there were "probably' plenty still in the closet.

He added:

But I think, all in all, I'm probably much happier than they are. I may not be as rich or successful, but at least I'm vaguely free to be myself.

Ian Thorpe today is free to be himself, too. Bravo to him and good luck to anyone else on this most personal and simultaneously public of journeys.