I couldn’t care less whether Ian Thorpe is gay. But I do care about just how much we all seem to care whether he’s gay, and how reluctant we are to believe him. What’s the guy got to do, other than keep saying no for more than a decade? And more to the point, why do we think we have the right to pry into the inner workings of his sexuality, just because he happens to be an outstanding swimmer?
Unfortunately, Thorpe’s had about as much success in convincing the world that he’s straight as he had qualifying for the London Olympics. The pattern’s been the same for years: the question is posed by an impudent journalist, and Thorpe classily denies it.
Even on a show as highbrow as RN’s Sunday Profile, it still comes up:
MONICA ATTARD: But there’s a down side too isn’t there, because, in terms of your personal life, there’s been an awful lot of speculation about your sexuality?
IAN THORPE: Well, there has been. It’s something that, you know, I think people are very quick to judge people. You know, I’m a little bit different to what most people would consider being the Australian male.
MONICA ATTARD: Why do you think people…
IAN THORPE: That doesn’t make me gay. I mean, I’m straight so… people want to claim me as part of a minority group and want to put labels on people and that’s not what I’m about and I don’t understand why other people are like that.
That interview was from 2002, and our interest in the question hasn’t diminished over the subsequent decade. This week, Fairfax websites published an article that focussed primarily on Thorpe’s successful stint as a BBC commentator under the headline “It hurts that people don’t believe me”. The Telegraph’s original went even further, using the headline “Ian Thorpe: Am I gay? It’s at the stage I just say ‘whatever’”. Since the interview dealt with his frustration at constantly being asked this question, it must have frustrated him all the more to see how it was billed.
The poor guy must be sick to death of this. His publicist asked the reporter, Harry Wallop, not to ask him about his sexuality but that doesn’t help either – by placing the question off-limits, you just invite more speculation. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to stop people asking that question except getting into a high-profile relationship with a woman, and even then there would still be speculation, just as there is with other celebrities who are assumed to be in the closet. I won’t name them here both because it’s unethical and because they might sue – but we all know who gets whispered about.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard rumours and gossip about Thorpe, and people swearing that they know the truth one way or another – and why? What does it matter? What would it prove? Ian Thorpe delivered Australia five gold medals – enough for five Olympics, based on our London 2012 swimming haul – and all we’ve given him in return is grief. Admittedly he repaid us a little of that grief with Undercover Angels, but still – the least we could do to say thanks is to leave the guy alone.
I’d like to think that we now live in a world where it would be okay for Ian Thorpe to be gay, if that’s what he is. But perhaps we don’t, not quite yet. Perhaps he would have lost his lucrative sponsors back in the day. Perhaps his extensive charitable efforts would have been undermined. I do know, though, that if he were to come out, he’d inspire a lot of younger people who were struggling with their sexuality. And while admittedly a few people might think worse of him, such bigotry is resolutely to be ignored. Ultimately, it’s his choice.
Despite the enormous progress we’ve made in the past few decades, the fear of being thought to be gay is still something that many men struggle with. I can admit that there was a time when I was paranoid about people concluding that I was secretly gay because I, like Thorpe, tended not to have many girlfriends. In hindsight, I think that was a reflection of my own homophobia, inspired partly by religion and the bigotry that was commonplace in my single-sex high school. Now, I’d really like to think I wouldn’t care. But then again, people don’t constantly ask me about it. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently well-groomed to conform with the stereotype? Perhaps Thorpey might finally silence the whispers if he really let himself go?
I don’t think he’s gay. Or straight, for that matter. Even wondering about it seems unkind at this point. Especially since, while we’re talking about confessions, I’ll admit to having had the occasional laugh about Thorpe over the years, simply because for a man who was so insistent on denying being gay, he did seem to do a lot of, well, stereotypically camp things. There were the fashion parades and the pearl necklaces, and his somewhat ambiguous relationship with a female swimmer named – and you couldn’t make this up – Amanda Beard.
But I feel guilty about that now. Now, I’m happy simply to say that the question is none of my damn business, and it isn’t any of yours, either. Let’s just hope that Ian Thorpe is getting as much loving as he wants from whomever he wants, and that he’s happy. And refusing to ask him the same intrusive question or whisper about it behind his back would be a great way for us to contribute to that happiness.