Many people have praised Ian Thorpe's coming out as 'brave'. But for some, that bravery from a sporting hero was needed long ago.
14 Jul 2014 - 11:18 AM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2014 - 12:08 PM

Amid all the hoopla of the biggest reveal of 2014 – that Ian Thorpe is, indeed, a gay man – there was one statement that stuck with me. 

Rodney Croome, the national director of Australian Marriage Equality, said that thousands of Australians would be "inspired" by Thorpe’s example.

"They will see him as someone who has struggled as they have but who has come through that struggle," Croome told the media.

I hope that Croome is right. As a gay man, I know the difficulty of coming out. The inner turmoil. The fear of rejection. The realisation that your life will be different to the one you were taught was ‘normal’.

And my coming out wasn’t made easier by the example of my sporting hero.  

I am three years younger than Thorpe. My inner struggle came at the same time he was torpedoing his competition on the international stage. He was a sensation; the best-ever (and would still be had a pesky Michael Phelps not surfaced).

In my righteous indignation, I disowned Thorpe. He was no longer a champion in my eyes.

I knew the moment I saw Thorpe on TV that he was gay. The voice. The mannerisms. The penchant for pearls. Stereotypes, sure. But as Thorpe said in 2012, "I tick all the boxes". And so did I.

I saw so much of myself in Thorpe (apart, of course, from the swimming prowess). It made me uncomfortable at times. In many ways it probably sped up the personal realisation that I was gay.

But Thorpe’s protestations of his own heterosexuality did not make the process of voicing that realisation an easy one.

"Being asked about [being gay] gets annoying," Thorpe once said – one of many similar denials over the past decade.

"I think people feel threatened by me because they can’t define who I am."

I thought I could. As much as people say a person’s sexuality is their own business – and it is – the reality is that, as a teenager, I needed a leader. And instead I felt isolated and confused.

Since Thorpe announced he was gay on Sunday, I’ve experienced a whirlwind of emotions. There was elation at finally being vindicated; frustration that it took so long; shame at my questioning of the "brave" labels heaped upon Thorpe.

At times it made me feel angry, even despairing. At other times I was ashamed – how dare I be so intolerant, to continue to believe this man is gay?

What did that say about me? Was I threatened by Thorpe? Was I jealous?

Am I even gay?

I came out before Thorpe ended his ‘first’ career prematurely in November 2006. With age came understanding – of myself, and the complexities of sexuality. I was still convinced that Thorpe was gay, but accepted that while his swimming career continued (along with lucrative sponsorship options) it was unlikely he’d be making any revelations.

I was disappointed, but I understood.

So it was with astonishment that in March 2007 I read the much-touted Good Weekend interview with Thorpe. 

"I have no idea [if I would be comfortable coming out] because I’m not gay," he told journalist Janet Hawley. "I don’t think anyone should have to be asked that question.

"I’m lucky that within myself I don’t care enough to get worried or upset about it."

It was a response that saw many of my teenage emotions rise to the surface.

In my righteous indignation, I disowned Thorpe. He was no longer a champion in my eyes.

In the years that followed, I tried to ignore the occasional tabloid headline about Australia’s favourite "is-he, isn’t-he?" former athlete. I scoffed when I saw Thorpe’s interview with Leigh Sales to promote his autobiography, This is Me – which, astonishingly, was only two years ago.

"The thing that I find hurtful about it is that people are questioning my integrity and what I say," he said.

"I don’t want to offend anyone that, you know, whether they’re people [who] have friends that are gay or whatever else, I don’t want to offend them by getting angry about it, getting frustrated about it. The only part that I’m frustrated with is that people think that I’m lying," he said.

But the denials – angry or not – did offend me. They offended me for the best part of a decade.

Since Thorpe announced he was gay on Sunday, I’ve experienced a whirlwind of emotions. There was elation at finally being vindicated; frustration that it took so long; shame at my questioning of the "brave" labels heaped upon Thorpe.

I have thought to myself that -– in the absence of truth, and the inspiration it would have provided –- Thorpe should have simply opted for dignified silence.

But, most importantly, I have realised that it’s time to draw a line under what has been a surprisingly emotional topic during my life.

Yes, Thorpe didn’t display his bravery when I needed him. Yes, he played a role in making his sexuality a bigger issue than it needed to be.

And yes, what he did on Sunday should be celebrated. Thorpe’s journey has been a difficult one, but he has arrived at his destination -– even if it wasn’t when I thought I needed him to.

To Ian -– and those you will hopefully inspire -– know that it only gets easier from here.

Michael Romei is a Canberra-based freelance writer. He graduated with a double degree in journalism and law from the University of Technology, Sydney in 2010. His honours thesis examined the media coverage of the Australian swim team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.