Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, winner of five Olympic, eleven World Championship, and ten Commonwealth gold medals, has announced that he is “discontinuing” his professional swimming career.
Ian Thorpe is quite an amazing young man – thoughtful, articulate, and honest. At his press conference in Sydney where he made his announcement, the 24-year-old Thorpe appeared equal parts calm, grateful, and relieved as he talked about his illustrious swimming career and his “difficult decision” to end it.
Listening to him speak, I was reminded in many ways of the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people (myself included) and our choice to leave behind previous lives, relationships, and/or careers in order to “come out” and be true to our deepest, truest selves.
I need to say from the outset that I’m not suggesting that Ian Thorpe is gay. Though it’s true that others have speculated on his sexuality – primarily in response to his quiet, mild-manner, and his long-standing interest in fashion and the development of his own line of designer jewellery and underwear – I’m not particularly concerned about his sexual orientation.
Instead, I’m simply intrigued with how the way he described his decision to quit swimming so closely matches the words and experiences of GLBT people’s decision to “quit” previous modes of being so as to live more authentically.
For instance, Thorpe talked about his swimming career as providing a “safety blanket”, one that in many ways prevented him from living a more “balanced” life.
How many GLBT people have hidden “safely” behind the straight personas demanded of them by their careers and/or their standing in the social status quo? I know I certainly did.
Thorpe also noted that even though it would have been “easy to follow the status quo”, he would have been “dishonest” to himself if he had continued swimming for the sake of others’ expectations and dreams.
How many GLBT people have stayed painfully closeted for the sake of others’ expectations and dreams for them? Some have even ignored their inner calling to the extent that they go through marriages with people of the opposite gender – all for the sake of satisfying others’ and societal expectations.
Like GLBT individuals on the verge of “coming out”, Thorpe acknowledged that in considering giving up swimming his first reaction was one of fear, followed by excitement about the ways his life would open up once the decision was made. He is now “proud”of making his “difficult decision”, and is looking forward to now being able to pursue the things that will make him a “better” person.
Like many GLBT people, I can strongly attest to the myriad of ways my life expanded and opened up as a result of “coming out”. Energies that had been employed in maintaining and safeguarding a secret, hidden life were now able to be directed into much more creative and life-giving endeavours. Since coming out I have blossomed in many ways. My relationships with self, God, and others have deepened and become more fulfilling.
I'm sure that now Ian Thorpe has abandoned a way of life no longer either satisfying or inspiring, he too will experience a blossoming of new and renewed energies.
As I said earlier, I’m not concerned about Thorpe’s sexuality. I don’t know if the guy’s gay, and I don’t particular care. However, even though I can’t say that Ian Thorpe is gay, I can say he’s queer. And I use this term in its most fundamental and positive sense: to be queer is to be “different”, or, according to the Collins Australian Dictionary, “not normal or usual”. Thus one doesn’t have to be gay to be queer.
In 2002, Thorpe himself acknowledged as much, saying that, “I’m a little different to what most people would consider being an Australia male. That doesn’t make me gay.”
So what does it mean to be queer? Well, as I’ve noted in a previous post, to be queer is to be open and willing to go beyond (in thought, word or deed) the parameters of gender, race, heterosexality, patriarchy, and other socially-constructed (or manipulated) concepts.
My sense is that many young men of Ian Thorpe’s generation are ditching the narrow and destructive “macho” understanding of what it means to be a man. In its place, they have embraced and embodied something quite different - a “queer” spirit of openness, inclusiveness, sensuality, and vulnerability.
Gay, straight, or somewhere in between, Ian Thorpe embodies this queer spirit. And we’re all the better for it.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, but Definitely Queer
A Fresh Take on Masculinity