One day, a famous athlete’s sexuality will not make the news headlines. Tom Daley has bravely brought that day just a little bit closer, writes Dani Garavelli
Perhaps the most common response to Olympic diver Tom Daley’s YouTube revelation that he is currently “dating a guy”, has been: “Why is this news?” It’s an encouraging reaction because it is a sign of progress. It means for a growing number of people, sexuality is no longer an issue. Daley can love whosoever he wants to loves. All that matters is that he keeps on delivering medal-winning performances on the boards. It may be less than a generation since Section 28 banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in our schools, but, here in Scotland, we are just months away from the passing of an Equal Marriage Act which will place same-sex unions on the same footing as heterosexual ones. In that context, why would anyone be interested in who Daley is going out with?
Yes, in an ideal world, Daley’s choice of partner would cause barely a ripple of excitement. Unfortunately, however, outside the bubble of liberal enlightenment many of us inhabit, and particularly in sport, there’s still plenty of anti-gay prejudice to be overcome, and Daley’s announcement is a seminal, headline-grabbing event.
Think about it. The world of entertainment is chock-a-bloc with openly gay stars: Graham Norton, Stephen Fry, Alan Carr, the names come tripping off the tongue. And the world of politics is not far behind, with gay MPs in almost every party. But the most knowledgeable of fans would struggle to come up with the names of more than a handful of openly gay British sportspeople: international cricketer Steve Davies, rugby player Gareth Thomas, cyclist Graeme Obree, boxer Nicola Adams and, er, not many more.
The only footballer to have come out since Justin Fashanu is Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers, who retired immediately afterwards on the grounds that being homosexual in football was unsustainable (although he later signed for Los Angeles Galaxy). And who can blame others for staying in the closet? We know that, despite awareness-raising campaigns, gay teenagers are still subjected to homophobic taunts in the playground. And gay sportspeople are still subjected to homophobic taunts in ballparks and stadia. Flamboyant US figure skater Johnny Weir was mocked at the Vancouver Winter Olympics by commentators who suggested he ought to be asked to take a gender test. How much worse must it be for those who take part in more macho sports? The answer can be found in research from Stonewall which shows seven out of ten football fans have heard homophobic language while attending matches, in US research which shows a correlation between low-self esteem and the prevalence of football in high schools, and the way Brighton and Hove Albion players and fans are subjected to relentless homophobic abuse from rival supporters just because Brighton has a large gay community.
Daley himself acknowledged the announcement was big “news” and accepted the burden of responsibility that came along with making it. He understood it had the power to damage him personally, but also, if handled right, to shift attitudes within the sporting world. That’s presumably why he released it himself using footage shot on a mobile phone. Sitting on his sofa, looking slightly less groomed than usual, he came across not as a publicity-hungry celebrity trying to create a bit of a buzz around the new series of the reality TV show Splash!, or as a desperate one trying to head off a tabloid exposé, but as a nervous, yet determined teenager who has no intention of living a lie.
There is something so genuine about his delivery, the way he looks away from the camera or bites his lip when expressing his feelings, it is difficult to imagine anyone taking exception to him, particularly when he talks about the happiness and security his new relationship has brought him after the turbulence of the last few years. In a society which still sees sexuality in terms of straight or gay, the way he refuses to pigeonhole himself (he says he still fancies girls) is also refreshing.
To other sexually-conflicted teenagers, Daley offers hope; he suggests they will be happier if they are true to themselves and shows it is possible to have a fulfilling same sex relationship without tying yourself down to any particular orientation. Politically, too, his decision to make a public declaration is potent and timely. Though there continues to be an undercurrent of resistance to tackling homophobia in sport, calls for (and against) a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year in protest against Russia’s oppression of gay people have at least moved the issue up the agenda.
Earlier this year, a Stonewall initiative to encourage players to wear rainbow laces in support of gay players met with a muted response (in England only Everton fully embraced it, in Scotland only Stenhousemuir) but that was at least in part a reaction to the fact it was sponsored by Paddy Power. More positively, key figures, including Gary Lineker and Joey Barton, are campaigning for greater tolerance – Lineker tweeted the other day: “Hope the gay footballers who may be contemplating ‘coming out’ are encouraged by the groundswell of feeling towards Tom Daley’” – while diver Jack Laugher recently told Gay Times he believed homophobia in sport should be treated as seriously as racism.
So far, there as been virtually no backlash to Daley’s announcement. Photographs of him with his boyfriend have appeared online, with many posters commentating on how “cute” they look together. The greatest outcry seems to have come from teenage groupies of both sexes who are devastated to discover he is no longer on the market.
None of this is to suggest Daley hasn’t acted courageously. Talking openly about his sexuality, at the height of his career, is a risk. Even if his British fans continue to support him, there is no telling what it will do to his international reputation or how he will be affected if he has to compete in countries where homosexuality is outlawed. There are commercial risks too. Openly gay Australian diver Matthew Mitcham has found it difficult to attract corporate sponsorship perhaps because global conglomerates do not want to “tarnish” their brand in less tolerant countries.
Still, the general expressions of goodwill are encouraging. It isn’t anyone’s place to tell other gay sportsmen and women they should follow suit – their sexuality is their own business – but if you had been psyching yourself up to going public, then Daley’s experience might just give you the push you needed. And that’s important, because until there are as many openly-gay sportsmen as there are entertainers and politicians, until we see same-sex sportspeople holding hands and getting hitched, homophobia will persist. One day, a top athlete coming out won’t make the front pages. It won’t even register as news. Daley can’t fix that on his own, but he has taken us one step further down the road towards equality and inclusivity.