Bronze-holding Olympic diver Tom Daley came out last week as dating a man, though he never actually uttered the words, “I am gay.” I find this omission to be as pointed as a swimmer’s nipples after ten laps in the puffin tank, and just as pleasant to hold in my ear. No hard statements about his identity were needed.
The only words were the relevant ones: “I’m still Tom.”
The critical public tends to treat celebrity coming-outs like fine wines, swirling them to every angle and watching for cause-betrayals to stick to the glass. The swimmer might catch flack for not embracing a gay identity, but I’m here to tell him I have his back. It doesn’t matter what Tom Daley is anymore. What matters is what he isn’t, which is straight. He gave up a huge amount of privilege — including that of a private body — to ensure that young queer athletes have more professional role models than can be counted on one hand.
The guy is only 19. I know my personal sexuality grew as much in size and nuance since my freshman year of college as my dick did in middle school. There’s a good chance that Daley hasn’t made a concrete statement about “what” he is yet because he doesn’t know. Young love is scary and exhilarating enough as it is without having to sign a preference contract based on the loved one’s gender. Queer celebrities will have to field questions about their sex lives, one way or another, their whole careers. I applaud this one for not locking himself into a label he he feels unable to grow with.
The impression I get from Daley’s generation, from which I am 11 years removed, is that they understand the concept of self-identification in ways that today’s current crop of top-dog activists couldn’t learn from another 15 Netroots Nation conferences. I believe that the freedom to self-identify, even if that identification is “TBD,” is key towards a deeper kind of liberation than can be won through the likes of sitcom ubiquity and legalized marriage. There are not two people in this world that have the same lived experience around the word “gay;” unshackling those three letters from from a human history’s worth of sexual attraction and action could give us some collective breathing room.
Let me put this in layman’s terms. That is, terms that describe laying a man. It’s what I do best and will save us from going down any queer studies rabbit holes.
I do not claim to have 1/10th of Tom Daley’s athletic talent, but I ran track for four years in college and spent two of those as team captain. I was fully out by my junior year, and my mixed campus reputations as token tomcatting homo and locker-room-comfortable, all-conference sprinter lead some of the other athletes (who played far bro-ier sports) to get comfortable with me. That is to say, did everything to get my attention but draw arrow to their assholes and drop their carpenter’s jeans at my front steps.
Nothing ever happened with these curious jocks because I never had the self-confidence to get their money where their mouths were (or their mouths where my balls were). The few I could get close to owning up would just tell me that there weren’t gay, though often as a prelude to a list of things they could imagine trying only with me if they were. I speak “flirty straight guy” quite fluently these days, but then it was a foreign language whose speakers left me blue-balled and alone.
Imagine if these guys had a role model they’d be naturally inclined to respect — say, an Olympic medal diver — that told showed them they could get close to the ol’ Owen Wilson Nose once in a while without tattooing “I’m Gay” on their foreheads. That they could go to a Bar Mitzvah without taking conversion vows, and not be barred from visiting any churches, mosques or ashrams in the future.
Of course, many of these guys are gay and bi men in denial, so the freedom to self-identify would just hasten (and cushion) their eventual comings-out. In my experience, the biggest perpetrators of queer hate speech are the ones who seem most closeted. (Hey there, Eminem!) Imagine how many fewer times we’d hear hateful public F-bombs if all their users came out?
The guys who genuinely just stop over in dicktown before marrying their high school sweethearts could gain an increased empathy for the queer experience, and if they weren’t called gay every time they tried to speak about the source of this empathy we could gain some powerful new voices in the fight for universal queer safety.
Tom Daley coming out as he did isn’t going to get us there immediately. But the ease at which he opened up to us, and the sense of connection he fosters in his supporters, give me hope that we’re closer than we could be. Role models tend to produce more of the same. The final words of his coming out statement were concerned not with his identity, but with excitement to get back to training.
Continued training on Tom Daley’s part means an out queer man achieving continued success at the next Olympics and letting sports speak louder than politics.
Zack Rosen is a regular Queerty essayist and contributor. Follow Zack Rosen @ZackRosen, Facebook.com/ZackRosenIndustries and www.ZackRosenIndustries.com.