Tom Daley, Queer Erasure, and the Internet
After years of speculation about his sexual orientation, British Olympic diver Tom Daley posted a very candid and personal video on YouTube, titled simply “Something I want to say...”. He began by talking about the “roller coaster” of twists and turns his life has taken recently, from his father dying of cancer to his own winning an Olympic medal and finishing his A-levels—but then the conversation morphed into one about privacy and honesty.
“I’ve only ever talked about things I feel comfortable talking about,” he said of the topics he discusses in his book and documentary, admitting that he “may have been vague” in some of his answers, but he’s “always been honest.” He said he’s “never really felt that comfortable” talking about his relationships: “I’ve been dating girls,” he explained, “and I’ve never really had a serious relationship to talk about. And now I kind of feel ready to talk about my relationships.”
And then he said, “Come spring this year, my life changed… massively… when I met someone. And they make me feel so happy, so safe, and everything just feels great.” Notice the gender-neutral language. “And that someone,” he said, before an adorably dramatic pause, “is a guy.” Rather than leaving it at that, he gets explicit: “It was always in the back of my head that something like that could happen,” he said, then added, “Of course I still fancy girls. But right now I’m dating a guy, and I couldn’t be happier.”
That specificity is what sets his announcement apart from many other celebrity coming out stories.
Whereas fellow athlete Jason Collins and actor Ben Whishaw both came out as gay (the latter even revealed his marriage to a man), Daley took a slightly different route. Rather than define a specific identity, he simply told the world who he’s dating and who he’s still interested in dating—revealing his present circumstances without giving anyone a chance to cement him into the Kinsey Six category. (Frank Ocean did something similar when he came out last year.)
Not that his efforts stopped the Internet or media from trying to label, of course. Even after the effort he put into mentioning his interest in both men and women, the vast majority of Twitter users responded with jokes such as “Tom Daly has announced he is gay. In other news, water is wet” and “Tom Daley is probably swimming in an Olympic size pool filled with the tears of all the girls who really have no chance with him now.” People went on and on about how “obvious” it is that he’s gay, or how upset women must be now that he’s off-limits. Even professional news sources disregarded the open-ended implications of his video: CBC News posted the headline “Olympic diver Tom Daley tops list of gay athletes challenging biggest sports barrier,” while CNN International said “UK Olympic Diver Tom Daley comes out as gay in a video clip released on YouTube,” and a handful of others used the word “gay” in their headlines as well.
There have also been positive comments, but many of them have used the kinds of “supportive” phrases that get thrown around all the time: stuff like “Gay or straight, it doesn’t matter” and “It’s okay to be gay” and “Being gay is not a choice”. While those might sound accepting, they ignore the rest of the queer community’s alphabet: perfectly valid, non-heterosexual identities that are very present in our society, and yet also incredibly ignored.
This is why it’s so disheartening and harmful when everyone from random Twitter users to official news outlets is using the “gay” headline, or talking about how Daley is in a “gay relationship,” because neither of those descriptions is accurate. He may be in a same-sex relationship with a man, but that does not erase the fact that he also remains attracted to women.
This isn’t to say there hasn’t been any truly supportive feedback. Many have stuck with expressing their pride that he “came out,” period, or have used terms like “bisexual” and “queer,” or have simply congratulated him on the bravery it takes to be yourself in front of such a massive audience. Those reactions have been wonderful to read, but there aren’t nearly enough of them, and most have been buried by the more problematic comments.
The bottom line is, no matter what their sexual orientation, people need to make a better effort to keep their ignorance away from the keyboard. Straight folks need to stop bragging about how it was “obvious” or that they “knew it all along,” the Internet needs to stop acting like “gay” and “straight” are the only two options, and everyone on the damn planet needs to be more mindful of the language they use to discuss queer identities.
In a previous post I criticized the Internet’s reactions to Tom Daley’s coming out video—specifically, how harmful it was to the bisexual/queer community that so many people were labeling him as gay even though he mentioned that he still fancies women. Later, Daley threw the world a second curveball and came out again—this time, as gay—and as Twitter, Tumblr, and various media outlets all shared their piece, it once again became painfully clear that bisexuality is still fighting tooth and nail for its right to be a respected identity, or even to exist at all.
Most of the headlines read “Tom Daley was never bisexual” or “Tom Daley: ‘I Am a Gay Man Now,’” and both of these are exploitive and misleading. First of all, as I explained in my first post, Daley never personally said that he identified as bisexual in the first place; he said he was dating a man, but that he remained attracted to women, and left it at that. Any bi labels came from his audience, and were in an effort to acknowledge the fluidity his wording implied. Secondly, if you watch the segment of European program Celebrity Juice during which this information came to light, you’ll notice what actually happened: rather than Daley making any official announcement himself, it’s the host who asks him “So, you’re a gay man now?” and Daley simply responds with a “Yes."
While the headline technically provides the same basic information as Daley provided, it’s still important for media to attribute quotes and statements to the correct sources, no matter how trivial it might seem to do so, especially when it involves a person’s sexual orientation.
But now we move on to the general Internet population, in which an excruciating number of Twitter and Tumblr users reached a new biphobic low. Many claimed that Daley “used” bisexuality as a way to ease everyone into the idea of him liking men, whether due to his own anxieties or off the advice of his management. Others threw around the saying “Bi now, gay later” and mocked those who had so fiercely defended his queerness: “I wonder how those people that attacked others for saying Tom Daley was gay feel now?” asked one Twitter user. “Pretty fucking stupid I bet.”
I think you’re forgetting one critically important detail from his original video—he didn’t come out as gay. He said he was dating a man, and God knows how many times we’ll have to repeat that until everyone finally listens. Neither the bisexual or gay labels were correct until a few days ago, because neither identity was personally claimed by Daley.
There are a few other key elements at play here as well. Let’s talk about how Daley is nineteen years old and trying to sort himself out in front of a massive audience. Let’s talk about how coming out is difficult and terrifying enough without people accusing you of lying, or “using” another identity, or being in denial, or even being too scared to admit you who really are. Let’s talk about the fluidity of sexual orientation and how no one seems to be considering that maybe he did still feel attraction to women a few months ago, but now things have shifted and he’s more certain of his preferences.
Tom Daley has not harmed the bisexual community; bisexual stigmas harm the bisexual community. If bisexuality weren’t thought of as a stepping stone to being gay or lesbian, or as having only one foot out of the closet, then his second announcement wouldn’t have mattered.
The only problematic element in Daley changing his mind is that it would be considered problematic in the first place. Few identities are permanent, and people should be allowed to shed and try on new skin as they please; people deserve to be comfortable, and if that means being brave enough to publicly announce your sexual preference (twice), then so be it.