As 2014 enters it’s closing months it’s proven to be a year of progress for gay sports men and women. The issue will sadly continue to be a taboo subject but progress is definitely the right way of putting it.
Olympic swimming legend Ian Thorpe spoke publicly for the first time about his long-hidden sexuality and how his denial was sparked by fear of a backlash from the Australian public. This is an issue affecting men and women across the world on a daily basis and I can only echo what has been said countless times before – why? I’ve known people in my life tormented by the same problem and I take my hat off to Thorpe. It’s no picnic hiding your true self, gay or otherwise. The prejudice of sexuality in sport has raised its ugly head on several occasions in recent years. In professional soccer alone FIFA estimates there are over 265 million male and female players and yet only a small handful is openly gay. This statistic serves to remind us of how society’s outdated attitudes are forcing good people to live ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ heterosexual lives. But what is ‘normal’ anymore? What is ‘acceptable’? Our perceptions have to change.
Marcus, an old school friend of mine came out two years ago at the age of 26. These past two years have been without question the best of his life. His new found happiness however was only achieved after many years of denial and painful self-discovery. Marcus is from a strong catholic background, not all Catholics are homophobic but there are obviously certain anti-gay teachings that many adhere to. We became firm friends at the age of 15 but I had suspected he was gay the moment I clapped eyes on him 3 years earlier. Marcus was the type who would joke around innocently fondling girls but always getting away with it because they assumed he was gay. I didn’t dare share my thoughts with anyone else, the potential social consequences at high school were regrettable and it simply wasn’t my place to say. As we got to know each other we began having many deep and meaningful conversations. We talked endlessly about life, girls, football, our studies, typical teenage boy stuff. I had always expected him to privately tell me he was gay but that long-awaited conversation never came to fruition. What he did tell me however shocked me to my very core. He told me that he had tried to take his life on three separate occasions. I was in shock, we all go through difficult times in our adolescent lives but I never imagined his problems had reached such a drastic point. The biggest problem Marcus explained was his frustration at not being able to pinpoint why he felt the way he did. I had my suspicions that it was either depression or issues with his sexuality. Maybe he couldn’t accept it or maybe he just didn’t realize it? At the time I hadn’t wanted to say in case I only made the situation worse. I could never imagine how scary it would be at that age to suddenly realize you weren’t what was expected of you.
Soon we would leave school and start university together. If there was ever a time to come out I always believed this was it. Gone were the constraints of school life, the judgment, the masks we all wore to survive. I myself had even rebelled a little, gone was the quiet 17 year old replaced by a long-haired and pierced Led Zeppelin enthusiast. Marcus however remained the same awkward teenager who every day was looking more and more uncomfortable in his own skin. I sympathized, I really did but how can you tell someone they are gay without being certain they even know them self? I decided it was vital he made this discovery without my influence. We would go out a lot in those days, enjoying the new found freedoms of student life in abundance. Naturally we met a lot of girls, Marcus got his fair share of attention but he would never ever reciprocate. I’d noticed on a number of occasions he actually looked rather upset when a girl would approach him, it was like he desperately wanted to be interested but something was holding him back.
At the end of first year we lost touch. We drifted into different crowds and Marcus soon left the country to work abroad for a year. I would think about him all the time, for so long I just wanted him to be honest and know that there was at least one person who would support and accept him no matter what. I often wondered if going abroad was really for career purposes as he’d said or if it was just a much needed escape from reality. Then in the summer of 2012, as I arrived at my front door after a day’s work I saw Marcus standing there waiting. He looked exactly the same and yet somehow completely different. It was the first time I’d seen him for around five years and the first time I’d seen him smile since we were about fifteen. We spoke for hours.
Marcus was now a happy and proud, gay man. He told me of how his year abroad had been the worst of his life; he had tried to take his life for a fourth time. He hadn’t wanted to die, he simply couldn’t stand to feel the way he did anymore. He had finally been backed into a corner and realized it was time to make a change, his life quite simply depended on it. Marcus explained that his sexuality had crossed his mind many times over the years but that he could never make sense of his feelings as he had no desire to be with either a man or a woman. As it turned out not being interested in women was just the beginning to a lengthy process of realizing he was interested in men. In tackling his problems Marcus first spoke to the one member of his family that he felt would have the most positive reaction and things gradually progressed from there. His family were devout Catholics but monsters they were not. They supported him in every way imaginable and wished only that he had come to them sooner. It just goes to show that people might just surprise you with their reactions. I sincerely hope other families out there can show the same understanding that Marcus’ did.
It’s always easier said than done, but people have asked me what they should do in these situations and I always say the same thing – do everything in your power to accept yourself. Be comfortable with who you are, maybe this will put those around you at ease as well and if anyone has a problem with it then they’re probably not worth having in your life. Being gay is not a crime. Try to seek inspiration from those in the public eye and try to relate to the immense scrutiny they have faced, people who have achieved great things irrespective of race, background and most definitely of sexuality. Soccer players Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzelsperger, Basketball player Jason Collins, NFL star Michael Sam and now Olympic legend Ian Thorpe, these are the modern day suffragettes of the gay community. If you find yourself in the same situation as my good friend Marcus then look up to these people if they can do it there’s no reason why you can’t, so long as you want to. Marcus’ journey was so very nearly a tragic one but coming out freed him from what he called a ‘straightjacket of heterosexuality’. It quite literally saved his life.
Don’t let your journey be tragic.