The Unequal Risks of Transparency in a Discriminating World

With renewed debate in Australia about gay marriage, I am reminded of it’s impact on individuals, as well as the mainstream’s inability to appreciate diversity in sexual orientation.  I wrote this piece about the intersection of discrimination and mental health a little while ago.  I’m posting it again here because it is still very much relevant.

Coming Out in Public

Over the past few days there’s been widespread commentary on Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe’s coming out as gay.  Discussion ranges from unconditional support to expressions of disappointment and even to criticism that he didn’t come out sooner.

As a heterosexual, I notice my own discomfort about this commentary and I’m hesitant to add to it.  I’m conscious that few heterosexuals attract this level of scrutiny around their sexual orientation.  There is no expectation we should come out and declare ourselves; heterosexuality is the assumed norm.  It’s the mainstream position.  It comes with a free pass.

Thorpe, like many individuals in our diverse workplaces and communities, is subject to pressures that many don’t have to endure and don’t fully understand.  This pressure is not just something he has been under in the past week.  He’s most probably endured it for years.  The strain associated with marginality is reflected, in Thorpe’s case, through his long-term struggle with depression.  His public story is a powerful illustration of the incredible personal and social costs of being marginalized and discriminated against.

Some of the criticism aimed at Thorpe relates to his concerns about coming out.  Among the many risks he faced was the loss of corporate sponsorship.  It shocks me that public discussion has focused on Thorpe’s choices in this situation, rather than the social dynamic which creates such dilemmas in the first place.

Our Responsibility as Observers

Examining this dynamic brings those of us who are more mainstream face to face with our own choices.  It asks us to call-out homophobia and other forms of subtle and overt discrimination.

In coming out against a backdrop of prejudice, Thorpe needs to be acknowledged and appreciated for his courage.  Some have expressed disappointment that he didn’t use his position as a sports champion to further the cause of young gay people earlier.  These comments assume that breaking world records in the pool equips an individual to go against the weight of social pressure.  It’s unfair that we ask Thorpe to carry the weight of a growing desire for social change.

While it’s true Thorpe was virtually untouchable for many years in the water, it’s a mistake for us to assume he’s invincible in all aspects of his life.  Such thinking is typical of a widespread tendency to project unrealistic capabilities onto people in the public eye.

Seeing Both Great Acheivements and the Human Being

In his interview with Michael Parkinson, Thorpe’s vulnerability and the depth of his struggle are palpable.  The challenge for us as members of the public is if we are able to embrace both Thorpe’s achievements and his humanity.  Can we hold both simultaneously?  Do you favor one aspect over the other?

Why ask these questions?  Because Ian Thorpe is not so different from most people.  There are aspects of our lives that are easy to share with others.  Each of us has a public persona that we present to the world.  That persona shows others who we are, but it’s an edited version of ourselves.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge the thoughts, feelings and experiences that we downplay or actively hide.  We try to avoid being judged by other people.  Thankfully, most of us don’t stand in the intense glare of the public spotlight.  The pressure on members of diverse populations to hide parts of themselves is much larger than it is for the mainstream and it must not be underestimated.

I invite you to put the current focus on Ian Thorpe as a public figure into perspective, by reflecting on the following questions.

Reflections:

Which aspects of your life do you feel free to share with others?

Which aspects of your life are you reluctant to reveal to others?

What risks do you associate with being more open about these things?

What is the gift of these more marginalized dimensions of your own life?

What do you love and appreciate about them?

GCI