Traditionally, celebrity coming-out announcements have been carefully stage-managed, dramatic and definitive. But Tom Daley’s YouTube video, in which he reveals that he is in a relationship with another man, represents a new, more nuanced, way of coming out. It was a personal, heartfelt statement that said: my life has changed, I’ve met someone, I’ve fallen in love. Oh and it’s a man.
His video was warmly received – everyone from Kylie Minogue to Jack Whitehall tweeted their congratulations – but in the internet age he wasn’t entirely immune from snarky comments. These ranged from “How is this even news?” (because, ugly as it is, celebrities – especially sports people – face enormous pressure not to come out. So when they do, it is unusual) to “I knew he wasn’t straight” (congratulations. Where would you like your trophy sent?) and “Bisexual? Bi now, gay later, more like”.
Except Daley did not label himself as bisexual. He did not label himself as gay either. He simply spoke freely about his feelings, saying: “I still fancy girls but, I mean, right now I’m dating a guy and I couldn’t be happier.” His video was touchingly frank, and it left doors open for him. By not defining himself under the LGBT acronym, he is likely to have encouraged other young people to freely explore their own sexualities, without feeling wedded to loaded terms that cannot ever hope to accurately describe the fluidity of many people’s sexuality. Especially not when they are 19 years old, as Daley is.
Cynics might suggest that Tom’s choice not to firmly position himself one way or another allows him to sugar the pill for his legions of young female fans, who may well be reconsidering the Mrs Daley T-shirts currently on their Christmas lists. The logic goes that, once people have adjusted to him not being 100% straight, it will be a smaller leap should he decide to later come out as gay.
In any case, there is no denying that his decision to out himself as anything other than heterosexual was brave – he didn’t have to. And just because some people struggle to grasp the concept of someone feeling love and attraction for more than one sex, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Though unusual, Daley’s words were reminiscent of pop star Frank Ocean’s open letter, posted on Tumblr last summer, in which he wrote about having fallen for a man as a teenager. “It was my first love,” he wrote. “It changed my life.” Again, he declined to identify himself as gay or bisexual, not out of cowardice, but because, in his own words: “Life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences … As a writer, as a creator … I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel. The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label. Don’t get caught up in that shit. There’s so much something in life. Don’t get caught up in the nothing.”
American actor Maria Bello is a third celebrity to have shunned the old rules of coming out in favour of a more complex approach. In a column for the New York Times, she wrote about telling her 12-year-old son that she had fallen in love with her best friend, Clare. Describing “the handful of men and the one woman I had been in romantic relationships with”, she wrote about realising that Clare was “the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself”. Her son’s response? “Mom, love is love, whatever you are.”
Both Daley and Ocean were 19 when they first fell in love with another man. At that age I had been aware for some time that I was gay, but had resisted telling my family. This hadn’t arisen from any deep sense of shame, but was at least partly because of my resentment that I should be expected to come out at all. After all, no straight person ever had – my older brother had certainly never been expected to announce that at some point he planned on embarking on a relationship with a woman. At that awkward age, the idea of having to discuss any kind of sexual preference with my parents was a less comfortable proposition than joining my elderly science and geography teachers for a threesome. So I didn’t. I left to appear on Channel 4′s Shipwrecked, where I had to be filmed for five months living on a desert island with a mixed bag of 18- to 26-year-olds, without making any kind of grand gesture about my sexuality, and hoped they would get the message when they saw me discussing which male contestants I fancied.
I have since learned that sexuality is about far more than sex, and that acknowledging the romantic aspect of yourself is a large part of sharing your life with loved ones. In retrospect I wish I had handled my own coming-out more sensitively. I know that my sister was hurt to find out that I was gay while watching the TV, but I still sympathise with my younger self feeling backed into a corner. Coming out is often an intimidating prospect, and there were other reasons that I was hesitant to do so, not least because of how my news would be received in the small village where we lived. Maybe if I had had a role model like Daley – who has sidestepped sex and made his own coming-out about the emotion of falling for a whole person – the idea of admitting that I liked boys would have weighed less heavily.
In a perfect world, perhaps “coming out” would disappear from our lexicon. Not least because it suggests one definite act, when in practice, for many LGBT people, coming out is a constant process. First they must come out to their friends and family, and then they must make almost daily decisions about whether to do the same with a succession of colleagues and acquaintances. I hope that one day celebrities such as Daley won’t be required to come out, because who they love will be incidental, and their closets will be reserved for clothes. But until that time, role models such as Daley, Ocean and Bello have helped to spearhead a different kind of coming-out, which understands that not everybody can be neatly labelled. It might make for less snappy headlines, but it is an altogether more accurate reflection of how we live and love in 2013.
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