When Tom Daley announced on YouTube what any of us with a pair of eyes already suspected, it provoked a fascinating spectrum of opinions. Some gay people angrily took to the forums declaring that “coming out should no longer be news”, while those of a more UKIP persuasion asked (with no sense of irony), “Why do they keep insisting on rubbing it in our faces?”
I was interviewed by BBC Radio Devon, which covers Tom’s home city of Plymouth and asked what my reaction was. I enthused that I thought that Tom’s “coming out” clip was not only honest, eloquent and touching, it was also incredibly important.
Almost 11 million people have viewed Daley’s “Something I Want to Say” video on YouTube, with the clip getting around 200,000 thumbs up compared to just 10,000 thumbs down. A significant number of those viewers will be young gay people coming to terms with their own sexuality, so the value of such of a positive role model admitting his own sexuality cannot be underestimated.
Using social media has definitely become a new way of coming out for a generation bought up on blogging and diary room confessions and it also leaves a permanent online library of positive stories to be accessed by people about to take the same important step themselves.
The journey towards “coming out” is, of course, different for every gay person and whether it is a positive experience is greatly impacted by a huge number of environmental factors beyond your control, from the society you are born into to the attitudes of family, friends and colleagues surrounding you. Celebrities have other factors to consider, needing to weigh up the perceived impact on their career against the positive statement they are making as a role model.
Famous sports people have additional pressures, especially as being gay is sadly still seen as a sign of weakness in many sports, still ridiculed from the locker room to chants on the terraces. While the list of LGBT sportspeople on Wikipedia looks quite impressive, very few of them are A-list sports stars and there are still many sports that have never had a professional player come out.
This is a great shame as it has now been almost four decades since American Football player David Kopay became the first athlete to come out in 1975, and almost 30 years since tennis player Martina Navratilova became the first professional athlete to come out while still playing. That said, recent campaigns to kick homophobia out of sport, here and across the Atlantic as well as the huge international backlash against Russia’s treatment of LGBT people against the backdrop of the Sochi Olympics seem to be gradually leading to more athletes making statements about their sexuality.
In February American football player Michael Sam broke new ground by coming out right at the start of his career, straight after leaving college and ahead of the NFL draft in May. Gaining praise from everyone from Michelle Obama to Bette Midler and a huge number of players past and present, he is poised to be the first publically gay player in NFL history, if his revelation doesn’t have a negative impact on his draft prospects.
Meanwhile on this side of the pond, and inspired by the positive reaction to Tom Daley’s video, Casey Stoney, the England’s women’s football captain has just come out. This makes the Arsenal Ladies defender the most high-profile active gay player in England. Ex-Aston Villa player Thomas Hitzlsperger hung up his boots before he revealed he was gay in January, while former Leeds player Robbie Rogers also retired before coming out, although he has since returned to play for David Beckham’s former team, LA Galaxy.
Stoney admitted that homosexuality is more accepted in the women’s game than in the men’s and claims there are two or three gay players in some teams. If this is true it certainly means the beautiful game has a long way to go before many footballers feel comfortable enough to come out. The only other industry where there seem to be as many closeted major players is Hollywood.
Unlike in the music industry, there still seems to be a perception that being out, especially if you are an action star or romantic lead, will have a negative impact on your career. We all know that there are a number of high profile stars in the closet, which is a shame as acting isn’t something they should feel forced to do in their normal lives as well. In an industry that has so many gay people working on the other side of the lens, it’s sad that so many influential celebrities feel the need to live a lie instead of having a positive impact on their own lives as well as those of many of their fans.
Once again there have been some notable exceptions over recent months. Hunky Prison Break star Wentworth Miller came out in a letter he sent to the director of the St Petersburg International Film Festival declining an invitation to appear at the event. In the letter he said: “I am deeply troubled by the current attitude toward and treatment of gay men and women by the Russian government. The situation is in no way acceptable, and I cannot in good conscience participate in a celebratory occasion hosted by a country where people like myself are being systematically denied their basic right to live and love openly.”
Eighteen-year-old Australian singer, actor and social media legend Troye Sivan also came out last summer. Best known for playing young Logan in X-men Origins: Wolverine and starring in the cult South African Spud, it’s on YouTube where he is the biggest star, his weekly videos having been viewed a staggering 54 million times.
“This is not something that I’m ashamed of and it’s not something anybody should have to be ashamed of. So why not share it with all of you guys?” the charismatic and articulate teenager revealed. “I’m terrified. I know some people are going to have a problem with this. This could kind of change everything for me. But it shouldn’t have to.”
Other Hollywood film and TV actors to come out in recent years include Mr Spock himself, Zachary Quinto, Jodie Foster (finally…) and most recently Ellen Page, star of Juno, Inception and X Men: Days of Future Past. Will it affect the roles they are offered?
Not if Neil Patrick Harris is anything to go by. The former Doogie Howser, M.D. child star now plays a serial womaniser in the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, even though he came out 2006. But then he is an actor, after all.
In reality, most young people don’t really care that much about a person’s sexuality. They are the Will & Grace generation, who have grown up on intelligent and witty representations of gay people on their TV screens. While film may have struggled with similarly credible and smart portrayals of LGBT characters, the fact remains that most younger audience members wouldn’t give a damn if the heroine or hero was gay, straight or digitally generated. As long as they were hot and won the fight.
In Hollywood, it’s all about demographics and the most coveted of those is cinema-goers aged 18 to 34. Eighty-five percent of those now supports gay right, gay marriage and gay inclusion. So isn’t it about time more of the big closeted players came out? After all, the single best thing an influential gay person can do to advance LGBT rights is to come out of the closet.
Before 2014 is over, we can only hope that even more famous influential people come out and that they choose to do it at the start of their careers and before the lie goes on too long. After all, remaining in the closet and being hypocritical for too long can have a far more detrimental effect on their careers than their sexuality ever would have.
Come on, influential celebrities. Take a leaf out of the book of the next generation of young sports and film stars who made the brave move and have received almost universal respect and praise in doing so. They are helping to change the world and so can you. That’s a better legacy than a star on a pavement or a faded Panini football sticker in a young fan’s album.
This article was written by PrideLife Magazine’s Matt Newbury