At this very moment – thanks to the weird wildfire of the web – millions of people across the world are finding out that Tom Daley, the 19 year old British Olympic Diver, is in a relationship with a man. He joins the ranks of Frank Ocean, Orlando Cruz and Zachary Quinto in declaring that they are bisexual or gay at the very height of their careers and fame, when they have most to lose and the world has most to gain.
It’s a very 21st century moment. For one thing, Daley hasn’t been co-erced into a public declaration on the front page of a tabloid, like Stephen Gately or Will Young before him, despite the fact he could surely have earnt a small fortune by offering his story up as an exclusive. Instead, he’s released it via YouTube, in a low key, dignified and utterly charming video. He may not be able to control how people respond, but – brutalised by years of unpleasant dealings with the media, not least through gossip about his sexuality – he can at least control how his story is told.
The other thing which makes this a very 21st century moment is the public response. At the time of writing, Daley’s “coming out” video has 21,050 likes and 305 dislikes (more on these later), a ratio of 98.5% support to 1.5% disapproval. Most of the comments left on his YouTube page range from those who are, well, unsurprised, to those who are surprised that it’s a big deal. Others have praised his courage, although our favourite is Lay Yar’s optimistic outburst, “OMG OMG OMG OMG ! I HAVE A CHANCE NOW! OMG OMG OMG.”
Compare this affection with the hate which greeted footballer Justin Fashanu, arguably the most well known British athlete to come out as gay or bisexual before Daley, 23 years ago. Betrayed and attacked by managers, colleagues, fans and his own brother, Fashanu never recovered, and eventually committed suicide in 1998.
It’s worth remembering that this is what the UK was like back then, when Tom Daley was 3 and first learning how to swim. It’s worth remembering that as he started school, our current Prime Minister was still finding it politically usefully to attack Labour for abolishing the notoriously discriminatory Section 28 law, smearing Tony Blair as “anti family” for his support for gay equality. When Daley took his first dive, at age 7, The Sun still employed Gary Bushell as their chief columnist, giving the country’s biggest bully pulpit to a man whose pathological loathing of “poofters” poisoned the public well for decades.
The world has changed beyond most gay men’s wildest dreams since then. Forced to catch up with the increasingly tolerant times, Cameron has not only apologised but been responsible for legalising gay marriage, while even The Sun has had to expunge the majority of its gay baiters in a bid to detoxify.
Tony Blair’s New Labour deserve much credit for this climate change, with their language and legislation of equality. But most of all, the credit goes to every single gay and bisexual man or woman who was brave enough to come out – in their families, their workplaces, their schools and their communities. It was they who dived into a hostile world and changed it, often at great cost to themselves.
All of which may make it sound like the job is done, the revolution is over and that gay men do now live, as Judy Garland sang, “somewhere over the rainbow”. Sadly, this isn’t true. Just ask Imran Ali, one of the 1.5% of true “haters”, whose comment on Daley’s YouTube reads: “Fuck man wats this world coming to…… I would of topped myself.”
Indeed, Imran, you might have. Ayden Keenan-Olson did just that in March of this year, aged 14. He had endured years of abuse and bullying as a result of realising he was gay and telling others. After reporting more than 20 incidents of bullying, he took an overdose of prescription pills.
That’s one more brave young man who will never be held by someone he loves, never know what it is like to feel respected and accepted by his peers. Add him to the thousands who still commit suicide every year because of their sexuality. Hatred of gays may be retreating from most public spheres, but it still thrives in many more private spheres, from the home to the classroom to the local pub.
That’s why campaigns like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better”, which aim to show young gay people that they can survive and live happily, are so crucial. People like Tom Daley – young, successful, attractive, confident and, yes, famous – are the nuclear weapons in this war. Maybe seeing a video like the one above, which sees Daley visibly glow with happiness when talking about his new life with the man he loves, can save future Aydens.
So applaud Tom Daley or laugh that everyone knew already. Feel free to shrug and say his bisexuality shouldn’t matter, by all means. But don’t for a second think it doesn’t matter. And don’t for a second underestimate his courage. Thousands of gay or bisexual people still haven’t found the courage to come out to themselves at the age of 19, let alone their families or co-workers. Imagine having to tell the whole world.
In his video Daley says declarations like his wouldn’t need to be made in “an ideal world”. But, of course, it’s not an ideal world, not while millions of gay and bisexual kids still grow up tormented, bullied and ashamed. But that world did just get closer, thanks to one extraordinary young man.