Last weekend, Ian Thorpe, who Australian politician Penny Wong called her country’s “greatest Olympian ”, came out as a gay man. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of a number of brave public celebrities and a number of athletes from around the globe.
There was an aspect to Thorpe’s disclosure which was dramatically more poignant than his predecessors, however. In coming out, Thorpe shared something not often discussed: the horrible cost to one’s psyche of hiding such a core and personal secret.
Actress Ellen Page, for example, came out eloquently. She described her pre-coming out mindset as “You’re just not fully aware of it. I think I still felt scared about people knowing. I felt awkward around gay people; I felt guilty for not being myself.” Michael Sam came out describing a supportive team, bright draft prospects and ended up kissing his boyfriend on CNN. Tom Daley came out under the mystery of a romantic “love at first sight” mystique, later to reveal that the magical man was Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black. All of their public coming out processes were brave and heart warming, but they also only painted half the picture that many experience.
The other half of the picture is the dark side of hiding the secrets of one’s personal identity. It is the side that contains thoughts of suicide, and the proclivity to fall prey to depression, alcoholism and drugs. Those were part of Ian Thorpe’s story. He came out about them as strongly as he did about his sexual orientation.
Ian’s story made me cry just a little bit harder. I cried relating to the all too familiar pain of the dark he was leaving. I had been a former resident.
I felt compelled to share Ian’s story with my two sons. As they are on the verge of turning twelve, adolescence is taking over their lives and the temptation to build their own closets of secrets loom before them. Because their birth families have been prone to alcohol and drug addiction issues, they are biologically susceptible and that too is a situation of which I have made them aware.
Conversations about this time in their lives are not easy, nor do they enter into them lightly. The school showed them a film about body changes during puberty, which the boys found, let’s say, difficult to discuss afterwards. I recall it going something like this: “It was about unspeakable things, Dad!” Jesse declared dramatically. “UnSPEAKABLE things! Trust me you do not want to know! You are better off not knowing!!”
I of course pressed forward. “Were these specifically in the boy area, or are you talking about menstruation?” .
“Acckkk! You spoke its name!” That ended the discussion for that day.
On the day that Ian Thorpe came out, I had brought up a different, but related conversation with them. I told them that an Olympic swimmer from Australia had come out as gay. They thought this was great. They are both avid swimmers, and both proud of their LGBT family. I also told them about his struggles with holding secrets through his adolescence and how it added to depression, and a dependence on drugs and alcohol. Knowing their family history with chemical dependence and the dangers, the boys listened solemnly and seriously.
I concluded the talk with them by essentially quoting something I had written for them almost two years ago. I said, “I know you are discovering within yourselves new tastes, new ideas and new instincts. You know we have rules and principles to live by that make us good citizens, help us to never harm others and to be loving caring beings. With those, I hope you guide the new and developing you that emerges. I also hope that you continue to feel free to share with me about feelings, thoughts, aspirations and dreams that you have. Someday, you will fall in love. As we have talked about… there are men who fall in love with women, quite a lot of them actually, and then there are men who fall in love with other men…like Papa and I did. As you develop into the men you are going to be, your instincts will tell you which of these you are. Your instincts may also tell you that you are both. I don’t know. Here is the important point, however– I won’t care.,” and then I added, “I care that you not hold secrets about yourself from me. I will celebrate who you are. As Ian Thorpe showed us, holding a secret can make even being a world renown athlete no fun. We Watsons cannot dabble with drugs or alcohol, others might, but we can’t afford to. I won’t care about the gender or ethnicity of your future spouse. If you have secrets, I want you to share them with me before you reach out to any of that. There are things you will win, there are things you will lose and through each, you will have a champion, your Dad. I am here for you, and I always will be.”
From the looks on their faces, I know the message had gotten through. They quietly shuffled off to focus on Mine Craft, but in thought over what had just been said. Meanwhile, I sat down to compose a letter to Ian Thorpe.
Here is that letter:
Dear Mr. Thorpe,
I was very moved by your coming out publicly this last weekend as a gay man. I related to you in a way that I have not with many of the celebrities who have gone public with their sexual orientations. It is probably strange that I relate as I did because I am not a swimmer or an athlete. I did not achieve my ultimate dream at 19.
I did live in the darkness of the same closet you did, however. When you were fifteen, impersonal journalists intruded on you with questions of your sexuality. When I was fifteen, anonymous schoolmates of mine essentially did the same thing by scrawling “faggot” across my locker. I believe you and I shared the same mortification over the exposure, and may in some ways, still feel it.
Like you, I found a “friend” in drugs and alcohol and let it sail me into a painless journey through the depressed places within myself. I however, eventually emerged into a sober recovery. It sounds like you are doing the same.
This is my thank you to you, as a hero for millions that you have inspired. Thank you for telling a story that is not made easy from long term support of a family team and circle, as others have done, but for telling one of secrecy, depression and thoughts of suicide. There are many who share that experience and they need to see and hear the way out of that particular closet, the dark closet, into hope.
This is also what I want to give back to you now too: hope. You are fresh into your new open life. You are new to recovery. As one who has been there, I want you to know that what lies ahead for you can be spectacular.
For me, my dream was the love of a family and to become a dad. I knew that was what life had in store for me when, as part of my recovery process, I walked into a foster care orientation meeting. I found out that just as drugs and alcohol had threatened my life, there were innocent kids whose lives were being threatened by the drug addiction and alcoholism of their parents. My recovery could extend further into the actual creation of my family. Which is exactly what happened.
I am the dad of two eleven year olds, both drug exposed as infants, both healthy and happy, and both aware of your story. They see in you a hero who no longer hides with secrets and who stays abstinent from his susceptibility to chemical addiction.
I am not suggesting that you run out and get foster care kids of your own, even though if you did eventually, I think those would be damn lucky children. I am suggesting that you ride the waves of love and life, and take your new found self empowerment with the same discipline as you do with swimming.
Of swimming you said, “I try and listen to what the water is doing, what position the water wants me to be in. And this is where I start from, then, I start to create movement that allows me to swim.” Take it from this sober, happy and free gay dad. Your new authentic life is like that water. Listen to what it’s doing, the position it wants you in. Now create movement.
One day, like your swimming, that “water” will again wrap a gold medal around your neck. That medal will have little boy arms. It will reach up, kiss you good night, and whisper in your ear, “Good night, daddy, I love you.”
You will know victory like you never have before.
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