We may have just entered the front edge of the yeah-whatever phase of the athletes-coming-out rigmarole. It's hard to tell. Brains remain complicated all around.
Yet with the Australian TV event of Sunday night, it's tempting to wonder about the yeah-whatever phase. All along, the yeah-whatever phase has lingered out there somewhere in the idealized future. Many have craved it. All through Jason Collins and Brittney Griner and Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon in the United States, it has been a common refrain: I'll be glad when this isn't news anymore. It's a chorus that blares from gay-rights advocates, from gay-supportive straight people and from those who claim fatigue of hearing about the subject and wish it would hush.
These latter people often include those who tend to click on stories about the issue and fail to realize these stories keep coming to them because of their click history, but that's another matter.
One of the foremost recent-vintage Olympians, the mighty swimmer nicknamed "Thorpedo," confirmed his homosexuality to Michael Parkinson on Australian TV, and you could make a solid case Ian Thorpe becomes the biggest such athlete to date. Yet the noise is far quieter than it would have been, oh, three Olympics ago. Of course, Thorpe is 31, which is swimming dotage. Of course, he's beyond his years of tearing through chlorinated water like some perfectly proportioned small craft. Of course, he's not a leading star in his leading-star phase. Of course, he's Australian, so there can be some strain explaining just what a supernova he has been in the world's studliest-per-capita athletic country.
He's also a testament to the tortured path the mind takes to come to terms with something natural but unusual. A thousand factors may intrude. Some might even seem silly to others. Some might seem silly, period. Thorpe has traveled that howling tunnel in the 21st century, a time of heightened and heightening understanding, yet there's still a grinding struggle with all the nonsense.
"I'm a little bit ashamed that I didn't come out earlier, that I didn't have the strength to do it, I didn't have the courage to do it," he told Parkinson. I hear ya, Thorpedo. I know every buoy and marker on that trail. I'd tell you to forgive yourself the lag time if only I'd finished doing so myself.
Fourteen years ago, two male Australian journalists -- whom I had met through a mutual American friend -- invited me out during the second week of the Sydney Olympics on a night ripe with the promise of liver damage.
The evening delivered on the liver damage but also on good banter. The subject turned inevitably toward the Thorpedo as he reigned over those Olympics, winning three gold medals, overtaking Gary Hall Jr. in a mind-boggling rampage on the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 after trailing by six-tenths of a second on the final relay exchange. In the tones of addressing something long since familiar, these heterosexual journalists mentioned Thorpe's well-known homosexuality, and while they certainly weren't disparaging, they eye-rolled at the obviousness of it all, seeming more put off that he hadn't just come out. I listened to their inner-Australia gossip without saying anything of myself, and they supposedly fretted when our friend told them about me, worrying they had said something construable as unkind. They had not.
Thorpe, of course, was 17 going on 18 at the time.
You wonder if, as a competitive athlete, he fought the wideness of the assumption as much as anything, with competitive athletes being so damned competitive, so capable of digging in and keeping on digging in. All the way to 2009, Thorpe issued a denial when photos found him on a Brazilian beach with the Brazilian swimmer Daniel Mendes. (They're on the beach together! They must be! And, in the case of some websites: Let's hope!) All the way to 2012, Thorpe's own book read: "For the record, I am not gay and all of my sexual experiences have been straight. I'm attracted to women. I love children, and aspire to have a family one day."
And: "I was accused of being gay before I knew who I was."
That couldn't have been easy, and few of us could have any idea of the untold contours of that process while wildly famous. If we're entering a yeah-whatever phase publicly in many cultures, or already thick into a yeah-whatever phase publicly in many cultures, it's interesting to consider how the private brain in question can trail the surrounding culture in the yeah-whatever derby. That could be why so many athletes who have come out have said, essentially, "Wow! Everyone's so supportive!" That must be why some of us know this phenomenon in microcosm, as when friends said, "I didn't know whether to be offended that you took a long time to tell me . . ."
So here we have probably the biggest star athlete to come out, and here we've gone almost 30 years since Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote (and Morrissey sang), "On the day that your mentality/catches up to your biology," and mentality still has to chase biology oftentimes, even when every rational person around is saying, Yeah, whatever. It does qualify as ironic.