Thank you Ian Thorpe: How your coming out impacted this gay dad and his kids

Five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Ian Thorpe for the first time publicly confirmed that he is gay during a television interview on July 13, 2014, ending years of speculation about his sexual orientation.
Five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Ian Thorpe for the first time publicly confirmed that he is gay during a television interview on July 13, 2014, ending years of speculation about his sexual orientation. AP

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 ESPN.

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.

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