Out celebrities are symbols as much as they are people. And in a year in which sports culture and LGBT athletes have received unprecedented attention both for breakthroughs and barriers, Olympic diver Tom Daley is well on his way to becoming the next out icon. There’s just the matter of him defying any and all attempts to make it easy to say what and who he is.
Since Daley’s video announcement went live, media outlets, LGBT sites among them, have said that he’s gay or in a gay relationship, called him bisexual or insisted that he’s not, while others have simply said he’s “come out” and left readers to arrive at their own conclusions. All this despite the fact that Daley himself didn’t use the words “gay” or “bisexual” at all. Rather, he shared that, since last spring, he’s been dating a guy even though he “still fancies women.”
Setting aside the fact that a 19-year-old college student dating or experimenting with both men and women is hardly radical, the story is not that Tom Daley has come out. The story is that an Olympic athlete who is just stepping into his prime has come out and done so in a way that forces us to at least recognize the fact that everyone doesn’t fit into a conveniently labeled box.
Like Casey Legler, the out fashion model who has said, “I have too much imagination to be just one gender,” Daley’s real accomplishment may prove to be that he’s found a different way out. Sure, some celebrities are more than ready to become spokespeople for the LGBT community. It’s not easy being a symbol because symbols are fixed points: no more personal journeys, you have arrived and are expected to deliver. No ambiguity either. You have a mission now. For celebrities who presumably avoid coming out for fear they will henceforth be defined by their sexuality exclusively, Daley’s decision to emphasize who he’s dating rather than who he is could be the light at the end of the tunnel.
Frank Ocean’s now famous Tumblr post from July 2012 took a similar route. Interestingly, the recording artist was then 19 years-old as well when he met his first love, the man who changed his life. Like Daley’s announcement, Ocean’s letter is both candid and selective. You can have the details of his relationship — “Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence … until it was time to sleep” — but if you’re looking for a headline-ready term or phrase, you won’t find it. Similarly, just this weekend, actress Maria Bello published a personal essay in The New York Times Magazine. The words “lesbian” or even “bisexual” are nowhere to be found. Rather, she describes her longtime friend and now lover, Clare, by saying: “She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could perhaps choose to love each other romantically.” No People magazine cover here. No automatic presumption that Daley, Ocean, or Bello are new voices for an entire community.
As we move forward from the teenage Olympian’s shaky video, we should remember that these conversations almost always say more about us than the celebrities like Daley themselves. So, let’s ask ourselves what’s more important: having Daley as the handsome gay icon we have so desperately been waiting for (even if it means sawing down any edges of his story that don’t fit our purposes), or celebrating that, one story at a time, we are being reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be ourselves?