The relationship between elite sports and the gay community has always been a complicated one. American Olympic great Greg Louganis talked about the struggle athletes face in coming out in his memoir Breaking the Surface, after spending years hiding the fact he was gay. Before he even got out on the diving board, his teammates' attitudes made Louganis' life tough—"No one really wanted to room with 'the fag,'" he wrote.
Fellow diving gold medallist Matthew Mitcham is one of few athletes to come out publicly in Australia. And according to Mitcham, it's Australia's lumbering marriage equality debate and ongoing LGBTQI discrimination that's to blame.
VICE caught up with the former Olympian, and current spokesperson for youth mental health service Headspace, to talk about his own experience coming out, and to hear why other athletes should follow his lead.
VICE: Hey Matthew, can we start with your own experience coming out?
Matthew Mitcham: Sure. When I was about eight or nine, I knew I liked boys. But I soon came to the understanding that gay was not as good as straight. That it would be better to be straight and that people didn't like gays because they can't marry and had to be secretive. Nobody told me directly, but these were messages I got from society.
It must have been tough to feel so confused about who you were.
Definitely. I remember reading about Pavlovian conditioning when I was eight or nine. I kept a rubber band around my wrist and every time I had a gay thought I would snap the rubber band against my wrist to try and associate pain with the thoughts and condition myself out of being gay. It obviously didn't work. I realised it was just doing more harm than good. That's when I started to try and find peers, and people who would accept me rather than try to change me.
When did you feel comfortable enough to come out to your family?
I came out to my mum at 14. It was actually kind of forced… She found some porn on my computer. I can laugh about it now but she was cool with it. She accepted me and loved me for exactly who I was, and that definitely helped.
You started diving when you were pretty young. Did you ever feel comfortable being open about your sexuality in that environment?
I'd started diving much too young to establish my sexual identity. But once I did, I still wasn't comfortable to come out to the people I was training with. I felt very ostracised in my training environment because, I guess, everybody knew that I wasn't being forthright with them… There were trust issues. How do you navigate your interactions if somebody's not being upfront with you? But when I retired from diving at 18, I saw that as a fresh start. I learned to become comfortable with myself and my sexuality, and decided to be upfront with everybody.
It seems like it took a while for you to feel completely comfortable with your sexuality. Why do you think other athletes seem so hesitant with the same thing?
Sport, in general, tends to be a good decade behind the rest of society in terms of talking about these issues. There's been a lot of progress. There's women's equality in sport, talking about depression in sport, homophobia in sport, and drugs in sport. I actually think when gay marriage is legalised, and it becomes such a non-issue in wider society, it will likewise become a non-issue in sport.
So you think that community attitudes towards the gay community filter through into sport?
You find that in countries where gay marriage is legalised, there's a lot less homophobic violence. It's because it's normalised. Once it's legalised it does become a lot less of an issue. And it really is such a normal thing; look at how fucking many of us there are! Society is always going to be heteronormative, there's nothing we can do about that. But if society stops demonising homosexuality and condemning it, then kids will stop absorbing messages which say who they are is wrong.
Do you think that if same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia, more athletes would feel like they could come out?
Totally, I think marriage equality would go a long way. I think it would especially have a trickle-down effect for young athletes, because they wouldn't be getting all these negative messages about who they are. You can't force athletes to come out, people have different situations. But, again, the more normalised it is the more it will start happening. For example, marriage equality will help ease an athlete's fear of not getting sponsorships. When I came out, there were concerns that I wouldn't get endorsements. But I didn't lose any sponsors because I've hardly had any sponsors my entire career. Still, when we have marriage equality it will have a positive impact.
What would you say to athletes who feel like they can't come out?
I think people feel uncomfortable if they feel you're trying to hide something. If you just put it all out there, then there are no secrets. It becomes their problem, rather than your problem. If you do keep it to yourself then it seems like your own weakness because you're ashamed of it. Whereas, if you're not ashamed of it, there is no weakness. It's a very empowering thing.
Do you have any regrets about coming out while you were an athlete?
Absolutely not. I feel like I did the right thing. Since publicly coming out in 2008, I've not had a single homophobic experience. People really surprise me. One time I was walking through Fortitude Valley late at night after the Beijing [Olympics]. Some drunk guy from the other side of the Brunswick Street Mall called out, "Oi, you!" Honestly, I nearly shat myself. I expected this to be confrontational. But he goes, "Oh, you're that diver dude aren't ya?" and I was like, "Yeah…" And he just said "Aw man, you're fucking awesome!" It's so empowering maintaining your integrity. That's why these athletes need to have pride. Where there is no pride, there's only shame.
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