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Media Rushes To Label Olympic Diver’s Sexuality

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"Media Rushes To Label Olympic Diver’s Sexuality"

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Tom Daley and his bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Tom Daley and his bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

CREDIT: AP/Mark J. Terrill

Monday morning, the LGBT blogosphere was buzzing with the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley had announced on YouTube that he is dating a guy. In the video, Daley explains that he found someone that made him feel “so happy, so safe, and everything just feels great,” adding, “I still fancy girls but I’m dating a guy and I couldn’t be happier. It just really does feel right.” Watch it:

Several sites used the label “bisexual” to describe Daley, a term he did not use in his video. This has prompted a larger conversation about identity labels with some sites second-guessing how to report on Daley’s revelation.

At Pink News, a UK-based LGBT news site, Deputy Editor Joseph Patrick McCormick apologized for initially reporting that Daley had come out as gay, retracting the headline that was originally published. In his follow-up editorial comment, McCormick explains his oversight, but also points out that the label of bi may not be appropriate either:

Despite accusations that I did not watch the video, I actually watched through until about 30 seconds before the end. Admittedly this meant I missed the crux of what he was saying – that he still fancies women. He speaks earlier in the video of having dated women (past tense), which led me to assume that he was coming out as gay – an assumption I deeply regret.

This point also addresses accusations that the story came out of bisexual erasure. I initially had thought Tom was coming out as gay – I did not choose to ignore the fact that he says he still fancies women, rather my eagerness to get the story live meant that I missed out a crucial detail. Many, however, have pointed out that in the same way that he does not use the word “gay” in his coming out, he also does not say he is bi. I incorrectly labelled him as gay, however using the word bisexual to describe Tom would have also been wrong. This is all about what he identifies with, and it was not clear that he identified as bisexual, so much as that he could identify as pansexual. He also may not like to use that term.

At The Guardian, Nichi Hodgson, referring to Pink News’ original headline, similarly gives Daley room to determine his own identity — if any — noting there may be reasons he doesn’t want to open himself to biphobia:

Technically speaking, if Daley has expressed that he “still fancies girls” but is dating a guy, it would be more accurate to report that he is bisexual. But bi-visibility in the media is a joke. Declaring yourself bisexual translates as meaning that you are one of just several things: attention-seeking and performative, promiscuous, or gay in denial to appease fans. What’s more, when it comes to bi-visibility, the mainstream LGBT media and community are just as guilty of reductionism. So is it any wonder that Daley would feel uncomfortable using such a loaded term when his modus operandi since he hit the world stage is to protect his privacy?

And besides, what if it’s not a term Daley feels accurately describes his sexuality right now? What if he doesn’t want to use a label at all, but simply relay to the world that he’s in a relationship that makes him feel great and that’s the end of it?

As Hodgson notes, bisexual visibility is an important part of this conversation. A study actually had to be conducted to confirm that bi men even exist. Several studies have shown that bi people have unique experiences that set them apart from those who are exclusively straight or gay. Disapproval from these communities — what some call biphobia — leads to real personal consequences for them, including higher rates of alcoholism, according to one study.

Last year, actress Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City‘s Miranda) raised eyebrows when she said that she felt that being gay is a choice for her. She later clarified that bisexuality best describes her identity, but that she has “chosen” to be in a same-sex relationship. In that instance, the LGBT blogosphere similarly reacted with haste in casting judgment upon her identity. Some LGBT outlets were concerned that her comments would be used by opponents of LGBT equality to claim that sexual orientation is not an inherent identity. After all, anti-gay groups have been keen to highlight “gays against gay marriage” like Robert Oscar Lopez and Doug Mainwaring, and ex-gay ministries similarly thrive on narratives like that of Janet Boynes, who admitted to being bisexual but still claims to be an ex-gay success story. But Nixon’s comments, like Daley’s coming out, reveal how difficult it still is for many to discuss sexual identity.

Sexual orientation describes who a person has the capacity to be sexually and romantically attracted to. Most people on the planet are only attracted to people of the opposite sex, and they’re called “straight” or heterosexual. Some people are only attracted to the same sex, and they make up the gay and lesbian community. Some people — who describe themselves as “asexual” — do not experience sexual attraction to anybody. And then there are people whose sexual orientation does not cut across clear sex and gender lines, and there’s a panoply of different labels that might describe them, only one of which might be “bisexual.”

Under that umbrella are infinite possibilities. There may be people who are entirely attracted to just one sex, except for one individual of the other sex. Some may find that they are most drawn to people outside the sex and gender binary, such as those who may be transgender or intersex. Others may feel that their orientation is not actually clearly defined by “sex” at all, but some other characteristic about the individuals they choose to pursue relationships with. Texas state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D), for example, had been described in the media during her campaign as both lesbian and bisexual, but the term she prefers is actually “pansexual.”

There is legitimate reason for the LGBT community to celebrate that Daley has “come out” as a member of that community in some fashion. Labels, to be sure, help people who might be attracted to one another find one another — a straight woman is not likely to find her future husband at a gay bar — but Daley’s not looking for anybody right now. He has found someone, and he “couldn’t be happier.”

Update

In a television interview to air this weekend, Daley specifically states that he has not put an identity on his sexuality:

DALEY: Everything is all pretty new so I don’t see any point in putting a label on it – gay, bi, straight, any of those kind of labels. All that I feel happy about at the moment is that I’m dating a guy and couldn’t be happier, it shouldn’t matter who I’m dating and I hope people can be happy for me.

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