What something did Tom Daley want to say?

Written by Heather. Posted in News

TD CakeTom Daley is one of CelebYouth’s case study celebrities so we were very excited when he hit the news last week after uploading to YouTube the direct-to-camera video ‘Something I want to say’. In it, Tom tells us that despite ‘dating girls’ in the past, he’d not had a ‘serious relationship’ until last spring, when he met someone who makes him feel ‘so happy and so safe … well that someone [pause] is a guy’. We love this video. Heather in particular has crossed the boundary from researcher to fan as she’s studied Tom’s media representation including, reading an autobiography and biography, following the news coverage of him across six months and enduring every episode of TV-celebrity-diving-competition Splash! Her colleagues marked her growing interest by getting her a Tom Daley cake to celebrate her 43rd birthday (pictured). In this post she looks critically both at Tom’s ‘coming out’ video and at reactions to it, suggesting that the ‘something he wants to say’ constitutes a new kind of sexuality story and one to which we need to listen attentively. In case you’ve just crawled out from under a rock and so have missed seeing Tom, here’s the video:

It now has approaching 10 million views on YouTube and over 35,000 comments. I do have a few reservations about this video. When he says he initially told fewer than five people about his new relationship, I wonder if one of them was his publicist. I question if the timing of this announcement, just before the second season of his TV show Splash! launches on ITV, isn’t just a coincidence. I feel uncomfortable with the banal nationalism that infuses the video via the Union Jack pillows on which he casually reclines and the passing references to Olympics past and present, the medal he won for Britain and the one he hopes to win. But I can’t hold onto these doubts. When I saw the video, I experienced it as brave and honest and these feelings trump any scepticism. I was even inspired to ask people – both those I knew and random strangers – what they thought.

In canvassing opinions, two reactions dominated. First, that it’s sad that this is news – sometimes followed by a statement that his diving is more interesting/important and that ‘in this day and age’ celebrities – and young men – shouldn’t feel the need to make such a public announcement. Second, that the speaker ‘knew’ already – although accompanied by a vagueness about what it is that they knew. I want to look at each of these responses in turn suggesting they indicate a need for us to listen more carefully to that elusive something that Tom wants to say.

This is news

Tom Daley’s sexuality is partly public property. He makes money out of it, as this image from the cover of the 2013 Tom Daley Calendar suggests. mrs tom daleyIt’s a massive part of his popularity. Go to Amazon and you can buy Mrs Tom Daley T-shirts in a range of 11 colours, and it doesn’t take much googling to find a variety of Tom Daley fanfictions. These involve Tom in having sex with both men and women. There are romantic fanfictions, such as Mistletoe and Babies…, a first-person narrative written from the point-0f-view of Tom’s wife arriving home from work on Christmas eve to Tom and their kids. There are also sexually-explicit stories, such as Larry and Tom Daley, in which Tom joins Louis from One Direction for a threesome in the flat Louis shares with band-mate Harry.

Because of this, any relationship of Tom’s, whoever it were with, would be news. He’s an expert at social networking and this video was not his first, so it’s likely that he would’ve told ‘us’ about a serious girlfriend this way too, rather than via a magazine cover story for example. Sitting in his bedroom talking to us, as Tom does, suggests authenticity, borrowing credibility from the video diaries of 1990s, the Big Brother diary room of the 2000s, and everything in between.

But while this announcement is about a relationship it is not simply that as the level of media interest indicates. About a minute into the video, Tom says ‘in an ideal world I wouldn’t be doing this video’. He tells us not just that he’s in a relationship but that he’s in a relationship with a guy, and he pauses for several seconds before communicating that second part, a silence pregnant with meaning. Thus this video has clear elements of the ‘coming out’ genre. So it’s news because very few people in the world of sport have come out. Wikipedia’s list of LGBT sports people is longer than one might expect but on closer inspection, it contains very, very few household names.

The reaction to Tom has been overwhelmingly positive – he has over 175,000 thumbs up and fewer than 10,000 thumbs down on YouTube, showing that attitudes are changing and providing evidence for Mark McCormack’s thesis on ‘the declining significance of homophobia’. But what Tom did is still tough (particularly at 19 years old and in the glare of the media) and something from which, as Justin Hancock shows, we can learn a lot. So we need to listen to it rather than dismissing it as non-news. In fact, in seeing it as non-news, the speaker positions themselves and their society as having moved to a progressive view of sexuality and so denies the very conditions that make Tom’s revelations so brave.

This is new

As I said above, there are parts of what Tom says that indicate he’s ‘coming out’. But his is not one of the modernist ‘coming out’ tales which Ken Plummer analysed so astutely in his book Telling Sexual Stories. Such modernist stories are characterised by a temporal patterning of a journey from youthful suffering, via contest and struggle against an enemy, to a mature coming to terms with your-self, finding a new home within a like-minded community. For Plummer the ‘coming to terms’ phase is critical: ‘It is associated with coming to work out fairly clearly the nature of sexuality: to give a label, to resolve the problems posed through signification, to find the story which explains it all’ (p.88-9). But, as Joe Stone pointed out, Tom doesn’t label himself.

So when I asked people what they thought about Tom and they told me they ‘already knew’, what was it that they already knew? Indeed one group of participants I interviewed for the CelebYouth project were certain Tom had come out as gay via Twitter over a year ago. Initially, there was a rush to ‘categorise’ Tom as gay or bisexual, perhaps reflecting this knowing and suggesting the widespread erasure of queer identities and experiences, and the constant requirement to fit into categories. But not only are there no labels in Tom’s sexual story, there’s no journey. He doesn’t come out of the closet, for while ‘it did take me by surprise a little bit, … it was always in the back of my mind that something like that could happen’. And he hasn’t changed, ‘of course I still fancy girls’, the ‘of course’ suggesting that this should not even need to be said.

As Ken Plummer points out, all narratives have their time. So it is perhaps a sign of our own times that Tom tells an individualist story of love that comes along, surprises him and massively changes his life, rather than a collectivist narrative of finding an identity within a community. But ‘for narratives to flourish there must be a community to hear…’ (p.67) and it can be seen positively that Tom does not feel that he needs to speak specifically to an LGBT community, but can speak to a wider community who he hopes are ready to hear his words. It’s now our job to live up to Tom’s optimism.

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