Tom Daley on the ‘terrifying decision’ to come out – and the ‘overwhelming feeling’ that followed
In an extract from his new autobiography, Coming Up for Air, Tom Daley reflects on his momentous coming out.
The Olympic diver came out in a powerful YouTube video in December 2013. He was 19 years old and had just met the man he would go on to marry and star a family with, Dustin Lance Black. Eight years on, Daley writes about the immediate aftermath of that day, and just how far we’ve come since.
Off the back of my YouTube coming out video, my management team was bombarded with interview requests from TV shows, news- papers and magazines. It felt wrong to then go to for training in the US without saying anything publicly, and rushing off to catch a plane for a few weeks in dark glasses would defeat the object of what I had just done. I didn’t feel like I should hide; I was sick of hiding. I was proud of who I was, and I no longer wanted to feel any shame.
I agreed with my manager that I would do one interview, and it was a coincidence that The Jonathan Ross Show was filming the night before I flew to Houston. I agreed that that would be the interview I would do. Driving around London with my mum, my cousin Sam and Sophie was utter madness. The paparazzi were all over us and at times, we couldn’t even move. I had always tried to maintain a good relationship with the press and had always agreed when people asked for pictures but it had always felt quite controlled. This was on another level; there were car chases and we were followed down the streets from every angle. Photographers were madly taking pictures through car windows. It was like a game of cat and mouse. We would sneak somewhere for dinner and during dessert, the paparazzi would catch up with us. It was scary.
By then, everyone was working out who Lance was. He had been in Russia for a screening of Milk at a film festival, so he also had a lot going on. There was a lot of speculation about his identity and Lance confirmed it in an amusing way when he joked on Twitter: ‘Slept all day today after my trip to Russia. Did I miss anything?’ One of his friends quipped: ‘Let me take a dive into this. Nope, everything is just swim- ming along,’ whilst another wrote, ‘No. No one’s made a splash in the news world lately.’
There was some criticism of the age gap, but I had grown up fast and, in many ways, I felt older than Lance in terms of maturity. I had struggled to connect with people of my own age because of my experiences, so I think this is one of the reasons we worked and clicked. Either way, age just wasn’t and never has been an issue for us. I was quickly learning that if other people had something to say or an opinion about my private life, then I would just leave them to it. Other people’s opinions are not worth losing sleep over.
Sitting in front of the cameras and a live audience of the TV studio, I was in a cold sweat. Apart from talking to my friends and family, I hadn’t spoken about Lance out loud to anyone, and suddenly I was on one of the UK’s biggest TV shows acknowledging my sexuality and relationship. I went on just hoping to convey what I had wanted to in my video – that I was in love and happy.
‘Let’s deal with this: The big revelation this week. Who would’ve thought it, ladies and gentlemen . . . Splash! has a second series! What a thing, what a thing to announce!’ Jonathan quipped.
The audience laughed and I stopped holding my breath, laughing with them.
‘I know, I know.’
We chatted easily about the TV stuff; the ratings, the celebs who were taking part – including Jonathan’s brother – and the general gossip around the show. I knew the bigger questions were coming.
‘. . . which brings us to the announcement you made this week. The film you made on YouTube. Tell us about the thought process leading up to that. Why YouTube? Why now?’
I knew I could just say how I felt and approach it how I had done in every other way.
‘Well to be honest, it was a terrifying decision to make,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know what the reaction would be like, how it was going to go . . . I felt like I needed to say something. There had been rumours and speculation and I wanted to be able to say something in my own words for my heart because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to be caught on the back foot. I wanted to be honest and open about my life. Obviously some parts of my life are private – not very many,
I’ll give you that – but I felt like I had to say something. Right now I couldn’t be happier – the support has been amazing.’ I thanked everyone for their support and people cheered and someone even yelled, ‘I love you Tom!’ I remember I felt liberated but I think the overwhelming feeling was one of relief. I had had the courage to tell everyone on camera and now I could be myself and not worry so much.
Like the general public, the world of British diving was also fiercely protective. How my news would go down on the world sporting stage bothered me more. A year later, in 2014, I skipped a competition in Russia because I was nervous about the reaction. As well as having an injury, I was intimidated and had heard stories of beatings, kidnappings and torture of gay people. I never read too much about the exact nature of what happened but I knew it went on. Then when everyone on the diving team got back and talked about the event, I kicked myself for not going. I had made the wrong decision because I was intimidated. I told myself I would never miss another competition for that reason.
I now feel extremely lucky to be able to compete as I am, without worrying about the ramifications. I go to Russia quite often and during one competition I wore a rainbow pin badge proudly on my chest when I went to collect my medal on the podium. Far from feeling scared, it made me feel empowered. Over time my determination to be courageous had changed my mindset, and it felt important that I use my platform in a positive way. I hoped that any young Russian kids struggling with their sexuality who might’ve seen that would feel stronger and less oppressed.
Since coming out, I’ve also competed in the Middle East, where being gay is a crime punishable by death in some countries. I think being able to compete and climb onto a podium as a gay man speaks louder than boycotting the event. It shows we’re real and visible. It’s more powerful. I hope we can get to a place in the world where people can be treated equally and judged on their performance in the field, in the pool, or wherever it is, rather than their personal life. To have an even playing field is what every sportsperson strives for and I am lucky that I am in a sport that accepts me.
We have come a long way since I came out in 2013, but sometimes it is the fans more than the people within the sport that drive homophobia. I don’t think people within sport care that much, but it can be upsetting when football fans, for example, use chants to demonise certain things about players – not just regarding sexuality, but also race. Overall, it is definitely changing in a positive direction and this can only be a great thing. It’s only by sharing stories that we can change hearts and minds and build bridges for people who are different.
It felt good to take back control of the media narrative that surrounded me, which for a while felt out of control. It seems crazy that the video has now been watched more than twelve million times but I hope it helps other young people who might feel scared about how they feel or being different. I think that the more people talk about how they are, the more young people will feel empowered to do the same. Everyone is a little bit different in some way and it is about celebrating and embracing those differences. Those are the things that can set us apart when it comes to life experience, and by being ourselves and being authentic we can be happy.
We are often told to just be ourselves but what does that really mean? ‘Just be yourself’, ‘just do what you want’, ‘just listen to your gut feelings’. There is no ‘just’ in any of these statements, because it is hard. I think we are often told how to be; how to behave, how to look, what to believe, and there is no part of our lives that isn’t put under scrutiny in this way. We all feel the pressure to conform. Sometimes it can be really challenging to be yourself, especially when it is at odds with the mainstream. I always showed up, but for a time, I masked how I really felt and what was important to me. I felt so stifled, it was as if I had chains wrapped around me. Looking back, I wish I could’ve been myself unconditionally from the get-go, but I was making decisions based on fear.
I have always known who I am and what makes me happy, but acknowledging my relationship and sexuality in a wider sense made me embrace it and care less what anyone else thought about it. It seemed impossible at the time, and like I could never come out of the situation well, but now I am able to live my life authentically and be myself. I didn’t want to feel ashamed, to pretend, to try to please other people, or act or be a certain way because that was society’s idea of the ‘right’ thing to do. My focus was and is never about outward success, but more about just being honest and living with integrity. We should all be free to explore who we are and not worry about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I was wracked with doubts but I knew I wanted to live my life on my terms and by my rules. I am far happier for it.
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