In case you missed it, 19-year-old Olympic diver Tom Daley came out this week in an emotional YouTube video. He announced that he's been in a relationship with another man for several months now and wanted to clear the air following the publication of a recent article that had misquoted him in regard to his sexuality.
In the hours following his post, the Internet was aflame with fans and celebrities congratulating Tom and wishing him well. There were also a few nasty characters looking to ruin the moment with jeers and bigotry. Between the two extremes, though, a lot of people also asked the question "so what?" Why do we make such a big deal about celebrities -- particularly young, attractive ones -- who come out of the closet? Some of the more jaded among us in the gay community will suggest that we're only interested in Tom because he's young and attractive, perhaps because we now think we have some kind of chance of dating him. I don't think that's wholly true, but I do think his age and beauty play an important role in this story.
There are many positive aspects to Tom's new-found openness, which have been stated by others already: He's a role model, not only for up-and-coming LGBTQ athletes but for those currently in professional sports who are reluctant to come out. But Tom is also an important symbol for young people, regardless of their interest in sports.
When I was beginning to question my own sexuality in the '90s, some of the strongest catalysts for me were magazines like Tiger Beat, which featured young Hollywood heartthrobs like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The magazines were aimed almost exclusively at straight girls in high school, who would tear out their favorite photos to hang in their lockers or tape to their bedroom walls. They would stare at these photos and imagine how wonderful it would be if they could meet their celebrity crushes, date them, and marry them. It took a bit of imagination, and perhaps some detachment from reality, but no one could argue that it was absolutely out of the question. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Not completely.
For a young boy casting wayward glances at a neighbor's locker photo of Zac Efron, the same cannot be said. He has to deal with other, insurmountable hurdles. In the back of his mind, he knows that even if Zac should happen to be at the local mall one afternoon, and even if he should somehow find himself bumping into him, striking up a conversation with him, and getting his number, it would never lead to anything more than friendship -- if even that. Zac, like most of his fellow teen idols, is officially straight.
Magazines often ask idols what they looked for in "the perfect girl," and they usually get a publicist-crafted response: "Someone down-to-earth." "Someone who likes to laugh." "Someone pretty." Girls can tell themselves that they fit the criteria, so maybe, just maybe, they have a real shot. Boys can't, though. "Someone" is never another boy.
To teenagers growing up in a homophobic society in which bullying is often the norm, the fact that they can't entertain the same fantasies as their straight peers can be heartbreaking. Even if they could meet their crush one day, would that person reject them? Taunt them? Hurt them? If they were to share their feelings about a straight celebrity with their friends, how would their crush be perceived? Unnatural? Pointless? Pathetic? The idea that this creates in a young person's mind is that they can't have the same things as their heterosexual peers. They don't get a chance at the fairy tale.
These days we have a fair number of out celebrities who are, for the most part, doing wonderful things to increase LGBTQ visibility and promote equal rights. That said, as much as I adore Sir Ian and Ellen, I can't imagine that many high school students have pictures of them in their lockers. While I wish more teenagers would adopt role models based on their positive contributions rather than physical beauty, that isn't something that's going to happen over night. These days, bedroom walls are monopolized by boys like Tom.
By virtue of being young and attractive, and of course very, very talented, Tom has managed to become an idol and object of desire for young people worldwide. Countless girls have decorated their rooms with his magazine photos and calendars -- and countless boys too. But now the boys no longer have the additional hurdle to jump over. They no longer have to "borrow" an idol from their female friends. They may find Tom attractive, and they may fantasize about meeting him one day -- maybe even about dating or marrying him -- and now, as unlikely as it may actually be, it is at least a remote possibility in their minds. I wish Tom well in his current relationship, but should he find himself single down the road, it is conceivable that an interviewer might ask him to describe "the perfect guy."
The importance of that fact can't be understated. To today's LGBTQ youth who look up to out celebrities like Tom, the idea that they are "allowed" to entertain the same romantic fantasies as their straight friends is a big deal. It allows them to tell themselves, subconsciously perhaps, "I'm just like everyone else, and there really might be a Prince [or Princess] Charming out there for me. I don't have to hide who I am, and I don't have to settle for less than my friends do. I could marry Tom Daley some day."
It may not seem like much, but to a gay kid growing up in Russia right now, or in many other places around the world, that possibility for a brighter future can mean a lot.
I certainly don't speak for all members of the gay community, but I know that having someone like Tom on my radar would have made a big difference to me growing up. I hope he goes further, though, and decides to make use of his influence to become a force for positive change, promoting both visibility and equality. Then he can be a lot more than a teen idol, an object of desire, or even an Olympic medalist. He can be the kind of role model every young person deserves.
Follow Jack Bryant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jackwbryant