The Risks Of Transparency In A Diverse World

Over the past few days there’s been widespread commentary on Olympic gold medallist, Ian Thorpe’s announcement that he is gay.  Discussion ranges from unconditional support, expressions of disappointment and even criticism that he didn’t come out sooner.

I notice my own discomfort about this commentary.  So much so, that I’m hesitant to add to it by writing on the subject.  I’m conscious of the fact that few heterosexuals attract this level of scrutiny around their sexual orientation.  There is no expectation that they come out and declare themselves; heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm.  It’s a mainstream position.  It comes with a free pass.

Thorpe, like many individuals in our diverse workplaces and communities, is subject to pressures that others simply don’t have to endure and as a result don’t fully understand.  This pressure is not just something he’s been under in the past week, but something he’s arguably endured for years.  The strain associated with marginalisation is reflected, in Ian Thorpe’s case, in his long-term struggle with depression.  His now public story is a powerful illustration of the incredible personal (and social cost) of marginalisation and discrimination.

Some of the criticism aimed at Thorpe relates to his concerns about coming out.  Amongst the many risks he faced was the loss of corporate sponsorship.  It shocks me that public discussion has focused on Thorpe’s choices in this situation, rather than the social dynamic which creates such dilemmas in the first place.  To do so would bring us face to face with our own choices and responsibility for addressing homophobia and other forms of subtle and overt bias.

In coming out against a backdrop of prejudice, Thorpes needs to be acknowledged and appreciated for his courage.  Some have expressed disappointment that Thorpe didn’t use his position as a sporting champion to further the cause of young gay people earlier, however, these comments assume that breaking world records in the pool equips an individual to go against the weight of social pressure.  It’s unfair that we ask Thorpe to carry the weight of a growing desire for social change.

Whilst it is true that Thorpe was virtually untouchable for many years in the pool, it’s a mistake for us to assume that he is invincible in all aspects of his life.  Such thinking on our part is typical of a widespread tendency to project unrealistic capabilities and expectations onto those in positions of power or influence.

In his interview with Michael Parkinson, Thorpe’s vulnerability and the depth of his struggle are palpable.  The challenge for us as members of the public is whether or not we are able to embrace both Thorpe’s achievements and his humanity.  Can we hold both simultaneously?  Do you favour one image over the other? While our capacity to do this may or may not be important to Thorpe, it is likely to prove significant in our own lives.

Why?  Because Ian Thorpe’s not so very different from most people.  There are aspects of our lives that are easy to share with others. Each of us has a public persona that we present to the world. In part that persona reflects who we are, but it’s usually an edited version of ourselves. The pressure on members of diverse populations to filter their experience, in order to fit in, cannot be underestimated.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge there are thoughts, feelings and experiences that we downplay, for fear of judgement or other negative reactions. Thankfully most of us are spared the intense glare of the public spotlight.  Nevertheless each of us faces choices about what we reveal and what we hide or marginalise … sometimes from ourselves.

I invite you to put the current focus on Ian Thorpe as a public figure into perspective, by reflecting on the following questions.


Which aspects of your life do you feel free to share with others?

Which aspects of your life are you reluctant to reveal to others?  What risks do you associate with being more open about these things?

What is the gift of these more marginalised dimension of your own life?  What do you love and appreciate about them?

Add A Comment  ·  


Thank you for this thoughtful piece, its messages so true. I admire your ability to find words and phrases to capture a nuance in thinking and reflection that I often find myself incapable of phrasing. It is so valuable that you are able to share the thoughts that you have formed and your wisdom in observing and noticing. Thank you!
Yes, and such courage of Ian to now be able to make the choice of being yet a fuller version of himself. And how sad and painful that we, as a collective, have created a society in which so many human dimensions are discriminated and marginalised. I find this dynamic more powerfully present than ever before (or maybe I just notice it more?); it seems that now that the level of anxiety is so high the pressures to "push people out" is equally high. :)
Thank you Rho! I am seriously attracted to one of your retreats in France in May, I might see if I can make time and money available for myself to join.

Lisa I love the way you say it - that now that the level of anxiety is high the prssure to "push people out" is equally high.  Depending on our own experience, or centrality that anxiety and sense of pressure may of course have different origins.  Your comments make me reflect on what happens when we reach a tipping point.  There is something exciting about the desire for change, but we have to be mindful of people as people in that process. And of our rank.

So true, Rho! To me it seems that we are rapidly approaching a whole bunch of tipping points, on various levels of our systems - personal, in our families, work groups, organisations, value chains, countries, societies and the world as a whole. Maybe rather than a 'desire' for change, the broadly shared awareness of the inevitability of it... The way we live and organise, particularly in our large institutions, is not sustainable. Yet so many people have a vested interest in them now and losing what they/we feel we have feels scary and painful; even if all we lose is our golden cages and our chains ...
I notice the inclusion/exclusion dimension very strongly in all aspects everywhere. Stemming from that fear, I suppose, and our default response of trying to "hold on tot the shore".
Your comments do make me ponder and reflect on the origins of my own anxieties and sense of pressure in this. And what I am prepared to include or tend to exclude in myself... And that takes us back to your initial post

Thank you Rho for taking your position. As there are 3 personalities in each and every one of us, which are we prepared to show to others: 1. the Public personae that we carefully build to acquire a status, 2. the Private personality that we want protected from the day to day exposure, 3. the Secret personality that each of us is too afraid to face and yet that held all our potentials... We often choose badly and we become split within ourselves and thus inauthentic...

Yes we are multi-faceting beings, knowing what to expose of ourselves, when and to whom is something I think I'll spend my whole life learning about.  How  to become authentic and honest even with ourselves involves reclaiming split off and marginalised parts of ourselves.  It takes patience and compassion.


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