Tom Daley and Bisexual Invisibility in the Media
Yesterday, Olympic swimmer Tom Daley told the world, via YouTube, that he was in a committed relationship with another man. Presumably recognizing that the media would immediately characterize him as gay, he also mentioned that he is still attracted to women. While he refused to actually use words like “gay” or “bisexual” to describe his orientation, his admission that he “still fancies girls” would seem to indicate that “bisexual” would be a better fit.
So, of course, the media decided to label him “gay” anyway.
For instance, the Daily Beast article led with the headline, “Olympian Tom Daley: I’m Bisexual” while calling him “one of professional sport’s few openly gay athletes” in the article, apparently completely unaware of the contradiction. The Huffington Post article says “Daley stops short of using either the term ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual,'” but tags the article “Gay Celebrities,” “Tom Daley Gay Relationship,” “Gay Athletes,” “Out Gay Athletes,” and “Tom Daley Gay,” clearly unafraid of labeling him themselves. The Daily Express released the story under the headline “Olympic heartthrob Tom Daley uses YouTube to reveal he’s a gay and dating a man” but later changed the headline to something else. The original headline is still visible through search results and in the URL for the article. Pink News did something similar. Their original headline was “Tom Daley Comes Out as Gay in YouTube Video,” since changed.
And everyone else took their cue from the media. Plenty of people decided to label Daley as gay, despite him never using that label himself, and despite the word “bi” being more appropriate, and also shorter. This was perhaps exemplified by this asshole, who decided that Daley really was gay, despite Daley himself saying that he was attracted to women, because who is Tom Daley to decide his own sexual orientation?
This is actually far more insidious once you realize that Daley has actually stated in an interview, very clearly, that he is not gay. I hardly blame most people for not realizing this (I didn’t even know who Daley was until yesterday) but I expect media organizations to do some basic fact-checking before writing their stories.
And in some cases, it’s clear that the media in question was well aware that Daley does not identify as gay. The Huffington Post article actually mentioned that interview before calling Daley gay in five different ways. So it’s not that they didn’t know about it, it’s that they didn’t care. I’ve yet to see a major media organization make a real distinction between being gay and being bisexual, and many seem to conflate the two, ignoring the many important differences between them.
None of this is new, of course. Bisexual people are routinely marginalized and ignored by the media. We’re often assumed to be either gay or straight, depending on a variety of factors like presentation, current romantic partner, past romantic partners, etc. Due, in part, to this erasure, there are a bunch of stereotypes and misconceptions about bisexual people that continue to dominate discussions about and representations of bisexuality.
Left unsaid in all of this is the fact that Daley, in his video, refrained from applying any label to himself. As the Guardian points out, it’s possible Daley might not want to identify as either gay or bisexual (or might want to identify another way), and we should not presume to do it for him. Even those organizations that were aware of the difference between gay and bi still applied labels to Daley that he didn’t choose.
It’s quite evident that most media outlets are terrible when it comes to dealing with sexuality in general, and bisexuality in particular. This inability to correctly portray bisexual people translates into lots of inaccurate representations in popular culture, which leads to harmful attitudes toward us in real life. LGBT organizations and individuals need to pressure the media to do a better job covering bisexual people and bisexual issues.
Nice post on an important topic. Thanks, Avery.
And as a followup: