Olympic medallist and broadcaster Colin Jackson has spoken publicly for the first time about being gay. In an interview with Swedish documentary Rainbow Heroes, the 50 year-old 110m hurdles world champion explained that he had waited to reveal his sexuality to avoid it being “sensationalised”.
But while people have been supportive of Jackson’s announcement, the reaction to his “coming out” has been far from uniformly supportive. Sadly it only takes a few minutes of scrolling through social media after a celebrity comes out to see why so many are still reluctant to do so.
Predictably, the tedious reaction of “I already knew!” has been widespread. Whether in the public eye or not, sharing sensitive information about yourself can be a daunting experience. Instantly claiming that you already knew not only minimises a person’s struggle, but also places the emphasis on your reaction instead of their emotions. In Jackson’s case, this is particularly tone-deaf if you consider that most people only began to speculate over his sexuality after a cruel and intrusive tabloid kiss-and-tell story in 2006.
Yet surprisingly the reaction from within the LGBT+ community has been even more concerning. When scrolling through Twitter it has been impossible to miss gay men criticising Jackson for his past denials that he is gay. One gay man accused Jackson of “coming out after the hard work is done”, saying he “didn’t help us once” in his years in the closet. The same user stated: “It’s one thing to keep your sexuality secret, another to go out and actively deny it.”
It’s important to remember that no one, whether a world champion hurdler or a hairdresser, is obligated to discuss their sexuality publicly. It can be helpful if they do, but each queer person has their own path and no one should feel pressured to tailor their “coming out” experience to satisfy other people.
In Rainbow Heroes, Jackson recalls how he was forced to come out to his family after the kiss-and-tell story broke. Given that such a precious moment was stolen from him, surely his desire to handle this delicately is completely understandable. Instead of blaming him for his past denials, perhaps we should direct our anger towards those who were hounding him for private information?
Before criticising people who come out later on in life, younger gay people should reflect on the world that previous generations endured. Jackson was born in 1967, the same year that male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK. Gay sex remained illegal unless it took place behind closed doors between two people with no one else in the house. Sex between more than two consenting men remained criminal alongside videoing or photographing sex. Following the decriminalisation of 1967, these remaining anti-gay laws were policed more strictly and more than 15,000 arrests were made. As he entered adulthood, the AIDS crisis resulted in mass hostility towards gay people. Shortly after his twentieth birthday, Margaret Thatcher used her conference speech to proclaim that teaching children about gay people is cheating them of a “sound start in life.” This is the environment that men like Jackson grew up in.
Although he was born in Cardiff, Jackson’s parents are Jamaican and migrated to Britain in the sixties. The Caribbean is one of the most violently homophobic regions in the world, and in Jamaica being gay can still land you life imprisonment. Young, white gay men criticising an older black man for not coming out sooner not only lacks compassion, but reeks of privilege and ignorance.
Coming out doesn’t lose its significance with age. Jackson is a person, not a jar of pesto at the back of the fridge. He could still make a huge difference to the lives of black gay men or gay men in sport. With 72 countries still criminalising same-sex activity, the idea that the “hard work is done” is a dangerous myth to spread. There’s still plenty to do.
Research by LGBT charity Stonewall reveals that only a quarter of lesbian, gay and bi people are fully open about their sexual orientation at work, suggesting that it is still very common for people to keep their sexuality hidden. Instead of placing blame on people like Jackson, we should focus on eliminating the societal pressures to be straight that keep so many of us closeted. These corrosive feelings of shame already force too many LGBT+ people to seek refuge in alcohol, drugs, eating disorders and destructive relationships. Insinuating that closeted people are “sneaky” or “selfish” veers dangerously close to the rhetoric that homophobes have used against us for years.
It is impossible to describe the rush of relief that you feel after saying, “I’m gay,” for the first time and realising that the world didn’t implode. Most people immediately regret not doing it sooner. At 50 years old, I’m sure Jackson is no exception. But if we want more people of all ages to come out, we must stop treating them as second-rate members of our community once they do.