I've been following this rotten smell coming from down under. The Tom Cruise school of "the lady doth protest too much" and conservative right-wing censors have proven too much for a collage artist in Australia whose work Not Only But Also was displayed in Melbourne's Federation Square and depicted Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe in a victorious pose. Beside the cutout of Thorpe was the word "gay" scrawled in marker with an arrow pointing towards the swimmer.
Now over the years there has been a lot of speculation about Thorpe's sexuality, and the artist, Natalie Starr, said, "We are not saying Ian Thorpe is gay...I don't know Ian Thorpe. I have never met Ian Thorpe. I don't know if he is gay and, anyway, who cares? What we are commenting on is the speculation that surrounds him and the trashy interest in it."
Yet immediately the conservative organizations pounced, Thorpe's managers got wind of it, threatened legal action pending an investigation, and later withdrew the threat. Thorpe's manager David Flaskas appeared to want to cool off the situation, saying "[Ian] was very relaxed about it...He's a bit of an arts buff. It's art's interpretation, don't worry about it."
The collage, however, soon had a new addition, an improvised "fig leaf" patch with a drawing of a medal on it and the word "ICON" pinned to cover the offensive slur. Starr said that the change was due not to any "community outrage" but that the work was meant to evolve. "The work does change. It's being transformed the whole time," she said. How convenient.
The whole incident would be laughable if it weren't so sad. I'm sure that all speculation about Thorpe's sexuality will now cease and the world of Olympic swimming can breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that there are no homosexuals tainting Australia's Olympic training pools. Australian Family Association spokesman Bill Muehlenberg was very happy with the results, saying "[Icon] sounds like a better word for him."
It seems to be a problem for “liberals” in this era to stand up for their beliefs in the face of commerce (thank you Michael Moore), and I’m just assuming that Ms. Starr is a liberal based on my understanding of her artwork.
The real concern here is that rather than letting the issue “flame up” and do what socially challenging art is meant to do — in this case raise debate and ask why the word “gay” continues to remain dirty and defamatory in the 21st century — the artist seems to have quickly bowed to the pressure of organizations like the Australian Families Association, organizations that continue to spew ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance at the expense of basic civil and human rights, and gay youth. Gay youth commit suicide at a rate much higher than their heterosexual counterparts partly because instances like this one appear to demonstrate that it is far safer for them to stay in the closet.
Whether or not Thorpe is or isn’t gay and whether or not the artist’s actions were defamatory is a different matter entirely from the actions that were taken by covering up the artwork after it was already on display. Thorpe should be commended for taking it in stride. Natalie Starr should not only be ashamed for being such a conciliatory sell-out, but for facilitating intolerance in professional sports and the world at large.