Alex Blaze

Straight-washing Matthew Mitcham, straight-washing the Olympics

Filed By Alex Blaze | August 27, 2008 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Beijing, Matthew Mitcham, media, Olympics, Patricia Nell Warren, The Advocate

Over this past week the gay media has been abuzz over out Australian diver Matthew Mitcham's gold medal upset in Beijing. After faltering early on in the competition, he made it to the finals and got the gold.

I don't care much about sports, and the Olympics were only on in the background here when Alberto's parents were visiting last week, but I heard it was quite the spectacle.

What grabbed my attention in this story was when attention shifted over to the mainstream media's coverage of Mitcham's sexuality. Cyd Zeigler at OutSports explains why Mitcham's sexuality is news:

It was disappointing to see NBC not mention anything about Matthew Mitcham's sexuality. The biggest reason for me is a journalistic reason: It's a big story. The only openly gay male athlete in Beijing pulled off one of the great upsets at the Olympics in a spectacular fashion. If he had had cancer, or if his parents had been killed in a car crash when he was 2, or if he had just proposed to his girlfriend, they would have mentioned it. But they never showed him hugging his boyfriend, never mentioned it. They referred to "personal problems," but I'm afraid they decided Matthew's sexuality was off limits. A real shame.

Yahoo agrees:

"NBC did not mention Mitcham's orientation, nor did they show his family and partner who were in the stands. NBC has made athletes' significant others a part of the coverage in the past, choosing to spotlight track athlete Sanya Richards' fiancee, a love triangle between French and Italian swimmers and Kerri Walsh's wedding ring debacle"

In fact, it's not easy to find a mention of him being gay in the press today at all. Only a handful of sites and newspapers are mentioning it. Even the New York Times decided to not mention his sexuality, or his struggle to get his partner to Beijing with him. People will say, "it's not part of the story, he's just an athlete," but they are wrong. His sexuality, specifically because he's the ONLY ONE, and because gay men are painted as unathletic in our culture, makes it a big part of the story.

Cyd goes on to list a few of the places where Mitcham's sexuality has been mentioned, but it's not much.

Well, NBC responded in an interview with Mike Jensen over at AfterElton:

While the issue has been addressed and debated by various blogs and writers, until we contacted NBC they were unaware of the controversy. "I'm not aware of any controversy," said Hughes. "Yours is the first call."

When asked why at no point during the coverage did NBC mention Mitcham was gay or that his partner was in the stands, Hughes said, "In virtually every case, we don't discuss an athlete's sexual orientation."

When it was pointed out that in fact the network does exactly that by telling viewers about Olympic athletes' various spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, and even in one case a heterosexual "love triangle" Hughes responded, "Not in every case. Not every athlete has a personal discussion. I could show you 500 athletes we didn't show. We don't show everyone. We don't show every ceremony."

But surely, taking into account Mticham's stunning come-from-behind victory, the historical significance of his achievement as a gay man, and his own personal history, it seems unlikely the vast majority of those other athletes truly have as compelling a story as Mitcham. Said Hughes, "How do you know that? How do you know that someone on the rowing team doesn't have as compelling a story?"

Pressed that it was hard to believe that there truly any other athletes with stories as compelling as Matthew's, especially ones who single-handedly prevented the Chinese from sweeping all of the gold medals in an entire sport, Hughes would only say, "It's not possible to cover the entire personal story of every athlete regarding their performance. ... It's just not possible to single out coverage. "

Not only does Mitcham have to have a compelling personal story, apparently we have to prove that no one else does. And not to get coverage of him, because there already was coverage of him, but to just keep the cameras from turning away when he went to kiss his partner and to get a mention of his sexuality in the same way that another male diver's girlfriend would be mentioned if he had fought to get sponsors to pay her way as they do other girlfriends, in the same way that a Jewish athlete's religion would be mentioned if there were only 11 Jews at the Olympics.

mitcham cover.jpgPatricia Nell Warren posted this morning about how gaystream media has been too focused on Mitcham and has ignored other out athletes, even those who won gold medals. He made the cover of The Advocate; the others are barely being talked about.

While there are many explanations for the imbalance of coverage (the others won in team sports, they won in lower-profile sports, some won silver and bronze instead of gold), Patricia mentions what's probably the biggest reason: he's a hot guy who competes in a sport where he has to be almost naked.

It's more than just the fact that gay men in the community like hot men, but also that pictures of hot men sell. I can only imagine the editorial conversation at The Advocate, with someone eventually mentioning that it's OK! They can put an almost naked hot boy pic on the cover of the magazine and it still counts as serious!

After editing TBP for over a year now, I'm intimately aware with the fact, no matter how highly we think of ourselves or how much we think we need to move on from this, hot boy pics get hits online. And I'm sure that means that they sell magazines too.

Despite the lower profile in the mainstream media of the other out athletes, if we justify talking about them in our community media by saying that they're heroes and role models to young queer people (which they are), then there's no reason to repeat the mainstream media's mistake in not giving them much coverage.

Because when the mainstream media doesn't mention the sexualities of out athletes (or nonchalantly mention their same-sex lovers), it gives the false impression that the Olympics are for straight people and that LGBT people can't compete. And when LGBT media obsesses over one of the athletes to the exclusion of the others, it doesn't do much to compensate.

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Case in point: NBC made a big deal of the two women beach volleyball team getting married, wanting to have kids, with their loving spouses. It was "Heterosexual overload" as far as I was concern. I almost gagged with the Today Show fawing all over them after winning the gold and showing wedding pictures.

Eric Georgantes | August 28, 2008 1:21 AM

You know, it's kinda funny. I read about this awhile go, and I saw some interesting responses on a message board:

"Most people don't care about the straight athlete's significant others. I'd imagine the number of people that are interested in a gay athlete's partners are even fewer.

The article makes it seem like the tv coverage not explicitly saying he's gay is a problem. It's TMI."

"Who cares? Olympics is about the games not that extra stuff."

"Sounds like the journalist is blowing this out of proportion. I seriously doubt that NBC has shown the families of every gold medal winner, especially the ones that aren't American, given NBC broadcasts for the US."

"I think people are looking for something that just isn't there.

They didn't show the medal ceremony for this guy either. They cut away from it as soon as the last diver finished and it was announced that he won. Most of the other 'love stories' so far have been from people heavily favored to win their competition. This Australian guy wasn't even favored to medal and his winning was an upset. NBC had no reason to do some type of big story on the guy heading into the event. The guy wasn't an American either. The only athlete video profiles that I've seen so far have been about Americans. The only exception is that French/Italian swimmer love triangle, and again, the Italian was favored to win that event - and she did. Just another example of how anyone that wants to be offended by something, can usually find something to be offended about."

"If the guy was American they would've given a 10 minute profile starting from birth and included everything down to what type of Lunchables he ate in elementary.

NBC producers by and large have a mentality of if they aren't American then they aren't getting a lot of effort/air time. The exception to this rule is the Chinese, because they are the home favorites, and they've been playing up the blossoming USA/China rivalry in nearly every sport."

"This is ridiculous and overblown.

The guy is gay. Fine. He won the gold medal. Great. But because he is gay he for some reason deserves extra attention? No."

And this comes from a community that is by and large pro-gay (in de jure terms moreso than "culturally").

... Just a random view into "Heterosexual and Oblivious" World. The average straight person just doesn't understand why this is an issue, and I honestly don't think that NBC really understands why it is an issue.

It's interesting to do a survey of The Advocate covers and Time Magazine covers over 10 years, and compare how few old people, not-so-pretty people, and people with clothes on, get put on the Advocate cover, compared to Time Magazine, a publication that is just a little less obsessed with youthism and looksism than most LGBT media.

The "naked torso thing" has so taken over the gay magazine and website media, even the lesbian media, not to mention book covers in GLBT publishing. A lot of covers look so numbingly, boringly alike now that I wonder how they can possibly have the electrifying effect that publishers want them to have.

At the 2004 Athens summer games, the out gay Dutch swimmer, Johan Kenkhuis, won a silver medal in the 4x100 relay swim. The gay media had their chance then to do some naked athlete torso covers, but they passed on it...only gold medals interest them.

NBC had great coverage of those 10m diving finals until Mitcham won.

After he won they had footage of this young woman hugging him with the Chinese athlete looking sulky in the background with no commentary. In this heterosexist world everyone who didn't know his sexuality would probably think that she was his girlfriend. Other news sources interviewed him after the ceremony with his mother and boyfriend at his sides, but not NBC.