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We can't get enough of love stories

SOME people's lives, for better or worse, happen to deliver just the big stories we crave.

Diver Tom Daley's revelation that he is in a relationship with a man has sparked debate and comment - much of it positive
Diver Tom Daley's revelation that he is in a relationship with a man has sparked debate and comment - much of it positive

Watching Tom Daley's YouTube statement that he had fallen in love with a man, I couldn't help feeling his was one of those. Daley managed during his five-minute video to mention key points in a personal narrative that many already know: the death of his father to cancer; "the rollercoaster" of the last few years of diving, medal-winning and celebrity. Then he came to the fact that he was in love with a man. He told us this man made him feel "safe", and the story was complete. All the right buttons were pressed and he seemed entirely genuine.

There has been plenty of dispute about how contrived this seemingly refreshing admission of love was. PR guru Mark Borkowski said the video was an "impressive example of strategic control" and described Daley as a "celebrity brand". Stephen Glover, writing in the Daily Mail, said he couldn't help feeling we were being manipulated. But whether we were controlled or not doesn't interest me. Rather, I think we should be considering why this story has been so big and, for the most part, so well received.

The question is not whether it is news - the fact that so few sports people are "out" has been enough to make it news - but why it was so voraciously devoured. On one level, there is the basic story: the rather sweet tale of a young man falling in love for the first time - the kind of story that arouses all our hope and wonder, but also fears. Love, many of us know through our own bruised experiences, can be as terrifying as a plummet off a 10-metre board. Daley is buffed, youthful perfection, and just 19; so young we might fear for his naïvety.

Meanwhile, Dustin Lance Black, the man newspapers have reported to be his boyfriend has, at 39, a handsome, Hollywood agelessness as well as an Oscar - for the screenplay of Milk, a biopic of gay US politician Harvey Milk - and admirable activist credentials.

The story has also become a trigger for debate in the gay rights movement - much of it revolving around what exactly Daley had declared. Some news outlets announced that he had "come out as gay" or "bisexual". But Daley didn't use either of these words. He said he also still fancies girls, but didn't want to take on any labels. Many seem to want to theorise about what he "really is". Some writers, such as Patrick McAleenan in The Telegraph, used Daley's reluctance to label himself as the excuse to ask: "Why do so few men admit to being bisexual?"

Slate magazine's J Bryan Lowder asked: "Does coming out count if you reject labels?" He said two celebrities, Daley and actress Maria Bello, had recently come out - but not as "anything specific". Bello, who until now had had relationships with men, wrote in the New York Times that she was now involved with a woman, but did not declare herself lesbian or bisexual.

Lowder was critical of this trend among stars: "Naïvely imagining that you can remove yourself from the paradigm because 'gay' or 'bi' doesn't quite fit is a highly privileged act - especially when, as far as I can tell, the only worthwhile thing that can come from a celebrity's coming out is some small contribution to queer visibility in communities where queer people may not be easily seen beyond the page or screen."

That may be true, but a non-labelled coming out has still been a big visibility boost - Daley said that he had received messages from hundreds of teenagers saying they had decided to come out after watching his announcement.

Meanwhile, those who argue that Daley's statement is irrelevant, or not news, are wrong. It represents a significant cultural moment. Gay love has gradually been moving towards the centre ground of our societal ideals of love, finding its place as one of the many narratives we have around romance and finding our "soulmate". The institution of marriage, transformed by what historian Stephanie Coontz has described as a "love revolution", has begun to embrace change. But also we see an increasing mainstream enjoyment of stories of homosexual, and sometimes lesbian, love affairs, whether it be through movies such as Brokeback Mountain or the kind of real-life tales we devour in gossip magazines.

The majority of people reading about Daley's story are simply enjoying a good old bit of titillating romance, and the opportunity to ogle two beauties.

Critics, of course, are right to point out the perils of such a strategy of openness for Daley himself. Glover, for instance, noted: "Now he has opened his private life to the media, he will find he has created an insatiable appetite for further disclosures." But Daley must be aware of this danger.

Daley's act reminded us of the heady and wonderful risk-taking pleasures of falling for someone, taking the dive and landing neatly in what feels like safe water. But it also entailed the bigger risk of doing that before a public and media which will inevitably devour his story - and, perhaps, turn enemy. What he did was, like a medal-winning dive, a little breathtaking.

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