Few who watched Ian Thorpe’s “coming out” interview with British interviewer Michael Parkinson on Sunday night could haved failed to be moved by his story. The anxiety and turmoil he felt in telling the world he is gay was apparent for all to see.
Thorpe told Parky:
I’m ashamed I didn’t come out earlier because I didn’t have the courage to do it … I wanted to make my nation proud of me. I didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay. I am telling the world I am.
So is it really that hard for people to come out in Australia?
After all, we have out gay politicians (Penny Wong and Bob Brown), High Court judges (Michael Kirby), tennis players (Casey Dellacqua) and even an Olympic gold medallist (diver, Matthew Mitcham). So why was Thorpe so worried about coming out in Australia?
The fact is that, you don’t have to look too far to find homophobia, hostility and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Australia. Even though homosexuality was decriminalised in all Australian states and territories last century, prejudice remains.
It is somewhat ironic that the very weekend when Thorpe declared himself to be a proud gay man, an Australian sports commentator, Brian Taylor, called a Geelong football player a “big poofter” during a TV broadcast. The consequences for the broadcaster is that he must undertake “some quite serious counselling”. One can only speculate what the consequences might have been if he had made a racist taunt rather than a homophobic one.
The media is replete with examples of LGBTI people being made to feel less than comfortable about disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, including:
- Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying he feels “threatened” by gays
- Victorian upper house Liberal MP Bernie Finn saying he would rather join the cheer squad for the Collingwood Football Club (he is a Richmond Tiger supporter) than support same-sex adoption
- Liberal senator Corey Bernadi likening same-sex marriage to bestiality
- Radio host Jackie O, saying that she did not like her name middle name, Ellen, any more because it “sounds a bit lez”.
So was Thorpe right to be concerned about telling Australians he is gay? Sadly, the answer would seem to be “yes”. While we have laws protecting people against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, these laws only came into effect last year.
Compare this to when Australia enacted laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race (1975), gender (1984), disability (1992) and age (2004). Why do LGBTI people lag so far behind in achieving legal protection from discrimination? The answer would seem to be ongoing prejudice.
Thorpe chose to do his coming out interview in the UK. That was probably a wise decision. Comparing the legal environment for LGBTI people in the UK to Australia, we see stark differences:
There is a strong correlation between law and societal attitudes. If governments say that LGBTI people are not deserving of equal protection, this sends a message to society that it is okay for them to also treat people differently based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
When our federal government says same-sex couples are not allowed to marry, it sends a message to society that same-sex relationships are of less value and are less deserving of our respect.
That is not to say that enacting anti-discrimination laws or marriage equality will result in an overnight change in Australians’ attitudes to homosexuality. It is a process that will take time. But the UK is well along that journey, while Australia is still in the starting blocks.
Thorpe made the right decision to tell his story to Parky in the UK. Although Australia is well ahead of the 80 countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality, we still have a way to go before we can say that LGBTI people enjoy complete equality and respect from the Australian government and people.