Why did Ian Thorpe need to come out? Who cares if he’s gay? What difference does it make?
I’ve been asked these questions constantly since news broke that the Thorpedo is gay.
At first blush it’s hard to take this line of inquiry seriously given Thorpe’s sexuality has been the subject of breathless gossip for a generation, and he has been quizzed about it since his teens.
Why the abrupt lack of interest in the question now we know the answer?
The reason is partly that those who say Thorpe’s homosexuality shouldn’t be an issue don’t really want to face the reason that it is.
In Ian Thorpe’s interview with Sir Michael Parkinson he talked candidly about the prejudice he has experienced since school, where “gay” was the worst of all slurs.
All his adult life Thorpe’s has encountered homophobic abuse from those who assumed he was gay.
All this fed his fear that the nation didn’t want a hero who was gay, and that to come out would let down millions of people.
Even more than most gay people, Ian Thorpe had reasons to hide who he is.
But wherever there are reasons to hide and lie there are also reasons – much better ones – to come out and be honest.
In Thorpe’s case, the same fame and esteem that made it harder for him to be out now makes his revelation all the more important.
There are tens of thousands of young gay and lesbian Australians coming to terms with the same prejudice and fears Thorpe faced for whom he is now a role model.
In Thorpe they will see someone who has struggled with his sexuality, who has come through that struggle, who has bravely declared to the world who he is, and who has received overwhelming support.
They will look to Thorpe and say ‘If he can do it I can do it’.
Given the alarmingly high rate of gay youth suicide, Thorpe’s coming out will literally save lives.
The other impact of Ian Thorpe’s coming out will be on the nation’s headline gay rights issue, marriage equality.
It will be incomprehensible to most Australians that someone who has achieved so much, and brought such honour to his nation, is denied the basic rights other Australians take for granted, and is treated by the law as a second-class citizen.
Thorpe has said he aspires to be in a long-term relationship and have a family.
The fact the law bars this hoped-for relationship and family being affirmed by marriage will appall many of those Australians who want the best for Thorpe.
Marriage is the ultimate recognition of love and commitment between two people.
It binds couples, families and generations together.
It is the place many people find the greatest fulfillment in life.
To be excluded from that can be devastating.
Studies from the US show that when states have allowed marriage equality, rates of anxiety and depression among gay people go down.
But you don’t need to be a social scientist to see how corrosive it can be to be told the love and commitment you have for another person is not worthwhile enough to be called a marriage.
So when Australians wonder why it has taken Ian Thorpe so long to come out, and why it has been a struggle for him, there’s at least one answer right under our noses.
It’s a Marriage Act that says the love he has for another man is not worthwhile, and all the prejudices, stereotypes and ignorance that perpetuates.
At this point I should check myself.
I don’t know if Ian Thorpe will advocate for marriage equality, or even if he supports it.
The last thing I should do is try to enlist him for that cause, however worthy it may be.
Too many people have placed their expectations on his wide shoulders.
That is what kept him in the closet for too long.
Gay Australians, myself included, should curb our understandable desire for him to be the kind of champion for us that he has been for the nation as a whole.
We need to let him finally be his own man.
I hope historians will look back and declare this was the moment Ian Thorpe was a hero, all over again.
But I also hope they say it was Thorpe’s own choice, made on his own terms.
* Rodney Croome is the national director of Australian Marriage Equality
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