Shortly before midnight on Saturday, online news sources leaked the headline – the following night, Australian Olympic champion Ian Thorpe was going to come out as gay.
Coming to international prominence at 14, Thorpe was only 16 when the media first started quizzing him point blank about his sexuality.
The swimmer long denied his sexuality until his sit down with veteran interviewer Michael Parkinson broadcast on Sunday when he stated, "I’m not straight."
The social media response was vast with a huge wave of people frustrated with Thorpe – angry he took so long, disappointed he had denied previously, writing it off as “not surprised”… some attacks were more personal and vulgar. Undeniably, the homophobia permeated throughout.
You may think that this kind of response is unusual. And intellectually, I try to tell myself the same. But recently I had an experience which suggested it is exactly what we will enjoy in modern Australia.
My mate Tom and I were heading to our regular pub for a pint. We were having a bit of a fun, listening to the latest pop hit Chandelier from local Adelaide talent, Sia, in the car.
A neighbouring car seemed to be reacting to our soundtrack. They roared up and the driver, a man in his mid forties, stared right at me, with two male passengers around him. I laughed, thinking it was just a bit embarrassing.
The man then started shaking his head in disparagement, aggressively. This soon progressed to gestures simulating male fellatio repeatedly. Amongst this, he made gestures such as limp wrists, and as if he was having sexual intercourse with another man.
Despite Tom and I ignoring him, he then started pushing his car up against us, forcing us into the oncoming traffic. These gestures and this reckless driving continued for about a kilometre. At one stage we were nearly swiped by a passing truck.
Eventually, he and his mates drove away, carrying on his homophobic gestures until he was out of our sight.
In the midst of all this I did get a snap of their number plate. I made a comment that we ought to report this to the police, however I was not confident how the police would react to my complaint given its homophobic content.
Arriving at our pub, we decided to post my photo of the car on Facebook.
Within half an hour, the advice from Facebook friends to go ahead and report it was impossible to ignore so we rang the police. The police operator remarked, “This kind of behaviour never ceases to amaze me.”
Accepted Australian discourse asserts that nobody ought to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or threatened because of what they believe in, their gender, their race or their sexuality. As it happens, both Tom and I are gay, but that doesn’t really matter.
Even though we were not harmed, our lives should not be put at risk and nor should we be humiliated or laughed at because of our presumed or real sexual orientation.
It made Tom and me think. How often have we experienced homophobic behaviour? More often than we realised.
Over the next couple of hours we talked about experiences we have had and how we have structured our lives in such a way to avoid the chance of experiencing homophobia.
Tom told me about his first date with his partner, where out the front of a friend’s house they kissed – a car pulled up and grown men chased them down the road, hurling homophobic abuse. I recalled the morning a guy I was seeing at university and I were waiting at the bus stop near my place as he headed home – a young bloke and his girlfriend pulled up at the traffic lights next to us and she laughed as her boyfriend made gestures of “cock sucking” to us, as they must have noticed our hands barely touching on the bus stop seat.
We discussed how we picked certain clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants to go to because they were "safe". How I have never held the hand of another man in public, and how Tom still thinks about what happened to him when he and his partner are holding hands in the street.
Thorpe chillingly concluded to Parkinson, ‘Part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay.’
Thorpe has shown us that, if nothing else, coming out is still an issue in Australia. There are fewer LGBTI professional sportspeople than the statistics suggest there ought to be – it is fair to assume many feel safer confined in the closet.
Homophobic abuse at work, at school, and in our families and communities still occurs. The stories of Thorpe, Tom and mine, and I am sure every LGBTI person, will confirm this. For many, their stories are much worse.
We need a real plan for homophobia in Australia – we don't have one. There are some solid public school initiatives and legislative programs, but not a comprehensive community-wide strategy.
All leaders in our community need to use their influence and energies to start building that path to acceptance in every corner of Australia so that the thousands of other 16-year-olds like Ian Thorpe don’t suffer the disastrous effects of having to deny who they really are.
We all cheered Ian Thorpe for being an Australian sports champion. Now we can cheer him for championing human rights in Australia.
Please, take Thorpe's message and the experience of me and many other LGBTI Australians as a call for you to do the same.
* Joseph Scales is the Secretary of the Australian Services Union (SA + NT Branch). At 24, he is the youngest union leader in Australia, and one of the few identifying as LGBTI.
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