Since news broke last night that Ian Thorpe has finally revealed he’s gay, I’ve been reading a lot about how it doesn’t matter. ‘So what?’, people are saying. ‘Why is this news?’
Most of this commentary has come from straight people like me. And frankly, what the hell would we know?
It reminds me a lot of the debate about racism that broke out after racist comments were made about indigenous AFL player (and now Australian of the year) Adam Goodes. As the debate broke out last year about whether we were a racist country or not, Charlie Pickering wrote this blistering post for Mamamia saying he was sick of hearing white people insist that racism didn’t exist in Australia. He wrote:
“I heard a lot of white Australians say how conscious they were of never letting racism take a foothold. But while their sentiment is welcome and important, it shouldn’t be exceptional. And while their hearts are without doubt in the right place, I know that none of them were ever refused a ride in a cab because of the colour of their skin.
In the past week we have been offered a view of racism from a broad spectrum of white voices on mainstream media. Media which, after all, are pretty much white media. For most of the last week we have been listening to a white echo chamber trying to reassure itself that everything is okay.
And I know that every time I shut up long enough to listen to an Indigenous voice, I learned something. And, as is often the way, the more I learned the more I realised how little I knew.”
The same can be said for being gay in Australia.
The majority of the population are straight. The majority of the media are straight. And while most straight people fall over ourselves in a well-meaning rush to reassure ourselves and the LGTBQ community that it matters not a jot who they choose to love, this is plainly not always the case.
On the very same night that Ian Thorpe’s coming out news broke in the media, Channel 7 AFL commentator Brian Taylor called a Geelong player “a big poofta” during live commentary of the game. In 2014.
Today, as thousands of Australian couples exchange vows at weddings around the country, gay and lesbian couples do not have that basic human right. In 2014.
So sexuality does matter. While vilification, biogtry and discrimination are still enshrined in our culture and our legal system, it matters a lot.
Ian Thorpe has been lying about his sexuality for more than a decade. And we have to ask ourselves why. Did he fear being ridiculed? Did he worry he’d lose the respect or affection of an Australian public who had always adored him? Was he scared it would affect his employment prospects? Did he think his sponsors would abandon him? Was he afraid that he’d be vilified?
It’s easy for straight people to say, ‘your sexuality doesn’t matter’ because we don’t have to worry that it will negatively impact upon our lives in the myriad of ways LGBTQ people experience every single day. When we say ‘who cares’ we are trying to be supportive but it’s not as simple as that. By dismissing the very real fears and anxieties of LGBTQ people around coming out, we show a lack of understanding about what they may face if they do.
As a friend of mine wrote last night:
On the upside, it feels like Australia is exhaling today. There is no sense of shock or surprise at the news that Ian Thorpe is gay – not even mildly. What there is is a palpable sense of relief.
We are happy for him. Happy that he has finally told the truth about something most of us have suspected for a long time and surely that must be a huge burden to set down and walk away from. Not to mention the fact that, as Peter FitzSimons wrote today, the gay community now have “the greatest Australian Olympian of all time, and one of the most admired figures in the country, in their corner when it comes to fighting bigotry.” Bigotry like the homophobic tosspot who throws out vilification like “big poofta” on national television.
Ian Thorpe being gay doesn’t change his incredible sporting achievements or the magnificent philanthropic work he does in indigenous communities. It doesn’t change who his friends are or the role he will play in Australian public life. It doesn’t change the incredibly high esteem in which he is held by an entire nation. So in that way – in a positive sense – it doesn’t matter.
What matters is not having to hide who you are. What matters is gay and lesbian teenagers seeing the warmth and acceptance and joy with which Ian Thorpe’s admission is being greeted. For them to see that it won’t end his world. In fact it will open it up.
As one person said on Twitter last night:
Congratulations Ian Thorpe. Nothing has changed in the way we see you and yet we are jubilant that you can finally be free to be yourself. That’s certainly something to be celebrated.