Today, Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe is experiencing a joyous acceptance of his sexuality by the Australian community. What he most feared might come to pass as a result of his coming out – derision, cruelty and the demise of his hero status – seems almost laughable in the face of the genuine ‘onya Thorpey’ sentiments that dominate the media today.
Many of us are not so lucky…
I made the decision to be open about my sexuality many years ago, as I could not live with the deceit of being in the closet. Why should I conceal the fact that my partner was a woman? It was nothing to be ashamed of. My family and friends were positive and supportive – unlike many gay and lesbian people who experience rejection or vilification.
However, at my work as an academic it was a different matter. A student I supervised complaining that I had “confessed” to being a lesbian, a complaint the University upheld.
I was formally told I should not make such disclosures in future – locking me into an officially enforced closet. When the story appeared in the UK national press, where I then lived, I was outed on a grand scale. I sympathise with Ian Thorpe this morning.
Public discussion of your sexuality is a very uncomfortable experience, however ‘out and proud’ you are.
The positive reaction Ian Thorpe is receiving today does not discredit the real fear that he would be rejected if he was open about his sexuality, as there can be severe negative consequences of coming out. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is not recognised by the law in Australia, so the fear of losing your job – or your sponsorship, if you are an international athlete – if you come out as gay or lesbian is very real. Ian Thorpe’s decision to be silent about his sexuality for so long was therefore a rational decision.
These negative responses to gay and lesbian people can have detrimental effects on mental health.
Rates of serious psychological distress are much higher in gay and lesbian youth, with bullying at school, discrimination, and parental rejection being rife. In some religious schools there is a general fear of being expelled. Being secretive can be the best strategy for survival, but that can result in fears of being found out, difficulties in forming relationships, and a sense of living a false life. It’s a double edged sword for many young people – damned of you do and damned if you don’t disclose.