Ian Thorpe’s battle a window into society’s homophobia

Swimming champion Ian Thorpe’s decision to come out has exposed how ingrained homophobia is in Australia. This is nowhere more the case than among politicians, both Liberals like Tony Abbott as well as the former Labor government, whose opposition to same-sex marriage has sanctioned homophobia.

Thorpe revealed he had grappled with coming out since the 2000 Olympics, saying, “part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay”. Thorpe also worried that coming out would affect his sponsorship income.

Dee Madigan, head of the advertising agency Madigan Communications, admitted that, “in 2000 … most big companies would not touch a gay athlete”.

Thorpe was also unable to come out to family and friends until two weeks before the interview. The decision had clearly tortured him, with Thorpe commenting, “I’ve held this as such weight and there’s so much pain in this, and the discussion”.

In the days following the news, the extent of homophobia in sport was underlined by stories from football players and the homophobic comment from AFL commentator Brian Taylor, who referred to a player as a “big poofter”.

As many as 85 per cent of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in a recent survey said they had seen or been victims of homophobia in sport.

The problem goes much deeper. Ian Thorpe is not only an Olympic champion, but the winner of the most Olympic medals for Australia ever. That the decision so difficult for him speaks volumes about the oppression of other gays and lesbians.

According to a National LGBTI Health Alliance 2003 survey, 85 per cent of gay men and lesbians have “experienced one or more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence … over their lifetime”. Sadly, 60 per cent of those surveyed had modified their behavior every day to avoid these experiences.

But it’s also clear attitudes are shifting. Even since 2000 homophobic attitudes have eroded.

The latest survey on same-sex marriage, by Crosby Textor polling, found that 77 per cent of Australians now support the change, indicating a steady increase. This also underlines how out of touch politicians clinging to their defense of “traditional marriage” are. Same-sex marriage would be a blow against the homophobia that continues to blight society.

By James Supple


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