Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe came out in an interview with Michael Parkinson on July 13.
Thorpe is a sporting hero. He has smashed 22 world records and won five gold, three silver and one bronze Olympic medals. He retired from professional swimming in 2012 after battling depression.
In the interview, Thorpe said: "I'm not straight and this is only something that very recently — we're talking in the past two weeks — I've been comfortable telling the closest people around me."
Thorpe follows in the footsteps of several other prominent Australians: young Olympic medal-winning swimmer Matthew Mitcham, rugby league player Ian Roberts and high-profile actor Magda Szubanski. Previously, Thorpe had insisted he was not gay, writing in his 2012 autobiography: "For the record, I am not gay and all my sexual experiences have been straight."
The grassroots equal marriage rights campaign that has grown over the past decade has made it easier for high-profile figures to declare their sexuality without a backlash from family, work or society.
Thorpe said comments from the Australian public were “overwhelmingly supportive”.
But during the interview, he related how he has been verbally abused in public by strangers, who yelled "faggot" and "poofter" at him.
"A part of me didn't know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay. I am telling not only Australia, I'm telling the world that I am and I hope this makes it easier for others now."
Thorpe was reportedly paid $400,000 for the interview, which led some to question his integrity.
It would have been a more political act if Thorpe had followed Szubanski's lead and come out against the marriage ban and homophobia.
Szubanski spoke at a marriage equality rally after her emotional outing to condemn the government’s discriminatory ban.
Clearly for Thorpe and other high profile figures, coming out leads to personal relief and can serve as inspiration to young people coming to terms with their sexuality. Denying one’s sexuality often leads to depression and self-harm.
Thorpe said keeping his sexuality a secret, even from his psychiatrist, had contributed to his severe depression. He said he has sought treatment for depression as well as self-medicated with alcohol.
Homophobia — the idea that same-sex love is abnormal and immoral — is a cause of high rates of self-harm and suicide among young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Same-sex attracted youth are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide and make up 30% of all youth suicides.
The Coalition government and High Court’s quashing of the same-sex marriage bill that the ACT government passed in September last year displayed their perpetuation of bigotry over equality.
Overt homophobia is a feature of Tony Abbott and his government. They have bucked the trend of other conservative governments which have passed marriage equality bills. Abbott's mix of homophobia, sexism and racism is yet another battle to fight along with the government's corporate-first neoliberal agenda.
The marriage equality campaign had a small boost last week. New Liberal Democrat MP Senator David Leyonhjelm announced he would introduce a marriage equality bill into the Senate, calling on the federal Liberal party to allow members a conscience vote.
Relying on Abbott for a conscience vote is a lame-duck strategy. Only concerted action on the ground will win full marriage equality. For both Thorpe’s coming out and Leyonhjelm’s proposed bill to pack a political punch, the fight needs to continue on the ground.
[Rallies for marriage equality are coming up on August 16. Check Community Action Against Homophobia on Facebook for details.]