Thorpe interview exposes homophobia - rights group

Ian Thorpe revealed he is gay during a Michael Parkinson interview. Photo / Getty Images
Ian Thorpe revealed he is gay during a Michael Parkinson interview. Photo / Getty Images

Ian Thorpe's confirmation he is gay is a positive step but the fact his admission is even a news story shows that homophobia still exists, the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby says.

Thorpe's decision to confirm his sexuality was hardly shocking television, pulling in 982,000 viewers compared to the 1.3 million who tuned into Seven News and 1.2 million Australians who preferred to watch the X-Factor, which aired at the same time.

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Justin Koonin from the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, says the 31-year-old's coming out will have a positive impact, "particularly on young people".

"Same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people have rates of suicide and depression many times the national average, and that's not because they're same-sex attracted and gender diverse but because they live in a society where these things are not quite accepted yet," Mr Koonin told AAP on Monday.

"It's a measure of how far we've come that Ian Thorpe is able to come out and I think it's a measure of how far we have to go that it's a news story. In an ideal world it wouldn't be but we're not there yet.

"Homophobia still happens in society, young people still find it difficult to come out.

"I don't think we get to the point where this is not a story unless we go through this process."

Australia's most successful Olympian confirmed he was gay in an interview with famed UK journalist Michael Parkinson. It's understood the network paid about $550,000 for the interview, aired on Network Ten during prime time. Thorpe was reportedly paid $400,000.

"I'm comfortable saying I'm a gay man and I don't want young people to feel the same way that I did," Thorpe told Parkinson.

Mr Koonin said the public response had been "overwhelmingly positive".

"I have seen some comments saying 'why has it taken this long'? But you can never understand what's going on in someone else's journey and who knows what sort of pressures Ian Thorpe was under," he said.

Not everyone greeted Thorpe's news in a positive way, including anti-discrimination campaigner and openly homosexual man Gary Burns, who once pursued radio broadcaster John Laws in court for calling gay men "pillow biters" on air.

"The reason why Mr Thorpe has kept his homosexuality hidden for so many years is because of the fear of losing huge sponsorship deals," Mr Burns said in a statement.

In the interview, Thorpe said he had lived a lie, but has yet to have a relationship with a man.

Thorpe didn't tell family and close friends until the last couple of weeks.

"My mum literally said she was shocked," he told the veteran British journalist. "My friends were a bit more like, okay, fair enough. They said they had some suspicions."

Thorpe said he didn't want anyone to go through his pain.

"I don't want young people to feel the same way I did," he said. "You can grow up and you can be comfortable and you can be gay."

The 31-year-old's admission, which prompted an outpouring of public support, followed a long stint in rehab confronting personal demons.

Thorpe spoke candidly about his battles with alcohol abuse and crippling depression from an early age.

He said he was "a little bit" ashamed of not having the courage to "break the lie" earlier, admitting it would have made his life easier.

He said he had repeatedly denied he was gay because he was scared of people's reaction.


Ian Thorpe hopes others will not experience his pain. Photo / AP

"Part of me didn't know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay," he told Parkinson.

Thorpe says his only sexual experiences to date have been with women, but he would like to find a partner and raise a family.

"I never really considered hooking up with [men] because I was scared of people finding out," he said.

"I was trying to avoid all of this."

Thorpe issued a brief message on Twitter after the broadcast: "To everyone who has sent a message of support I sincerely thank you".

Thorpe's bravery in openly discussing his sexuality was a major talking point with fellow sportspeople, celebrities and commentators.

Olympic gold medallist and gay Australian diver Matthew Mitcham said Thorpe's revelations were an important development to break down the stereotypes about gay athletes.

"I think it's wonderful that he feels like he's in a place now where he can talk about it," Mitcham told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"He may not have been in a place where it was safe for him to do this before."


A Thorpe gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Photo / Getty Images

Mitcham said sponsorship commitments would have weighed heavily on any athlete deciding whether to go public with their sexuality as the stereotypes and the stigma are well known.

"That's why we need high-profile gay athletes, to prove the stereotype wrong. Thorpe is about as high-profile as it gets."

The swimming world embraced the 31-year-old for the courage to reveal his deep secret.

"You've always been a great champion, now even more! I'm proud of you @IanThorpe," tweeted Dutch Olympic champion sprinter Pieter van den Hoogenband, while Australian Olympic gold medallist Stephanie Rice also praised him. "I'm sure it must have been incredibly hard for @IanThorpe to come out, but I hope this brings him peace and that everyone respects his choice," she tweeted.

Olympic and world champion Grant Hackett, who grew up with Thorpe during their peak swimming years, said he hoped the decision to speak publicly would help his friend move forward.

"Obviously we went through our careers together and we raced a lot but at the end of the day who really cares? It's 2014, I don't think anybody's really too concerned about his sexual orientation," Hackett said.

Open dialogue

Swimming Australia president John Bertrand congratulated Thorpe for making his stand.

"The fact that one of our greatest Olympic athletes has been so honest sets a precedent in this country for more open dialogue," he said in a statement.

"It was great to see Ian looking so happy and healthy during the interview, after what has clearly been a difficult year for him with injury and illness."

Athletes from other sports also weighed in with Australian cricketer Brett Lee saying: "It doesn't matter as long as you're happy in your own skin. Well done mate.

"Even singing superstar Ricky Martin added his congratulations, tweeting: "Congrats @IanThorpe! Brave man! Happy for you! Millions appreciate what you've done! Proud of you!"

Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who came out as gay six years after he won the gold medal and broke the 100 metres backstroke world record at the 1992 Olympics, was another to salute the Australian.

"It was always the question of who was going to be the really big star (to be openly gay)," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Ian is an icon, Ian is the star."

Thorpe's unusually large hands and size 17 feet propelled him to five Olympic golds, 11 world titles and 22 world records during a glittering career.

- AAP / AFP / Billy Adams

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