Tag Archives: Coming Out

The false start we gave Ian Thorpe

SWIM STAR Ian Thorpe with young fans in 2006.

I WASN’T going to write about Ian Thorpe’s coming out. What more can there be to say about this moment in his life, which has huge ramifications for him but should have none for us?

But then I read one article which got me angry, the kind of piece I’d hoped to avoid but which I knew would surface: the ‘Ian Thorpe Lied To Us’-type article.

I also wanted to watch the interview he gave to Michael Parkinson before forming too many thoughts.

The only unexpected moment was when ‘Thorpie’ recalled being asked about his sexuality at the age of 16. Parkinson picked-up on Thorpe’s affront at this and ran with it, creating the sense that 16 was just too young to be asked such a question.

Thorpe then qualified his view: that to ask anyone about their sexuality is unnecessary, but went on to assert that had he not been asked at that young age, he would not have stayed closeted so long.

If it was a nosey journalist who asked him as a 16-year-old, then I agree, it was an affront, but I don’t believe it’s enough to leave this pivotal moment in Australia’s same-sex attracted history at that.

“Still feel like Thorpie shouldn’t have been tempted to lie, or are you starting to ‘get’ the self preservation which drove his denial?”

Let’s look at the world Ian Thorpe inhabited at ‘Sweet Sixteen’. I don’t mean his swimming career – he was well on the ascendant at that age. I want to illustrate the world for a closeted 16-year-old gay man.

On October 13, 1998, Ian Thorpe’s 16th birthday, the age of consent for gay men was 18. Ever since 1984, when the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men resulted in an age of consent for straight people and lesbians of 16, the law had remained unequal.

That legislation – The Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984 – would not be repealed until another nasty-sounding law – The Crimes Act 1900 – was amended in 2003.

In October 1998, for two men to live together in a de-facto relationship was still a political act. The Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act was not created until the following year, requiring further amendment in 2002, 2008 and 2009 to remove discrimination against same-sex attracted people financially in almost 100 other pieces of state and federal legislation.

There was no form of legal coupling for same-sex attracted people in 1998, a situation which has not altered in NSW, or anywhere in Australia, to the present day.

In 1998, same-sex adoption and surrogacy were illegal and would remain so until 2010.

In 1998, any person who decided to bash, abuse or kill a gay person in NSW would have had the ‘Gay Panic’ defence at their disposal.

This is the most recent piece of law reform for LGBTI people in NSW, having been abolished in May 2014. In Queensland and South Australia, ‘Gay Panic’ remains a legal form of defence.

We know that Thorpie didn’t limit himself to swim-meets on home soil – he competed in places where widespread marginalisation of same-sex attracted people was and remains common, including Japan and Greece.

But the most dangerous destination Thorpe travelled to in his 16th year was Malaysia, where he won four gold medals at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, but risked deportation, prison terms, fines and public whippings if he had acted on his same-sex attraction whilst in that Muslim country.

There was some good news for the millions of HIV-AIDS patients in 1998 – many of them were returning to work, despite the often crippling side effects of antiretroviral drugs. No longer the short-term death sentence it had been, there were enormous question marks over the long-term effects and efficacy of combination therapies on the epidemic. Survival time after contracting HIV was simply unknown.

So, asking the 16-year-old Ian Thorpe if he was gay was tantamount to asking him if he was attracted to the proposition of engaging in illegal sex which could never result in a legally recognised relationship with no hope of creating a family unit, including children.

If Thorpie had said yes to the sex, but found himself the victim of homophobic attack, his attacker would likely have gotten off or received a lesser sentence. There was also the fear of contracting HIV-AIDS in the mix.

Is this an attractive proposition, or one which even you, in Thorpie’s position, might deny?

ATTACK VICTIM Matthew Shepard (1976-1998).
ATTACK VICTIM Matthew Shepard (1976-1998).

Another young man said yes to the sex a week before Thorpie’s 16th birthday. His name was Matthew Shepard.

Taking into account the time difference between the US state of Wyoming (where Shepard was bashed and left to die on a barbed wire fence by a pair of homophobes, later dying of his wounds), and NSW (where the Thorpe family celebrated Ian’s 16th birthday), the two events would have occurred at about the same point in time.

Sexual acts between men had been legal in Wyoming since 1977, and Shepard was over the age of consent at the time of his death. He had it better legally than Thorpie, but Matthew Shepard still ended-up suffering and dying as a result of his sexuality.

Still feel like Thorpie shouldn’t have been tempted to lie, or are you starting to ‘get’ the self preservation which drove his denial?

Laws do not change everyone’s behaviour, of course, but consider the impact of legislation on one of Australia’s highest-profile gay men – Justice Michael Kirby – who did not come out publicly until he was 60 years of age, during the same year as the The Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act NSW (1999).

WHO'S WHO The Hon Justice Michael Kirby.
WHO’S WHO The Hon Justice Michael Kirby.

Kirby had lived with his de-facto spouse Johan van Vloten for thirty years prior, during part of which time they hid their relationship from family, friends and colleagues. Kirby came out by simply listing his partner in Who’s Who once their cohabitation and all its rights and responsibilities were legally protected.

Then there are the ‘unofficial laws’ which encourage same-sex attracted people to remain in the closet – ‘The Laws of Nature’ – as hard for young people to argue against as invisible faith, yet so often cited by homophobes, and so powerful they kept generations of lesbian women closeted in places where there were never laws against homosexual acts between women, and still impact on gay people everywhere.

This issue clearly goes beyond legislation, but could Kirby have risen so far in his profession without being closeted? Could Thorpe? Those of the ‘They Lied To Us’ team could do with answering such questions. Thorpe’s query to Australia in the Parkinson interview challenged us to consider how much we wanted and needed him to lie.

Ever since seeing Ian Thorpe interviewed during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics, I have known he was same-sex attracted. It was simply his demeanour, the same way of patting his solar plexus with a bent wrist as I do when using myself to illustrate a point.

It’s a subtle but giveaway gesticulation.

Whenever I witnessed people speculating about Thorpe’s orientation, I challenged their determination to claim him for ‘their team’, because a team is what a male Australian sports legend must declare a position on: he is never his own man, his countrymen feel like they own him.

By the mid-2000s it became painful to watch Thorpe’s slow-motion train wreck, without being able to do, say or write anything to help in the journey every out same-sex attracted person must endure.

Some journalists reached out to him. One open letter by founding editor of DNA magazine Andrew Creagh stood out for me. It was assertive enough to get to the truth, and empathetic enough to express what was needed despite Ian Thorpe’s closeted situation.

A journalist who asks a 16-year-old swimming star of either gender whether they are straight or gay should rightly come away looking like an idiot, not only because it’s a dumb question, but also because these days a 16-year-old (gay, straight or anything else) is considered a self-determining adult as far as sexual orientation is concerned.

Same-sex attracted 16-year-old boys were not considered adults prior to 2003, we were considered a danger to ourselves who needed ‘protection’ from wand-waving homosexuals trying to recruit us onto the ‘wrong’ team.

Such fantasies are laughable now, but in their day they were nails in the closet door.

PLUCK COVER copyCongratulations and best wishes to Ian Thorpe. His coming-out is a far greater achievement than any gold medal. It’s a life-changing validation for teenagers batting for the same team, and their families; and it means that when he manifests the relationship and new career this interview hinted at, at least he won’t have to come out again and again.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

Alan Bennett – the mystery boy

KEEPS THEM GUESSING Writer Alan Bennett.
KEEPS THEM GUESSING Writer Alan Bennett.

OVER many late nights during my last year of drama school, overworked head full of theatre productions, closeted young body starved of sex, I came across Alan Bennett on the television screen.

Volume down very low so that my grandmother (with whom I lodged) would not be disturbed, I encountered Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters in their now iconic episodes of Bennett’s first Talking Heads series.

Bennett remained the cursory sketch of the opening credits until the episode in which he appeared – A Chip in the Sugar.

The tale of the hapless Graham Whittaker living with his ‘Mam’ in Yorkshire drew me into its closeted fold, where I recognised absolutely everything about the character’s world, right down to the old woman sleeping in the room next to mine.

“Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no one’s really been listening.”

A month after I was born, the great writer E. M. Forster died publicly closeted despite reaching the era in which homosexuality was decriminalised in England. His gay-themed writing was entrusted to friends and took time to come to light.

He’s rarely comfortable admitting it, but Alan Bennett is something entirely different. Yes, the first thirty-six years of his life were lived under laws against homosexual acts between men, but these days he’s a right here, right now gay writer and actor, infinitely closer to generations of men easing our way out of the closet than Forster ever was.

Although back in the 1980s, nobody seemed to question Bennett’s ability to create characters on a scale E. M. Forster only dreamt of.

The most infamous query came from Ian McKellen, who asked the playwright publicly whether he was gay or bisexual at an event raising funds to fight Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 regulations in June 1988.

Fifty-four at the time, Bennett’s answer left him rather begrudgingly out of the closet ever since.

But that news didn’t reach Australia, not in my world anyway. It did not need to – I could tell by the ‘takes one to know one’ method that Bennett was not just acting like a gay man in A Chip in the Sugar.

Although that realisation meant that I was going to have to do some clever acting of my own to put people off the scent of the truth.

Writing this now I feel of a kind of rage that a gay drama school student did not feel validated by Bennett’s achievements.

Instead, it left me afraid, with the sense that there was nowhere to hide; that all gay men were bound to the apron strings by the kind of fear which Graham Whittaker manifested as mental illness. It offered little hope for those men who did not stay silent.

Perhaps that’s why I disconnected from Alan Bennett for a decade, during which I lived in England and did my level best to become a theatre and film-maker. ‘Gay’ was kept at arm’s length, and I got certain very specific signs that I needed to keep it there.

The most direct of these came during my year of drama training in Yorkshire (Alan Bennett ‘country’) when I was taken aside by one of the pivotal staff members and told that I needed to curb myself or the work I would get on graduation would be “limited”.

His admonishing tone about my natural demeanour came, as it always seems to, with the “I’m only saying this to you because I know plenty of gay people” lie.

By the time I’d gathered the courage to go home to Australia and come out, six years later, Alan Bennett made another appearance in my life, in the form of his memoir Writing Home.

The book was given to me with an unusual amount of sadness by one of the many male friends I’d made in England who were soon to come tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out.

Bennett’s book helped me realise that being openly gay would not necessarily be an issue, but it would probably leave me more prickly than ever.

I have paid much closer attention to Alan Bennett ever since, but it’s taken another decade to understand the writer who constantly tells us that he does not want to be understood.

You see, Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no one’s really been listening.

MAKING HISTORY Richard Griffiths headed the cast of Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys'.
MAKING HISTORY Richard Griffiths headed the cast of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’.

One of his recent plays – The History Boys – is also one of his most popular, regularly featuring at the top of ‘Britain’s Favourite Play’ lists.

The story of a group of school boys preparing for their university entrance examinations, Bennett instilled this play with a major theme in his writing – authenticity versus artifice.

Ever since his own entrance into Oxford in the 1950s, Bennett has employed a writing technique which he used when answering examination questions.

He calls it “taking the wrong end of the stick”, a journalist’s approach to ‘the facts’. In entrance examination answers it can be utilised to impress with a new ‘out there’ angle on a subject that has been ‘done to death’; an attention-grabber, if you like.

This is also the key to the pathos in all Bennett’s work. His characters show pluck in the face of diversity. They laugh when it might be more appropriate to cry. They see obstacles as opportunities.

Good use of pathos is funny, not in the side-splitting sense but in the chuckling one. It’s right up the other end of the stick from turgid, and it totally avoids the branch of melodrama.

It took maturity, and an understanding of pathos,  for me to realise that Gordon Whittaker’s salvation came with his mother’s admission that she had found his hidden gay pornography.

It is the great power shift in A Chip in the Sugar, when Graham’s ‘chip’ is seen as considerably smaller than Mam’s, giving the viewer hope that the result is a more accepting future for Graham.

There is some proof of this in Bennett’s recent writing. In A Life Like Other People’s (published in 2005 as Untold Stories) Bennett let slip that the mental illness he imbued Graham Whittaker with in Talking Heads (1987) was actually that endured by his real-life mother years before.

In the early 1970s, Bennett (‘Graham’) was torn away from a healthy same-sex life in London to care for his mother (‘Mam’) in Yorkshire.

Art stood in for life until Bennett ‘came out’ about the true nature of his family’s struggles with mental illness, thirty years after the fact.

So, ‘Graham Whittaker’ wasn’t in the least bonkers and went on to live a successful life as one of England’s finest playwrights and found love with a man. Phew.

PLUCK COVER copyAlan Bennett has published enough about himself for people to leave him alone about his sexuality, although in recent interviews he’s hinted at posthumous diaries which may come to rival E. M. Forster’s.

He’s also managed to avoid the tag ‘gay playwright’ by taking the wrong end of the stick whenever one is offered.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

There is no grey area in Marriage Equality

PINK AS Same-sex marriage is long overdue in Australia.
PINK AS Same-sex marriage is long overdue in Australia.

A Writer ramps-up the politics.

TO increase writing output I can thoroughly recommend writers move to an island.

With the mainland and its issues left far behind, and only the sound of birds in the nearby wetlands, my writer’s voice has blossomed since arriving on Coochiemudlo, in Queensland’s Moreton Bay.

A healthy dose of political writing has formed a key part of my work, and, thanks to the number of websites seeking original content, it’s been great to have work published to hungry audiences.

Top-of-mind for this writer is always LGBTQI equality – an issue which is not going away.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come – there was a time when even Senator Penny Wong was not a marriage equality advocate, and Tanya Plibersek MP wrote against it while backing her leader, Kevin Rudd, in opposition. Time for a little reminder in where we were just over twelve months ago.

This opinion piece originally appeared in LGBTicons in February 2013.

“The aftermath of his death revealed the rotten core of Australia’s attitude to same-sex equality.”

Michael Burge’s fight for equality Down Under.

I CAME to terms with the fact that I am gay whilst living in a converted barn on the edge of a frozen field in the grip of a Suffolk winter in early 1998. Loneliness, and the creeping realisation that I was wasting my swiftly disappearing youth were the motivating factors, plus the knowledge that I’d tried playing it straight for far too long.

In desperation, while on a day trip to Cambridge – city of so much stifled sexuality – I purchased a book called How to be a Happy Homosexual.

Yes, the shop assistant gave me ‘that’ look, as she turned it over, clocked the title, and promptly buried it in a paper bag for me.

In an early chapter, author Terry Sanderson suggests an exercise which struck me as weird, but I rolled my eyes, went to the bathroom mirror, and told myself that I am gay.

The self-acceptance I received in that moment changed my life forever.

Within months I left England for home. I felt sure that Australia would provide me with all the answers I needed to make this desperately important transition.

It took me another 18 months to break the closet door open. In preparation, I parachuted from an airplane to help a friend celebrate her 50th birthday, thinking that if I could manage that, coming out would be a cinch.

Then I took another leap and came out to everyone.

A year later I manifested a relationship with Jono, a beautiful, generous, funny man with similar showbiz aspirations. We shared our lives for four irreplaceable years before he died suddenly one night at the age of 44.

As the reality of his motionless body sank in, lying in the emergency department, I realised I was in for years of grief. I ran my hand across his forehead and told Jono he was worth every tear. I had no inkling at that stage how magnified my grief would be by other forces.

Jono and I never discussed the legalities of our relationship. We were married in every sense of the word, but we were blissfully ignorant of how precarious our legal status was. The aftermath of his death revealed the rotten core of Australia’s attitude to same-sex equality.

I could write at great length about the number of ways my human rights (and his) were trampled on by Jono’s family, some of his friends, and various government agencies and businesses in their service.

Thankfully, the state laws of New South Wales had enshrined same-sex de-facto relationships into law the year Jono and I met. Given time, I was able to reverse the criminally fraudulent acts perpetrated to ensure my name was not on Jono’s death certificate, and that I had no access to it.

But the battle to achieve ownership of this crucial piece of paper, which eventually allowed me to reclaim our joint financial affairs, turned me into an overnight marriage equality advocate, simply because marriage would have saved me from the deepest disenfranchisement I ever wish to experience.

So I began talking about same-sex marriage to anyone who would listen, warning gay friends in de-facto relationships in particular about the risks they faced if something went wrong – death, separation or incapacitation.

Surprisingly, I was met with off-handedness from couples who blindly trusted their families would respect their relationships, and those who couldn’t see that same-sex co-habitation is still very much a political act in Australia.

Thankfully, the marriage equality movement swiftly took a foothold in the gay community.

Right in the middle of my grief, two Australian same-sex couples who were married in Canada noticed the Australian federal Marriage Act did not explicitly state marriage had to be between people of the opposite gender, so they applied to marry under Australian law to ensure their overseas nuptials were legally recognised on home soil.

Federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock went into a panic about this obvious oversight, and worked his hardest to add six words – “between a man and a woman” – to the legislation. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard saw the addition of gender into Australia’s Marriage Act as a much-needed law reform, and the law was swiftly amended under his personal leadership in 2004.

When Kevin Rudd led the Labor party to victory in 2007, sweeping away 11 years of conservative government, he did so on the promise of removing legislation that financially discriminated against same-sex de-facto couples.

These were welcome reforms, but despite having a majority in the Senate, Rudd stopped short of any kind of leadership around marriage equality. Most commentators put his reticence down to religious convictions.

So it was a great relief when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010. As a self-declared atheist, she brought the possibility that faith-based lobby groups would be firmly reminded that we live in a secular nation. As a woman living in a de-facto relationship, she seemed equipped to understand why the full spectrum of coupling choices should be available to all citizens.

In 2012, months after the Australian Labor Party adopted gay marriage as a policy platform, Julia Gillard ensured her senators a conscience vote on a bill designed to consider that over 60 per cent of all respondents in the Australian community now supported same-sex marriage.

Sounds good, right?

NOT HAPPY, JULIA The shock in the same-sex attracted community was palpable.
NOT HAPPY, JULIA The shock in the same-sex attracted community was palpable.

Well no, actually, because Gillard’s leadership on the issue was limited to crossing the floor (followed by most of her frontbench) to express her atheist conscience by sitting with the conservative Opposition and voting against allowing same-sex couples in Australia our equal human rights.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott forced his colleagues to tow the line in a bloc of ‘no’ votes, flying in the face of the Liberal Party’s claim to have invented the repercussion-free conscience vote.

The Australian gay community witnessed this with jaws dropped. We had hoped our leaders would see things in a more 21st century light.

Thanks to all this political dissembling, same-sex marriage in Australia was defeated by an enormous margin, and remains dead in the water.

The news about the progress of marriage equality in the United Kingdom is heartening, but we are paddling in denial about how far back Gillard and Abbott have put the issue in this country. Neither leader has the conviction of Barack Obama, or David Cameron’s understanding of equality.

If only I’d looked at my country’s record for dragging its feet on gay law reform before I left the United Kingdom!

Australia lagged 30 years behind Britain on completely decriminalising homosexuality – which started in 1967 in Britain, but arrived as late as 1997 in Tasmania.

We do not yet have the right to create civil unions, which were legalised in Britain in 2005. The best we have are relationship registers, a process which feels rather like registering your dog with the local council.

Despite feeling like I’d lost my ability to love someone else, I was lucky enough to find love again, and by 2008 my partner Richard and I decided we’d like to formalise our relationship. The closest place we could be ‘civilly-unioned’ (it sounds weird, but let’s call it what it is), is New Zealand.

Our civil union certificate has legal status in very few places in Australia, but certainly not where we currently live and own a house together.

Despite our wills, powers of attorney and guardianship, we still have no single piece of binding evidence if the validity of our relationship were to be challenged.

So how long will we remain in this parlous state?

Julia Gillard refuses to give a cogent explanation as to why she believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman. She remains the greatest anti-gay-marriage leader this country has ever seen.

But there is a link between this refusal and her inability to form a secure, united cabinet since the first day she held office. Within the ALP ranks a progressive core keeps dragging the deeply divided party towards an understanding of equality.

Tony Abbott believes that being a conservative politician comes with automatic opposition to same-sex marriage, despite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that he supports same-sex marriage because he is a conservative.

So Australians for marriage equality are left with a choice between two staunch same-sex marriage opponents at our next election.

I used to think equality was a tenet of the Australian way of life, but to my surprise the word does not even appear in our constitution. Our politicians are under no obligation to stand up for something which isn’t mentioned in our supreme legal document.

BRISBANE PRIDE My partner Richard brings up the rear with the other trash at the loud 2013 event.
BRISBANE PRIDE My husband Richard brings up the rear with the trash at the raucous 2013 event.

But thanks to lobby groups, same-sex marriage has become our politician’s first real struggle with equality since the removal of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s, and the granting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights under the Mabo ruling in the 1990s.

While it chooses to use terms like ‘a fair go’ and ‘closing the gap’, our Parliament avoids the truth – that equality can never be a partial state. Equality either exists or it doesn’t, there is no grey area.

The removal of six words – “between a man and a woman” from the federal Marriage Act will cost this secular nation nothing.

But it will finally end my journey home from that lonely Suffolk barn, and make me a very Happy Homosexual indeed.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.