Ian Thorpe is being celebrated on the world stage for his candid interview with Michael Parkinson, but on the home front, just how progressive is Queensland?

Are we as accepting as we should be, or are we still forcing our friends, family members and co-workers into the closet?

We caught up with five prominent members of Brisbane’s gay community and talked closets, culture, courage and conservatism.

Michael James sits on the committee of the Brisbane Pride Festival, hosts QTV and Gay Savvy, and was one of the models featured in the Rip & Roll safe sex campaign that was controversially removed from bus shelters (before being sensationally reinstated).

Phil Browne is the Convenor of the Brisbane LGBTIQ Action Group (BLAG), and was recently named Activist of the Year at the Queen’s Ball.

David Hardy is the President of the Brisbane Lesbian and Gay Pride Choir, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer-friendly people Brisbanites who recently played to packed houses in Dublin and Leeds.

Shelley Argent is the National Spokesperson for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and was the longtime President of the organisation’s Brisbane chapter. She helps parents to understand and support their children, in order to make the world a better place for her gay son.

John Mikelsons is the Executive Director of the Queensland AIDS Council, which was formed in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Queensland and now tackles wider health issues for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex Queenslanders.

What did you make of Ian Thorpe’s announcement?

Michael James: I thought it was fantastic. I think Ian Thorpe is somebody who has his own demons and his own battles to fight, and he’s entitled to fight them in his own time. Whether he came out yesterday or whether he came out 10 years ago is completely irrelevant; he found the courage and determination to do it when he did and I take my hat off to him.

Phil Browne: In an ideal world, it would not matter – a person’s sexuality would not be an issue. Ian has been public about his battle with depression and alcohol use, and it’s possible the pressure of being treated inferiorly if he were to come out may have been a contributing factor. I join thousands of Aussies who wish Ian inner peace, happiness and a full life now he has come out.

On the same weekend that Ian come out, we saw a Melbourne TV sports commentator call an AFL player a “big poofter” during a live TV broadcast. Is it any wonder that we have so few out gay sports people when they face such lack of understanding and insensitivity!

A high profile Australian, and especially a sporting star coming out, will have huge benefits to thousands of LGBT youth who might be struggling, often alone, with their own feelings of being attracted to someone of the same sex.

David Hardy: I was very pleased for Ian Thorpe that he has taken the step, a courageous step for such a high profile person, to come out as a gay man. I sing in Brisbane’s gay and lesbian choir and we have a large number of singers who do not have the high profile that Ian Thorpe has but have gone through the same difficult journey regarding their sexuality, often coming out later in life. They have experienced life in city or rural Queensland that is not always open and accepting, particularly for younger gay men and lesbians.

Shelley Argent: I think Ian Thorpe was very brave. Regardless of whether he got paid or not, if the reaction was bad, no amount of money would have been worth it. I think it was his time. What happens sometimes with young people is they get to a stage where they’ve been trying to keep it a secret, and they just cannot do it any longer.

You’ll find he came to that stage in his life, and he just thought, ‘I have to do this’. Even though it’s very stressful for anybody who does it, whether they’re well known or not, it becomes a huge relief, because even if people don’t take it well, at least he’s being honest. He needs to live his life honestly and openly, just like anybody else.

John Mikelsons: It’s never easy coming out, and we wish Thorpey all the best on this new phase of his life. Some people say it’s none of anyone’s business, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone felt comfortable talking about who they love?

How would the world have reacted if Ian Thorpe had come out at the peak of his powers?

Michael James: I think it would have been incredibly groundbreaking if he’d done it then, given his youth and his career at the time. That’s where some people have levelled some criticism at him. They say he didn’t want to do it earlier because he didn’t want to ruin his career. So what? He did it when he did it, and his reasons are his own. It would have been great if he did it 10 years ago, but maybe he didn’t know 10 years ago!

Phil Browne: It’s very telling that Ian chose to delay coming out until his swimming career was over, for fear of losing his sponsors. Every LGBT person faces their own inner struggle in the lead up to coming out, and the pressure must be so much greater for someone with a high pubic profile. Like many, I understand his choice not to come out at the peak of his swimming career.

Shelley Argent: I think he may have lost some financial support, and there may have been some conversation about it. But I think, realistically, they would have all got over it in five minutes. But he didn’t feel confident. He was only young, and it’s very rude and insensitive to ask a young person on the television whether he’s gay or not.

I asked my boy once if he thought he was gay, and he just looked at me and said no, because he wasn’t ready to say. So I think Thorpe just had to take his time. Even when he said he was straight, that is so common with a lot of young people, because they build up this secrecy and lies, and it’s just to keep themselves under the radar, so that they don’t throw suspicion on themselves. Of course, that only works for so long.

John Mikelsons: The reality is that while attitudes are changing all the time, sports stars and ordinary people face homophobia every day. From sponsors, employers, and the communities they live in. We fully understand why Thorpey didn’t come out until recently.

Has it gotten easier to come out in the last 10 years?

Michael James: Oh, absolutely. You only have to look at the media landscape at the moment, at the amount of ‘out’ GLBT personalities, whether they be in sport or entertainment. We’ve got gay comedians dropping out of trees left, right and centre in Australia; we’ve got major sporting stars coming out in the US. The climate is becoming more progressive and it’s becoming easier for people to come out, and hopefully we’ll see more people do that.

Phil Browne: Things are changing and it is easier to come out in most progressive countries — unlike the 80 or so countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence punishable by penalties including life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

In Australia it’s now common for school students to talk about having out gay and lesbian students in their classes. The way younger people are so accepting of LGBT people is a very encouraging sign for the future.

David Hardy: While it was a personal decision of Ian Thorpe to take, it is worth noting that he joins a significant number of people who have, in the past few years, decided to come out. This indicates there is a change afoot.

These days, most people will have a family member or a friend or someone in their workplace who is gay or lesbian or transgendered. They know about that because increasingly people are talking about it, people are coming out, people are taking courageous steps where they once might not have been willing to do so. I do think the situation in Australia has improved a little, although it varies from state to state and from city to regional and rural areas.

Shelley Argent: Yes, it has. I’ve been doing this now for 15 years, and when I first started doing it, the reaction of parents was entirely different. Their children were much older when they came out back then. Now I have parents ringing up saying, “My son or daughter is 14 or 15 and they’ve come out, and I’m looking for support for them”. They’re not necessarily worrying about themselves like they used to, with the shame and the blame and the guilt.

John Mikelsons: It has become easier to come out, but it is still hard. It is even harder when you are in the public eye.

Is Queensland more conservative, and less accepting of queer lifestyles, than other states?

Michael James: Yes and no. Look at the Rip & Roll campaign, which I was a part of a couple of years ago. When that exploded, Queensland was seen as a redneck state. If it had happened in any other state, you probably would have had a much less conservative reaction. But then, at the same time, the support we received in Queensland and nationwide was quite strong.

Queensland does tend to be a little backwards. Our laws are a little backwards. Gay couples can’t adopt here. We can be longtime foster carers, but we can’t adopt children. We don’t have great surrogacy laws, either. So we do tend to be the redneck state here.

Phil Browne: Queensland, in 1991, was the second last state to legalise consensual male to male sex in private, with only Tasmania lagging behind. It took a whole 19 years after South Australia decriminalised homosexuality for Queensland to gain this reform.

We still see discriminatory attacks on citizens, for no reason other than being LGBT. Some recent examples include amending the Qld Civil Unions Act to remove the right to have a legally recognised ceremony when couples declare their love. We also saw Brisbane City Council ban a promotional poster for the Queer Film Festival, plus the orchestrated campaign to remove the tastefully created Rip & Roll safe sex poster.

Many Queenslanders know LGBT citizens who have left Queensland saying they want to live in a state were they feel more accepted. Targeted anti-gay verbal abuse and physical attacks still happen regularly.

David Hardy: Whenever our choir performs we present who we are and tell the stories of our lives. We do this as we feel a sense of pride but we also know that it is needed in Queensland, where we do need to get the message out that a diverse and accepting community enriches our society. We were saddened and shocked when the current State government, in the first few months in office, watered down the civil partners register and defunded our Queensland Aids Council.

More recently our Choir, amongst others, protested the decision by the Brisbane City Council to take down a poster of two men kissing that was being used to advertise the Queer Film Festival. I consider fair-minded Australians and Queenslanders are supportive and indeed most polls indicate that if you put marriage equality to a popular vote, rather than a parliamentary vote, the Marriage Act would change.

This brings me heart and it is clear that at both the federal and state level, politicians from all sides of politics are coming around to the public way of thinking on this most important decision for Australia.

Shelley Argent: No, I don’t think so. I think we’re all the same, really. Of course, when you go into rural areas — and it doesn’t matter where that rural area is — they’re not exposed to a lot of different things. When people live in small communities, and I don’t mean this as an insult to them, they tend to live with the old beliefs and the old theories because they’re not challenged. When you live in the city, you’re constantly challenged and you get used to it and you don’t worry.

John Mikelsons: Queensland is significantly more conservative and homophobic than other states, and half of the top ten most homophobic electorates in Australia are in Queensland. But it is also diverse, and the electorate of Brisbane is one of the most accepting in the country.

Do you think there are still a lot of Brisbanites living in the closet?

Michael James: There certainly are some who live professionally in the closet. I’ve worked as a teacher before, and I definitely know there are gay men and women who work in the education sector, whether it be public or private, who still live a very closeted existence because they’re afraid to come out and face the community reaction. So there’s still a bit of a stigma attached to GLBTIQ people in certain professions.

For most people, though, it’s much easier to come out now. You don’t get stigmatised too much on a daily basis for being gay in Queensland.

Phil Browne: Many people, especially some older people, choose to remain in the closet. This is understandable when you consider consensual male to male sex by adults in private was a criminal offence in Queensland, punishable by up to 14 years jail, until 1991. Plus the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality as a diagnosis of mental illness in 1992. These are only recent reforms, and the years prior impact heavily on people.

David Hardy: Of course there will be many people who have not taken the step of coming out and I hope the actions of high profile people like Ian Thorpe and the work of the very many community organisations like my own Choir will help people celebrate and value the lives of all Australians.

Being part of a choir that has gay and lesbian pride in the title is very powerful — we are proud of the lives we live as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or intersex people as well as our straight allies. For those struggling with their identity or early on in their coming out to themselves or family or friends, our Choir has been a safe place for people to meet up and sing together with people who get you. That’s a powerful experience and we are always happy to welcome new members to our choir.

Shelley Argent: Yes! Absolutely, there are. And of course, they all have their own reasons. It could be that they’re fearful of coming out at work, and what their workmates will think. A lot of them fear they will lose their credibility.

When my son applies for jobs, he never tells them or lets them know that he’s gay. He keeps that quiet, he keeps that a secret until he feels comfortable and gets to know people. He fears he either may not get the job, just because he’s gay, or that if he makes a mistake, people will think, ‘oh, that’s just because he’s gay, he’s not very good, he’s weak, he’s unintelligent’.

With people who are lesbian and gay, there is this internalised homophobia, and sometimes this can be worse than anything else, because it’s what they feel about themselves, and how they fear the world will see them. Very often, it’s not half as bad as what they imagine.

John Mikelsons: Of course!

What’s the downside of coming out? What is there to be afraid of? Why is it ‘brave’?

Michael James: For the Average Joe, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

People become afraid because they’re worried about what their family and their friends will think, and for whatever reason, they start to get it in their head that things might not be okay. They hear things in their social circles or their family circle that make them think people won’t be okay with it. When I had my initial misgivings about it when I was younger, it was because of things I’d heard my father say. He’d said things about ‘poofters’ that made me think it wouldn’t be okay.

In Thorpey’s case, people think it’s ‘brave’ because we made such an issue out of it for so many years. We made it a big deal. The media did, the gay community did. That’s why he’s brave — because he’s taking a step forward and admitting that he had denied it, but now he’s being open and honest and putting himself forward on this big international platform to expose himself and tell people who he really is.

Phil Browne: Sadly, prejudice and discrimination still exist and there can be big risks in coming out. Some people are totally rejected by their families and friends, church or colleagues. Even in 2014, being kicked out of home for coming out, results in a higher rate of homelessness among LGBT youth.

Some people have been asked to leave rental accommodation and been denied promotion or even sacked after coming out. The blanket exemptions in the Anti-Discrimination Act for all religious organisations, including their for-profit businesses, mean that teachers, doctors and all staff employed in religious schools and health care facilities can be legally sacked just for coming out.

Shelley Argent: I don’t think there is a downside. You’re living your life honestly and openly and you are who you are.

The thing is, and I suppose Ian Thorpe will never have this issue because he’s so well known, is that for the average person, it’s a constant coming out. If you go somewhere, someone will say, ‘Oh, have you got a girlfriend?’ Or, if you’re female, ‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ Eventually you say, ‘No, I’m gay, I’ve got a male partner’.

Even as a parent, people ask you, ‘Oh, has your boy got a girlfriend?’ You say no, and they just keep asking. Finally you have to say, ‘No, he’s gay! Go away and leave me alone!’ For most people, it is a constant coming out, and that is the only downside.

John Mikelsons: Coming out is a great experience for many people who do it. But many are excluded from their faith, their family and their friends. Attitudes are changing, and it is easier today than ever before, but it is still hard.

What are the upsides? Why should someone come out?

Michael James: I came out while I was in high school, and it was actually kind of accidental. I was getting ready to, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself, and then I was busted snogging a boy. I was only 15 at the time. But it was quite liberating, and it very quickly became something very positive.

I had a lot of misgivings about people at school that I thought would be really negative about it, but it boiled down to a handful of about five people who had a problem with it. I had strong support from a large group of people at school who I never expected to support me. People who were only acquaintances and mutual friends stepped forward and said, ‘Look, you do what you want to do, and if anyone has any problems with that, they’ll have us to deal with’.

I’ve never looked back. Now I’m 28, and I have a great life and career and a partner I’ve been with for 10 years. We have a son, and we are a family. Everything about my life is as perfectly normal as anyone else’s.

Phil Browne: The relief of being true to yourself and not having to live a double life is immense. The liberation and sense of well-being gained by coming out is amazing and very healthy. Coming out can be the hardest, yet most positive thing an LGBT person ever does in their life.

John Mikelsons: Being able to talk about the people you love in conversation is important.

We don’t have a Straight Film Festival, or a Straight Pride Festival. Why is it important to celebrate gay pride in Queensland?

Michael James: You have to look at how far we’ve come. It was never illegal to be straight in Queensland. It wasn’t that long ago that it was illegal to be gay in this state. We deserve to celebrate that.

We deserve to celebrate that, as a community of GLBTIQ people, we have come so far and we have overcome the adversity of people who faced criminal charges, who faced discrimination, who faced hate and vilification. People have died because of who they are; people have taken their own lives, people have had their lives taken from them, because of who and what they are.

We deserve to stand up and celebrate because we have come a very, very long way. The privileged, white, heterosexual male can’t understand where this community has come from, and where it is now. It’s vitally important that we never stop celebrating and we never forget.

Phil Browne: It’s important to celebrate people surviving, and thriving, when they belong to a sub-section of the community that has a four times higher rate of suicide attempts (according to ABS figures), as a result of receiving discriminatory and prejudicial treatment.

It’s also important to increase awareness of LGBT people and to remind the broader community of the harm done by homophobia and treating one class of people as second class citizens.

Shelley Argent: They don’t need another straight film festival! They have those all the time. Think about it. Cannes Film Festival? That’s a straight one! How many other film festivals do they want?

The thing when it comes to, say, Mardi Gras, is that it’s like my son says: “Mum, you can celebrate your sexuality 364 days a year. I have one day.” And they do it well!

John Mikelsons: Our community, like any community, has a culture, a beating heart and is a living breathing organism. People who identify as LGBTI celebrate their pride in their community because it is central to their identity – in the same way that nationality, language and religion are celebrated.

It’s come out this week that 72 per cent of Australians support marriage equality — when is it actually going to happen?

Michael James: When it stops being a political football, and people are actually allowed to vote with their brains and their hearts. When the politics around it fade away, and we actually start focusing on the people, I think we’ll see a change.

Unfortunately, that may still be a while away. The current party in power has a long way to go, in terms of how they are going to vote and legislate. We need to continue to educate them, and continue to work with them and talk to them. There are good people in that party, and it’s up to the good people to fight the good fight.

Phil Browne: Clearly the Australian public support marriage equality, at even higher rates than other countries who have already passed this reform. By forcing Aussie couples to travel overseas to marry, only to have their marriage invalidated upon return to the Australian customs gate, our Parliament is shaming Australia’s international reputation.

David Hardy: I’m optimistic it will be soon because the majority of Australians are supportive and there are clearly community leaders like Rodney Croome and many politicians who are working hard to bring this about as soon as possible. Our choir held a concert, My Country?, in May this year and we donated profits to Australian Marriage Equality. In September, during Brisbane’s Pride month, we will be performing again with marriage equality front and centre of our concert.

Shelley Argent: What needs to happen is for the Liberal Party to allow a conscience vote. Mr Abbott may not agree with marriage equality, and that’s fine, but there are a lot of people in the government who do want marriage equality and will vote for it. And they should be given the opportunity.

Tony Abbott is discriminating against his sister. He’s said that he is a politician first and a brother second. Well, I do not think that is anything to be proud of.

John Mikelsons: It’s only a matter of time.

The Brisbane Pride Festival, which will include the Gala Opening Party, the Pink Pub Prowl, and the rally and march followed by Pride Fair Day, will run for the month of September. Head to brisbanepridefestival.com.au for more info. 

What’s your take? Join the conversation below!


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