In an ideal world, Australia's famed swimming star Ian Thorpe should be known for one thing: dominating the sport of swimming and capturing five Olympic gold medals. But of course, we don't live in an ideal world, and ever since Thorpe entered the limelight more than 15 years ago, rumors about his sexuality have swirled in the media and in the public forum.
After years of denying what many already suspected, Ian Thorpe confessed in an Australian television interview Sunday night. He 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."
So far the reaction to Thorpe's announcement has been positive, with the gay community and the sporting world welcoming his decision. And in finally coming out and realizing what it's like to not have to live behind closed doors any more, Thorpe said, "I don't want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay." With Thorpe coming out, he's making it easier for other gay youth, athletes and those still in the closet for fear of the backlash that would come if others found out their secret.
Of course, who can blame Thorpe for hiding his sexuality all this time; it's difficult enough living as an ordinary gay person that nobody knows, let alone living as a celebrity constantly in the spotlight. Thankfully, society has made tremendous progress in recent years and is more accepting than ever of the LGBT community and lifestyle, but we have a long way to go.
According to StopBllying.gov, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth and those perceived as LGBT are at an increased risk of being bullied. And look at these shocking statistics on gay bullying from the National Youth Association:
- Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
- LGBT teens are bullied 2-3 times as much as straight teens.
- More than one-third of LGBT kids have attempted suicide.
- LGBT kids are four times as likely to attempt suicide then their straight peers.
- LGBT youth with "highly rejecting" families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them.
The good news, despite these daunting statistics, is that according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 77 percent of LGBT youth believe in a brighter future and that things will get better. But for that to happen, we need more mentally tough athletes like Ian Thorpe, Michael Sam and Jason Collins to take a stand for equality.
When any group in the minority bans together, they get stronger and that minority label begins to fade away and society becomes more accepting. That's the shift that's been taking place with gay rights and that must continue. And it's why I believe in the next 10 years, gay marriage will be legal in all 50 states and simply be known as marriage. Sure, the bullies and bigoted people will kick and scream like the small-minded manipulators they are, but it won't be enough to prevent Americans from doing the right thing. Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, it's the only thing that ever has.
Ian Thorpe is a hero to the sport of swimming that all aspiring Olympic swimmers will look up to for years to come. And today Ian Thorpe is a hero for finally coming out to the world. He is a role model for all the middle and high school students who are constantly being teased and harassed, and for those who have considered or might be considering taking their lives. He is a hero to the many people who have lost their jobs for being who they really are. He is a hero to the gay youth forced on to the streets and in temporary housing after their parents banished them for being gay.
As Harvey Milk, a martyr in the gay community and perhaps one of the most famous and most significantly open LGBT officials ever elected said, "Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight."