My Dad says he didn’t really date much in his teens. He was shy around girls, so he kept himself busy by spending his nights working in bars, his evenings and weekends playing rugby union and his days sleeping — or occasionally making an appearance at school/uni. He got together with his first serious girlfriend — my mum — when he was 20.
Dad’s best mate was a tall, good looking guy named Graham. They met at uni and soon they were working together as silver service waiters, serving the shonky businessmen and crooked cops who dined in such establishments in pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry Brisbane.
I grew up hearing stories from my parents about all the good times they had with Graham. That camping trip on Moreton Island when Mum calmly killed a snake with a shovel after dad and Graham ran away, squealing. Wild parties in their Paddington share house. Dad and Graham graduating from uni during a recession and spending the day swimming in the pool and watching the Don Lane show at my mum’s mother’s Fig Tree Pocket house, because they couldn’t get jobs.
Graham was gay, or “camp”, as my Dad puts it, and very much in the closet. Both of my parents had openly gay friends (as much as anyone was open about being gay in Brisbane in the late 70s/early 80s), and in the way that some straight people can be, were completely mystified as to why Graham kept trying to pick up girls he clearly wasn’t sexually interested in. THEY could see that Graham was gay, they told themselves, so why wouldn’t HE just admit it and move on?
Mum and Dad announced their engagement after four years of dating. Graham cut off all contact with them soon afterwards — ignoring their calls and refusing to answer the door when they’d stop by his house. They were devastated, and beat themselves up about the end of the friendship. What had they done to drive him away?
25 years after the fact, Mum says it’s clear what happened.
“It wasn’t a big deal to us if he was gay, but it was a big deal to him. We should’ve seen that and been kinder, rather than thinking that if we didn’t care, then he shouldn’t care either.”
Mum told me this story when I was in high school, and I ignored the advice she was trying to give me, as all petulant teens do. Life was different now to when my parents were young, I told myself. I mean, this was the early 2000s —“Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” was a top-rating TV show!
A few years later, when I was 18, I was walking home from a party with my housemate Rob when he tearily told me he was gay.
“Rob, I always thought you were gay,” I said cheerfully.
“I mean, we became friends in Grade 9 because we were the only people we knew who loved Tori Amos! Straight dudes don’t like Tori Amos. Plus you were so much fun to go to the formal with because you were so well-dressed and you weren’t trying to hit on me.”
I thought this observation would cheer him up, but much like my parents with Graham 25 years earlier, I’d completely negated Rob’s feelings by steamrollering over them with examples of how smart and perceptive I thought I was. He was embarrassed and livid, and I walked the rest of the way home alone after he stormed off ahead of me.
For years people have been speculating about Ian Thorpe’s sexuality, and now he’s publicly confirmed that yes, he is gay. It’s tempting to fire off witty bon mots like “Thorpey’s gay — in other news water is wet and the Pope’s Catholic”, or try to give the impression you’re above celebrity gossip by saying things like “who even cares if he’s gay”.
The fact is that people do care, and most importantly, he cares. In a culture where sexuality is simultaneously hi-jacked by people trying to sell you things and hidden under layers of taboos, it does take courage for someone to be public and authentic about who they are — no matter what that may mean.