Thorpe`s gay stand may mean little for divided Australians

Sydney: In a week that saw Australia`s highest-profile sporting icon, Ian Thorpe, `come out of the closet` on television, gay marriage is back on the national agenda with Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm hoping to push the divided government to allow a `conscience vote` on the issue.

It certainly couldn`t be said that Australia`s national jaw dropped with a resounding thud this week, when in a paid interview Thorpe revealed what most of the country already knew - that, in his own words, he was `not straight`, reports Xinhua.

However the reverberations, not just for Thorpe`s own recently troubled life but for the wider social-equality issues still unresolved in Australia`s political life, will be felt for a few years to come.

It may be no coincidence that the newly-elected Libertarian senator - already proving himself that rare Australian political commodity of idealism tempered by rationalism - has trumped a distracted parliament with his own Gay Marriage Bill, due to be tabled in Canberra this week.

Not to be confused with the ruling Liberal-National coalition, Leyonhjelm is a member of Australia`s fringe Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) founded in 2001.

The minority player in Australia`s two-party electoral system can be broadly described as a libertarian party, while the relatively unknown Leyonhjelm (previously an agribusiness consultant), was elected to the Senate in the 2013 federal election touting lower taxes and regulations and more `liberty.`

However, as proven last year in the same parliament, such a bill cannot succeed unless Prime Minister Tony Abbott`s coalition government inexplicably reverses its position or allows its members a `conscience vote` - where elected members can voice their personal views rather than their party`s official position.

Leyonhjelm told Xinhua Monday, "If we accept the view that marriage is a private matter between consenting adults, the only choice we each need to make is whether to participate and which variety of marriage to embrace. And for those who perform marriages, religious or civil, there should be no obligation to marry those of whom they disapprove."

It will be no easy ride. Australia is deeply divided on the issue despite breakout moments such as Thorpe`s high-profile declaration.

National president of Rise Up Australia Party, Daniel Nalliah, describes Rise Up Australia as staunchly opposed to same sex marriage "because we are committed to protecting the traditional family unit with nurturing relationships between husband, wife and children."

"Research confirms that this model provides the best outcomes for the child and for society as a whole."

Rise Up notes in its policy position, pointing that the definition of marriage in Australia`s Marriage Amendment Act 2004, means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

Federal legislation makes it clear that if the states pass any laws in relation to same sex marriage they will be invalid.

The Marriage Act would firstly have to be amended and then Federal Parliament would have to pass a law making same sex marriage legal.

A bill to amend this act during the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard was voted down by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives in 2012.

But Leyonhjelm is undeterred.

"The simple fact is that parliament can change the definition of marriage if it wants to; indeed, Parliament (and other authorities) have been changing it for centuries," he said.

"Widening the definition of marriage beyond the union of a man and woman is also necessary now that the High Court has confirmed some people are neither male nor female but of non-specific sex. These people are currently prevented from entering into marriage with anyone."

The stigma of homosexuality has certainly impacted Thorpe, 31, who has recently battled depression. His struggles reflect Australia`s ongoing uncertainty with openly gay national heroes.

"I`m ashamed I didn`t come out earlier because I didn`t have the courage to do it," Thorpe said in the nationally broadcast interview on Sunday night.

"I didn`t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay," The Olympic champion said.

Tellingly, Andrew Webster, a leading sports journalist who himself came out on the front page of a leading newspaper late last year, reserved his endorsement of Thorpe`s revelations.

"As a gay man, I couldn`t be happier for Ian Thorpe. As a journalist, I have misgivings of his outing as a homosexual with legendary interviewer Michael Parkinson, and its timing."

However, while Webster said Thorpe had the opportunity to set the record straight on many occasions, the uncertain response from an adoring Australian public would have been a major impediment.

"That Thorpe is dealing with this now, at the age of 31, illuminates how far Australian society still has to go, and it extends beyond the prime minister`s backward thinking about same sex marriage."

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