Father and Son: Geoff and Nathan Thomas
The father is a plumber by trade. The son works in finance. Together, they’re a formidable team fighting for equal gay rights. Here, Geoff Thomas and his son Nathan share their inspiring story. Interviews by Serkan Ozturk.
When Western Sydney plumber and Vietnam veteran Geoff Thomas, 63, confronted Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on live television in 2010 over his lack of support for the gay and lesbian community, little did he know the ripple effect it would have across the country. Spurred on by the 36-year-old openly gay son who only came out to him a few years prior, ‘Geoff the plumber’ would use the opportunity to become one of the country’s most powerful advocates for marriage equality. Ahead of Father’s Day, Serkan Ozturk sat down with Geoff and his son, Nathan, to talk family, life and the continuing campaign for equality.
I grew up in the inner-city suburb of Richmond in Melbourne. We moved out to Heidelberg when I was eight years old, just near the Olympic Village, which is a housing commission area. We were in a war service home that my father had purchased. It was pretty tough. I have a very disabled brother and of course I fought every kid in the street who used to poke fun of him and call him names. I guess from that I’ve never liked bullies.
I’m a very proud Australian. You can take me back to when I joined the army at age 15 in 1964. I went to a military school, and of course, there was very strong discipline in that place. Homophobia was the order of the day. Gays in the army at that time – their feet did not touch the ground once somebody suspected them of being gay, or they admitted to being gay, literally they were gone. I was raised homophobic but an intensely proud Australian. I went to war in Vietnam with all the patriotic fervour of a young man who wanted to do something for his country and believed strongly in the ideals of democracy and freedom. Roll time ahead, I discover that I have a gay son and then I discover to my horror that he’s not treated equally in his own country.
When my son came out to me I had to ask myself why was it that I didn’t like gays. In my sort of introspective look at my attitudes I boiled it down to three things – fear, ignorance and prejudice.
You know my wife was not well. She had breast cancer and the prognosis at that time wasn’t good. She was chatting to Nathan on the phone – we were watching television – and I heard her say, ‘Oh, don’t be bloody stupid, you don’t know how your father’s going to react’. She then just handed over the phone and said, ‘Your son has got something to tell you’. I pick up the phone and he says, ‘I need to tell you that I’m gay’. I paused for a second, the brain was going a thousand miles an hour. I then said, ‘You’re my son and I love you, and that’s the end of it’. We say that with a background knowing that I was homophobic at the time and I certainly didn’t expect to have that conversation. I happily hugged my son and kissed him when I first met him after that telephone exchange. When he came in the door he was nervous so I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
I had a great sense of shame that my son had grown up knowing that his father was fundamentally of the view that his sexuality made him less acceptable to me. I was never homophobic to the point where I agreed with gay bashings, I abhor all such violence in that sense. But I used to have a throwaway line with some of the plumbers contracted to me. If they were sort of slacking off on the day or if they complained about cutting their finger or burning their hand, I’d say, ‘Plumbers aren’t wimps or poofters, just get on with it!’ My son heard me say that probably thousands of times. In that instant when he told me he was gay it all came back to me. I really felt quite ashamed that my son had to grow up in that type of environment.
I was keen on the opportunity to say something to Tony Abbott and these people because they need a shake-up. In one sense we look up to our politicians for leadership but on this issue and some others they just seem dumb. It’s an obvious question isn’t it? Why does my son not have the same dignity and respect afforded to him like other Australians? That’s a pretty basic question and often we don’t ask politicians the simple questions.
The primary thing that parents should do is absolutely accept their children for what they are. They must tell them that they love them, they must open their hearts to them and their friends. Accept them for what they are. That’s the most important thing. The second thing is they should get angry that they live in a country that doesn’t treat their children equally. My son is as valuable an Australian citizen as anyone in the street and deserves to be treated the same under the law.
That was probably one of the best moments of my life [when Geoff confronted Tony Abbott on Q&A]. That was gutsy. I mean he was one of the first straight guys to stand up and say publically that he supports same-sex marriage. He’s in the construction industry, he’s seeing people every day and he really put himself out there. That was all inconsequential to him because he wanted to do what he thought was right. I don’t think he expected that it was going to get as much traction as it did. What happened was on Twitter there were just hundreds of hundreds of messages and comments like, ‘Can your dad adopt me?’, ‘I wish my dad was like your dad’, and ‘You’re so lucky, my dad doesn’t speak to me’. I copied all of those and sent them to my dad and said, ‘You just won’t believe this’. I think it really upset him because he just couldn’t believe parents wouldn’t support their children. It really shocked him and I think it spurred him on because he thought, ‘Well, I could make some contribution here and make it better for gay and lesbian Australians’.
Contrary to what my dad thinks I never told him [about being gay] because he was so homophobic, like with all the things he used to say. So I didn’t tell him so I waited. My mum was terminally ill so I told her. I told her, ‘You can tell dad, I don’t care what he thinks anymore’. I guess what I learned from that is sometimes you expect the worse. What would have happened if I didn’t come out to my dad? I never would have given him the opportunity to be the super dad in a way. Sometimes the most surprising people are the ones who will fight hardest for you. I could never, ever have imagined my dad would be like this.
He’s taught me lots of things. He’s always calm under pressure. He always tries to look for the good in people. Something that I sometimes don’t get is that my dad will always deal with everyone with the best of intentions. He’s often let down and he’s always still happy to just continue on that basis. Sometimes I’m like gees, you’re still letting people take advantage of you ... My dad is very kind hearted. Definitely likes hard work and tries to do unto others how he himself would like to be treated.
You’re not always going to have an accepting family so it’s hard for me to give advice on that. But for me it was really important, regardless of what my dad thought, to live in my truth. I wanted to be myself and I thought he’s going to have to come along with me, or he’s not, but that’s his own decision. I’m going to live my life the way I want to and I’m proud to be gay.
My dad said to me one day that I’m so lucky to have a gay son because understanding all the issues opened his eyes up so much to the world. It’s really opened up a lot of things that he was close-minded about. My dad’s a superstar. I admire my dad so much. At his 50th birthday party I stood up and did a speech and remember saying, ‘My dad is that typical dad. You go to him and he’s always got the answer, he’s never judging, always supporting’. I would love to be half the man that my dad is.
The biggest thing my father has done for the cause is that every gay and lesbian Australian can bang on about their own rights but it is far more powerful coming from somebody whose got nothing to really gain from it. He’s fighting for his son’s rights and all gay and lesbian Australians and that’s just a hugely powerful message.
My dad always says: “The Thomas family we don’t like to fight, but when we fight we fight to win”.
We don’t fight very often but on this cause we’re absolutely fighting. And we will win this one, I know it.
[Pictured] Geoff Thomas (left) with his son, Nathan. Photo: John McRae
[Video] Geoff Thomas confronts Tony Abbott on the issue of same-sex marriage on the ABC's Q&A in August 2010.