OPINION: Time for Commonwealth countries to change their remaining homophobic laws

by Michael Gunning | Unaffiliated
Thursday, 28 July 2022 08:00 GMT

Athletes train in the Alexander Athletics Stadium after the announcement that it will host the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Britain December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

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Swimmer Michael Gunning reflects on competing in both the UK and Jamaican national teams as an LGBTQ+ athlete ahead of the Commonwealth Games this summer

Michael Gunning is a member of Jamaica’s national swimming team and is also a TV host and LGBTQ+ activist

I hold dual nationality for both Jamaica and the UK. I had previously represented Team GB internationally for seven years, however a member of the Jamaica Olympic Association had asked me many times to compete for the country.

And in 2017 I felt honoured to become part of the Jamaica national swimming team, where I continued my career.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but after being caught up in the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, when I was at an Ariana Grande concert (in which 23 people died), it really put life into perspective, and I hoped my change would allow me to inspire more people and impact lives globally.

Jamaica really is a beautiful country, but I've always been so scared to go back as a gay man as I've never been sure how I'd be treated.

I'm quite anxious about being seen as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Everybody knows me, particularly those who follow swimming, but when I represented my country, I’ve always felt very protected in the different venues and villages, but in Kingston I know I am very vulnerable.

Jamaica has come a long way and it’s certainly not – as TIME Magazine stated back in 2006 – the ‘most homophobic country on earth’ anymore.

There are still a lot more mindsets that we need to change; visibility and education about LGBTQ+ issues are what is needed.

I’m really trying to change people’s perspectives on what it is like to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, that it is not something to be scared of at all.

No-one likes change, and I know this better than anyone because my biggest fear is the unknown. When I announced I would be swimming for the Jamaican national team, I received a lot of hate messages and death threats on social media, and people said they felt I had brought shame on their country – but I have absolutely no regrets about opting to swim for their national team.

It was extremely tough, but it was more important for me to be authentic and help change hearts and minds, and that’s what I’ve hoped to do by being out and proud. The other members of Jamaica’s international team were incredibly welcoming, and sport really does have the power to create unity.

It is incredibly important to be open and start the conversation about sexuality and gender identity, particularly in Jamaica. I feel like I have a duty to my country to help showcase human rights in a different light, and help the many people who don’t feel they have a voice in society.

Having decided now to retire from swimming, I can look back with pride on an incredible career. I would have liked to have made the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics last year, but I feel I’m still very much on a journey in terms of my life and career – both in swimming and now what the future holds for me.

Looking back, there were many highlights, not least competing at two World Aquatics Championships in 2017 and 2019 and qualifying for the European Open Water Championships with the British national team at the age of 16. I’m incredibly proud of the legacy I’ve been able to leave in the pool, and hope I have inspired many people to believe in the impossible.

It's always hard for an athlete to decide when to stop competing, but I really want to carry on making an impact now outside of sport, particularly in terms of breaking stereotypes and LGBTQ+ representation around the world.

I’m going to be a Pride House Ambassador at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and will also be the In-Venue Swimming Host at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre, working alongside media organisations around the world. The idea that I can still be part of the action and interview all the gold medal winners just moments after their victory gives me goosebumps.

Ultimately, the Games give us a chance to shine a spotlight on the remaining inequities of anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the Commonwealth, and there will be some major moments within the two weeks in Birmingham that will go down in history – I can tell you that.

The British government has been instrumental in pushing for change in Commonwealth countries. There are still 35 countries out of the 54 in the Commonwealth that still have homophobic laws that criminalise the LGBTQ+SW community, and this fact still shocks me.

I really hope that I can continue to help change that and bring equality to LGBTQ+ people around the world.

As told to Hugo Greenhalgh, editor of Openly.