Former Team GB swimmer Michael Gunning has called on the Commonwealth Games to do more to help improve LGBTQ+ rights in member states, as he spoke of his “terrible” experience visiting his home country, Jamaica, for the first time since coming out as gay.
Gunning, who retired from swimming earlier this year to promote equality in sport, said the event could do more on the global stage to address the issue.
“I definitely think more needs to be done. In the future, hopefully the Commonwealth Games can reach some very large organizations and governing bodies around the world and push for change,” said Gunning, who is an ambassador for Pride House, a safe space at international sporting events for LGBT athletes.
“These games can’t be finished and that’s the end of Pride House and all the conversations we’ve had about it, it has to go on.”
As part of Tom Daley’s documentary, Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me, about homophobia in Commonwealth countries, which will air on the BBC next week, Gunning traveled to Jamaica to learn about the experiences of LGBT people in the country, where same-sex relations are punishable by jail time, and vigilante beatings are tolerated.
“I was terrified to go back. I had to wear a bit of a disguise because I didn’t want anyone to see me as the Jamaican international swimmer who shouldn’t be representing their country because of his sexuality,” said Gunning, who is a dual citizen and both Great Britain and Jamaica in his career.
“I got so many comments from people saying that I put the country to shame and that I should have gone on representing Great Britain. That was so hard to hear, so going back, I was really scared of what people would say. I was just trying to keep my head down.”
Gunning said he visited his home country “two or three times a year to visit family”, but since coming out as gay in 2018, he had never returned.
“I knew that returning with Tom [Daley], we could really make a difference and get to the heart of what was happening out there,” he said. “I’m really glad I went and got into those fights. I am definitely going to go out even more to help make that change happen.”
Gunning has swam two world championships and broken Jamaican national records in freestyle and butterfly, but decided to retire from swimming in May to “make sport equal for all”.
Rather than compete in this year’s Commonwealth Games, he’s presenting in-house at the Sandwell aquatic center and assisting athletes through Pride House.
Of the 56 Commonwealth member states, 35 outlaw homosexuality and Gunning said he understood how “absolutely terrifying” it represented a country where it was illegal to be yourself.
“I feel like you’re always waiting for someone to make a comment, or you’re scared to make the team and wondering if you’ll still get as far in your career as you hope for,” he said. “You always have that fear in your head.
“Even now I’m presenting in front of 2500 spectators from all different countries and I’m a bit concerned about how I might be seen because I know not everyone will like me for who I am and my sexuality.
“I just really feel for the athletes and that’s why I’m pushing it like that. I really want to try and clear the way for future athletes, so it’s not a problem in the future.”