Photography: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Former Team GB swimmer Michael Gunning urged the Commonwealth Games to do more to help improve LGBTQ+ rights in member countries as he spoke of his “petrifying” experience visiting his home country of Jamaica for the first time since joining. assumed gay.
Gunning, who retired from swimming earlier this year to help promote equality in the sport, said the event could do more on the global stage to push the issue forward.
“I definitely think there is more to be done. In the future, the Commonwealth Games can reach out to some very large organizations and government bodies around the world and push for change,” said Gunning, ambassador for Pride House, a safe space at international sporting events for LGBT athletes.
Related: Michael Gunning: ‘I am only recently proud to say I am a swimmer’
“These games cannot end and this is the end of Pride House and all the conversations we’ve been having about it must go on.”
As part of Tom Daley’s documentary Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me, about homophobia in Commonwealth countries, which airs on the BBC next week, Gunning traveled to Jamaica to learn about the experiences of LGBT people in the country, where Same-sex relationships are punishable by imprisonment, and beatings by vigilantes are tolerated.
“I was afraid to go back. I had to wear a little bit of disguise because I didn’t want anyone to see me as the Jamaican international swimmer who shouldn’t represent his country because of his sexuality,” said Gunning, who holds dual nationality and has represented both Great Britain and Jamaica in your career.
“I have received so many comments from people saying that I shame the country and that I should have continued to represent Britain. That was so hard to hear, so to go back, I was really scared of what people would say. I just tried to keep my head down.”
Gunning said he used to visit his home country “two or three times a year to visit family”, but since coming out as gay in 2018, he has never returned.
“I knew that getting back with Tom [Daley], we could really make a difference and get to the root of what was going on out there,” he said. “I am very happy to have gone and faced these battles. I will definitely go out more often to help try to create that change.”
Gunning has swum two world championships and broke Jamaican national records in freestyle and butterfly, but decided to give up swimming in May to help “make the sport equal for everyone”.
Instead of competing at this year’s Commonwealth Games, he is performing at the Sandwell Aquatics Center and helping to support athletes through Pride House.
Of the Commonwealth’s 56 member states, 35 outlaw homosexuality, and Gunning said he understood how “absolutely terrifying” it was to represent a country where it was illegal to be yourself.
“I feel like you’re always waiting for someone to comment, or you’re looking forward to joining the team and wondering if you’re still going as far in your career as you hope,” he said. “You always have that fear in your mind.
“Even now I’m performing for 2,500 viewers from all countries and I’m a little anxious about how I can be seen because I know not everyone is going to like me for who I am and for my sexuality.
“I feel sorry for the athletes and that’s why I’m trying so hard. I really want to try to pave the way for future athletes so it’s not an issue in the future.”