Commonwealth Games must do more for LGBT rights, says former swimmer

The former Team GB swimmer Michael Gunning has called on the Commonwealth Games to do more to help improve LGBTQ+ rights in member countries as he talked of his “petrifying” experience visiting his home country, Jamaica, for the first time since he came out as gay.

Gunning, who retired from swimming earlier this year to help promote equality in sport, said the event could do more on the global stage to push the issue.

“I definitely think there’s more to be done. Moving forward, the Commonwealth Games can hopefully reach out to some very big organisations 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 finish and that be the end of Pride House and all the conversations we’ve been having about this, it’s got to carry on.”

As part of Tom Daley’s documentary, Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me, about homophobia in Commonwealth countries, airing on the BBC next week, Gunning travelled to Jamaica to learn about the experiences of LGBT people in the country, where same-sex relationships are punishable by imprisonment, and vigilante beatings are tolerated.

“I was petrified 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 his country because of his sexuality,” said Gunning, who has dual nationality and has represented both Great Britain and Jamaica in his career.

“I got so many comments from people saying I bring shame on the country and that I should have carried on representing Great Britain. That was so hard to hear, so to go back, I was really scared about 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 he came 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 root of what was happening out there,” he said. “I’m really happy I went and faced those battles. I’ll definitely go out more again to help try to create that change.”

Gunning has swum in two world championships and broken Jamaican national records in freestyle and butterfly, but decided to step back from swimming in May to help “make sport equal for all”.

Instead of competing at this year’s Commonwealth Games, he is presenting inhouse at Sandwell aquatics centre and helping to support athletes through Pride House.

Out of the 56 Commonwealth member states, 35 outlaw homosexuality, and Gunning said he understood how “absolutely terrifying” it was representing a country where it was illegal to be yourself.

“I feel as if you’re always waiting for somebody to make a comment, or you’re anxious about making the team and wondering if you’ll still go as far in your career as you hope to,” he said. “You always have that fear in your mind.

“Even now I’m hosting in front of 2,500 spectators from all different countries and I’m a bit anxious about how I might be perceived 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 so much. I really want to try to pave the way for future athletes so it isn’t an issue in the future.”