When gay swimmer Michael Gunning decided to represent Jamaica as he attempted to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, it was seen as a step forward for a nation typically associated with anti-gay laws and virulent homophobia.
Even though he ultimately didn’t make the cut to compete at the Games, Gunning’s decision showed that he wanted to be part of making his home country a more inclusive nation.
However, as we learned this week, due to the volume of abuse and bullying he received online after coming out publicly in 2018, Gunning didn’t set foot on Jamaican soil from that moment until this year.
In other words, had Gunning been able to compete for Jamaica at the Olympic Games, his most daunting challenge would have been attending a victory celebration. Yet, he still wanted to be part of the Jamaican contingent because “the more role models we have, the better,” he said.
That sentiment was apparently too much to take for some trolls.
As Gunning revealed to The Guardian’s Jessica Murray, “I got so many comments from people saying I bring shame on the country and that I should have carried on representing Great Britain.”
“Representing your home nation in the Olympics in order to promote the cause of civil rights” is certainly a unique definition of bringing shame on a country. You know, like that famous national embarrassment Jesse Owens.
Gunning only recently returned to Jamaica for the first time since coming out as part of a segment for the upcoming BBC Documentary “Tom Daley: Illegal To Be Me.” Even then, his discomfort upon coming home was palpable.
“I was petrified to go back,” he admitted, “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.”
To review: after coming out, Gunning said he received a torrent of homophobic vitriol and abuse. Yet he was the one who had to dress up like he was auditioning for the Masked Singer in order to simply show his face in public in Jamaica.
While the growth of the J-Flag advocacy organization and legal challenges to the country’s anti-sodomy laws have recently provided a bit of hope for Jamaica’s LGBTQ community, Gunning’s first-hand experience indicates there’s still a long way to go.
Similar to Daley’s recent activism, Gunning used the occasion of the Commonwealth Games to call attention to Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries where LGBTQ people live under threat of persecution:
“I definitely think there’s more that can be done. Moving forward, the Commonwealth Games can hopefully reach out to some very big organizations and governing bodies around the world and push for change. These games can’t finish and [have] that be the end of Pride House and all the conversations we’ve been having about this. It’s got to carry on.”
With Gunning’s recent decision to step away from swimming in order to advocate for LGBTQ equality in sports, he’ll play an important role in continuing to challenge the strain of homophobia that plagues his home country.
Maybe some day he’ll even be able to walk down the street without concealing his identity.