Former Great Britain and Jamaica representative swimmer Michael Gunning spoke about his experiences since coming out as gay in late 2018, calling on the importance of bringing visibility and improve LGBTQI+ rights in places like the Commonwealth Games. 

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Gunning retired from swimming early this year, telling The Guardian that despite not achieving all that he wanted in his career, he did not feel as if he had failed. “Yes, I haven’t qualified for the Olympics or won that world title. But the amount of lives that I’ve impacted means more to me than medals.”

Same-Sex Relationships in Jamaica are Illegal

After publicly coming out on the reality bisexual dating show, The Bi Life hosted by Courtney Act in 2018, Gunning did not return to his home country for four years, arriving early this year. 

The swimmer featured in British Olympic gold medallist Tom Daley’s documentary, Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me, where he travelled to Jamaica to hear about the experiences of LGBTQI+ people from his home country where many undergo extreme persecution. Same-sex relationships in Jamaica are punishable by imprisonment, torture, vigilante executions, and vigilante beatings.

Gunning discussed the countries under the Commonwealth that still have homophobic laws and described how he felt the need to use his platform to highlight these issues where a “high number still have the death penalty as punishment.” 

“As a swimmer who represented Jamaica while training in the UK, I have an opportunity to highlight such issues. These Games can act as a catalyst for change because this is Birmingham’s chance to shine and show people how equality and diversity works. We can be true to ourselves.”

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Gunning described his fear at returning to Jamaica, adding that the “petrifying” experience involved him choosing to wear a disguise because he didn’t want anyone to see him as the “Jamaican international swimmer who shouldn’t be representing his country because of his sexuality,” 

Swum in Two World Championships

The swimmer has swum in two world championships and broken several Jamaican national records in both freestyle and butterfly. 

He stated that before he switched from representing Great Britain to Jamaica, he was aware of the laws and deeply homophobic views that Jamaica had. Despite that, Gunning is “proud” and “so blessed” to have represented his dual nationalities. Since coming out, he has been a victim of online abuse, with people posting death threats and hate towards him for his decision to represent Jamaica as a gay swimmer. 

“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.”

Last month, Gunning spoke to Openly about his experiences and the need to spark a conversation about sexuality and gender, especially 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.

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.”

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