In an alternate universe, the entire planet would be getting ready to spend the next two weeks cheering on Tom Daley, the USWNT, and thousands of other athletes from around the world at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Alas, because of that whole “2020” part, we can’t have nice things. So we have to wait another year to (hopefully) celebrate the Summer Games.
Swimmer Michael Gunning was on track to become one of the biggest feel-good stories of the Tokyo Games until the pandemic forced their postponement. Gunning is an out gay athlete who would have been swimming for Jamaica.
Which could have been a colossal step forward for LGBTQ representation on both a national level and within the island nation. Had the Olympics been taking place, Gunning would’ve been competing for Jamaica only 14 years after Time Magazine had labelled it “the most homophobic place on earth.”
Since then, conditions have improved for the country’s LGBTQ community, with the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-Flag) growing in size and influence and an annual Pride Week being celebrated by over 1,200 people. The country’s anti-sodomy law is also being legally challenged.
As Jamaican LGBTQ rights continue to progress, Gunning addressed what it would have meant for him to compete for the country at the Olympics in a profile from Reuters’s Hugo Greenhalgh:
“The world is turning slowly and I think it is changing and I’m sure in time, Jamaica will accept LGBT people and legislation will change, but it’s a slow process and I think the more role models we have, the better.”
Indeed, as the Jamaican national record holder for the 200m butterfly as well as the 200m and 400m freestyle, Gunning has already established himself as a role model. Competing in the Tokyo Olympics would have raised his profile even more substantially and showed the world that a gay athlete could be the face of the Jamaican swim team.
Gunning’s success is also about intersectionality as he recently revealed another important aspect about representing Jamaica as an Olympic swimmer to Cyd Ziegler on Outsports’ Five Rings to Rule Them All podcast:
“When I was growing up, I had so many role models and none of them were Black. I never really looked up to any Black role models because there weren’t really any in swimming…
“When I was younger, there is that saying: ‘Black people can’t swim.’ And I think one of my biggest goals was just to try and prove everyone wrong and make it on teams, [win] international medals…I just wanted to be that person that people can look up to out in Jamaica that shows that Black people can swim.”
Gunning holds dual citizenship in Jamaica and Great Britain. According to Reuters, he made the choice to represent Jamaica internationally after witnessing the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing in person. As he explained, “It really put life into perspective and that was the year that I decided to swim for Jamaica to inspire more people and to share my story.”
Hopefully by the time the 2021 Olympics roll around, the world situation will make it possible for Gunning to do so on an international scale.