The prospect of coming out to even one person can be so daunting, particularly in a country like Jamaica – and that’s something for us all to think about in Pride Month, says Michael Gunning.
Gunning announced his retirement from competitive swimming this week after five years representing his father’s homeland. The 28-year-old has dual nationality and switched from Team GB to Team Jamaica, going on to set national records and representing the Caribbean island at two World Championships.
“I’ve given all I can in the pool and now I’m ready to look outside of that and help make an impact in other areas,” he tells ‘The Pride House Podcast’, a series bringing athletes and activists together in conversation ahead of Birmingham 2022.
“Jamaica is something that I’m really looking to focus on, and carry on changing and inspiring.”
Gunning, who will continue in his role as a Pride House Ambassador for the venue at the Commonwealth Games, made his announcement in the week before Pride Month, marked around the world in June to commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City – the birth of the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement.
It was via a reality TV show that Gunning came out publicly as gay in 2018. His charisma and approachability have resulted in many LGBTQ+ people messaging him on social media to get advice, particularly young Jamaicans.
“We should be celebrating every coming out story and every person that feels accepted,” he says. “In countries like Jamaica, coming out is a big thing – it should be a celebratory moment but we know that around the world, it’s not yet.
“I’m glad the youth of today have TV shows and different sources they can learn from and relate to. And if you’re an ally, educate yourself in Pride Month.
“When people come out to me, whether it’s on social media or in person, it’s just nice that you can tell one person about your experiences. It’s a burden off your shoulders.
“Ultimately, hopefully, it will end with you feeling like yourself. I hope Pride Month will give that opportunity to people.”
On this fourth episode of the podcast series, Gunning is joined by J-FLAG’s executive director Glenroy Murray and sports administrator Orlando Pearce, who discuss their advocacy work within Jamaica itself.
Murray sees sport as “a new frontier” and hopes initially for more visible signs of allyship from athletes, such as were shown to Gunning from other members of Team Jamaica while he was representing the country on the world stage. That could, in turn, open the door for more athletes who are LGBTQ+ to feel like they could be authentic too.
“As Jamaicans, we have this cute little habit that once you add something to the Jamaican brand, culture, identity, whatever you want to call it – we can almost look over the things that we pretend to have an issue with you about,” says Murray on the podcast.
“I think about that happening in my own personal life, but also with other people. People can readily ignore my queerness no matter what I’m wearing, if they find me ‘useful’.
“Because we’re very big on sports here in Jamaica, sport has that potential to get Jamaicans to challenge their ideas of queer people’s belonging. If someone’s running for their country and they’re doing well… this would be a perfect opportunity, with those conversations, to work through some of those fears about being a queer Jamaican athlete.”
Through working with young people as an administrator in netball and badminton and as a youth advocate, Pearce is conscious of the barriers to participation that exist for anyone who might feel ostracised from sport because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
“Discrimination and the stigma that exists are still the major issues that affect LGBTQ+ athletes,” says Pearce.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the representation of allies as well as LGBTQ+ athletes from Jamaica, as the latter may still face the repercussions of being out.”
Gunning admits he had a degree of fear when he switched nationalities, as he was unsure of what the reaction would be like from people within Team Jamaica. However, he found the environment to be accepting and struck friendships with many fellow athletes.
“Sometimes it can be a lonely place, swimming, and in many sports” he adds. “You almost lose your identity a little bit along the way. It’s important that you find that identity and confide in people.
“When you go to these big competitions, people will look after you and put you under their wing. Having allies is amazing.”
Also in this episode, Murray talks about the history of J-FLAG, and some of the biggest challenges they have faced such as around 2006 when TIME Magazine famously asked if Jamaica was “the most homophobic nation on earth”. There’s also more from Gunning on his personal relationship with Jamaica and that of his father, as well as Pearce’s belief in the need for role models.
There is an ongoing recruitment drive for volunteers to help at Pride House Birmingham in July and August. Open Days will be held at the venue located in the city’s Gay Village on Sunday, June 5. Those interested can sign up via the PHB website where more information is available.