The Team England racewalker and Team Jamaica swimmer on being gay in elite sport
February is LGBT History Month. The theme for this year is “Body, Mind, Spirit”. So, to celebrate, we caught up with two elite athletes who’ve made LGBT history of their own.
Team England racewalker Tom Bosworth and Team Jamaica swimmer Michael Gunning both made history by coming out as gay on national TV. Gunning spoke openly about his sexuality on the celebrity dating show The Bi Life in 2018. Bosworth, pre-empting the attention the Rio 2016 Olympics could bring him, spoke to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire in 2015:
“I did it because I wanted to protect myself and my partner (Harry) because I know everyone wants to know everything about their Olympians in this country. It was phenomenal but the attention I got just demonstrated the lack of LGBT visibility within sport.”
Bosworth has seen his greatest success since coming out, including a silver medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, and says being openly gay could have something to do with it:
“Maybe it just took that little bit of pressure off, that worry in the back of my mind, and made me focus 100% on being the best athlete I can be, rather than concerned about what I might say in an interview. Maybe coming out was the final piece of the puzzle.”
Incredibly, Bosworth remains the only openly gay British track and field athlete. So, what can the global sporting movement do to make it a safer space for LGBT athletes and encourage more athletes to be open about their sexuality?
▲ Tom Bosworth remains the only openly gay British track and field athlete.
“Coming out has been amazing for me, but it’s also highlighted how behind sport is compared with the rest of society. I want to encourage that child who might be gay and thinks sport isn’t for them to not feel excluded from it. It infuriates me that these stereotypes still exist. Anybody can do anything – who you love should not make any difference.
“Our sport can be so influential and so powerful. We need to galvanise sport together to really reflect what society in our country should look like.”
Tom is now planning his wedding to fiancé Harry for next year, after hopefully bringing home a gold medal for Team England at Birmingham 2022! He says he hopes there will come a day when being a gay athlete is no longer newsworthy:
“I don’t want to be known as the gay track and field athlete; I’m just trying to live openly and focus on being the best athlete I can be, to show people that the two can go hand in hand.”
▲ Michael Gunning has since become a global advocate for LGBT+ rights.
Michael Gunning’s coming out experience came two years after he switched allegiance from Great Britain to Jamaica, where his father was born. He says the reaction in Jamaica has been positive, even though it’s still illegal to be gay there:
“Since coming out, they haven’t really spoken about it, and for me that’s a really positive thing. You see so much homophobia around the world, so for me to be able to be my authentic self and not get questioned or hate for it has been really amazing.”
And, like Tom Bosworth, Gunning says lifting the burden he’d been carrying improved his performances in the pool, too:
“It was so nice to walk poolside and not pretend to be someone I’m not. I always had a smile on my face, I was always quite flamboyant, so for a lot of people it wasn’t a shock. I don’t know why I thought people would treat me differently, but it was the best feeling and I’ve definitely seen the results in my swimming get better.”
Gunning has since become a global advocate for LGBT+ rights, winning the Pride Award at the Attitude Pride Awards in 2019 for his work in raising LGBT+ visibility in sport. So, what advice would he give to anyone scared of being open about their sexuality?
“When I was younger I never told anyone about my sexuality, I just suppressed it so much that it made being myself so hard. So, I think my message to anyone that is struggling is talk to someone, whether it’s a family member, a friend, even online. Once you tell one person it just gets so much easier and it’s a massive burden, a relief that you just let go of.”