“The Swimmer was my identity,” says Michael Gunning of his formative years. “Having a talent and a skill that many people wouldn’t be able to do. I felt like I deserved to be in that space but I think I did use it as a diversion tactic to take away from me being quite flamboyant or being different, being mixed race.”
For a long time Michael’s life was defined by what he perceived to be difference. One of the few mixed raced boys at swimming, and “not like the rest of the boys” due to his sexuality, he suppressed much of his identity to fit in and get on in life.
But today there’s a very different story. Having come out as gay in 2018 and won an Attitude Award the following year, Michael now uses his platform as a former elite athlete to champion LGBTQ+ causes and the rights of minority ethnic groups.
He is a vocal ambassador not just for the British Elite Athletes Association but also for Stonewall, AP Race Clinics, the Kaleidoscope Trust and Pride House Birmingham.
“I would love to have gone back and said to a younger me: ‘Embrace it. Have the confidence to live every day being the true Michael. Don’t hide anything,’” Gunning says. “In my head there were so many things, so many questions, of ‘how would people react?’ and ‘what would people do?’ but actually I’ve had so much support, I’ve inspired so many people.”
Michael’s journey makes for quite the tale. A nervous swimmer who had to overcome a stutter, he went on to represent Great Britain and Jamaica competitively and become a regular on national TV. His progression has been motivated by a desire to improve sporting accessibility for everyone.
“I’ve almost embraced the role I’ve played in society of being that first openly gay and black swimmer representing the country or winning that medal,” he says. “I really hope that in the future the next young boy who might be mixed race, who might also be part of the LGBT community, can just be known as themselves, can just win that medal without those headlines.
“I’ve always struggled to read ‘Gay, black swimmer,’ and almost take away from the medal I’ve won or journey I’ve been on. But I’ve kind of now accepted that and am looking forward to hopefully my story allowing the next person to not have those labels thrown at them and just be seen for them.”
Watch Michael’s full story in the video above. And if you’re an elite athlete looking to speak with someone about sexuality, ethnicity, or anything else diversity and inclusion, you can get in touch with Michael via BEAA.EDI@britisheliteathletes.org.