This article first appeared in Attitude issue 284, Summer 2017.
Words: Chris Godfrey
Photography: Daniel Jaems
There aren’t many comparisons to be drawn between Tonga and Grimsby. Maybe you could make tenuous links between their reliance on the fishing industry and a love of rugby, but truly the two could hardly be farther apart — culturally, environmentally and literally. Perhaps the only common ground is 27-year-old Olympic swimmer Amini Fonua.
“They are about as opposite as you can get,” agrees Fonua, whose father was born on the Polynesian island while his mother is from the Lincolnshire seaport.
Born and raised in New Zealand, with frequent visits to Tonga, Fonua found Grimsby something of a shock when he and his two younger sisters first visited with their parents.
“It has its charm,” he recalls. “I have to try to stay positive here. When we grew up as kids we thought we were so fancy because mum was English. And then we came here and experienced where mum really grew up and it’s like, ‘woah, mum you were from the hood’.”
Fonua last visited England almost five years ago, when he and two compatriots represented Tonga at the 2012 Olympics. As the first Tongan swimmer to win a gold medal in an international competition — the 2010 Oceania Swimming Championships — Fonua was granted the honour of carrying the national flag at the memorable opening ceremony. He went on to compete in the men’s 100 metre breaststroke, but failed to reach the semi-final.
Fonua made his international comeback in 2015, winning three gold medals at the Pacific Games, held at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and returned to the Olympics last summer, joining six compatriots in Rio. It was a tournament that may go down as a watershed moment in the ongoing battle for LGBT+ visibility in professional sport.
As well as the 27 world and 91 Olympic records set, the 2016 games were noteworthy for the 44 LGBT+ athletes who participated, a record in its own right. It’s a group Fonua is proud to represent. He’s always spoken candidly about his experiences and is keen to use his platform to help inspire other, younger LGBT+ athletes to fulfil their own professional ambitions.
As one of the few LGBT+ athletes representing a country where homosexuality is illegal, his participation is all the more significant. But while his country’s track record with LGBT+ rights certainly played on his mind, Fonua never let concerns about the supporters back in Tonga interfere with his performance. Or with his commitment to the national team.
In his words, the small minds of homophobes shouldn’t act as a barrier to his success.
“Do I feel resentment representing a country that’s not as progressive?” he asks. “No, because I understand the religious context and how it’s tied into the legislation and how something such as gay marriage would be a very [contentious] issue in a place like Tonga.” Technically, homosexuality is illegal in Tonga and punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but this is considered an anachronism inherited from English common law and there have been no recorded prosecutions. However, there is no legal protection for LGBT+ people.
Fonua explains that much of the stigma and persecution that gay men suffer in Tonga arises from the association between same-sex relationships and a lack of children, because huge cultural importance is placed on the need for a male heir to inherit family land. Fonua came out to his mother 11 years ago, but it wasn’t until seven years later that he told his father, who showed resistance at the time but has since changed his attitude.
“It’s a very heteronormative society, and perhaps I resent that,” says Fonua. “But do I resent the fact that it’s anti-gay? No, because my experience growing up has been quite different. But I’ve been very lucky to have not grown up with the awful, sometimes quite destructive side of Churches.”
Fonua grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, but still had a very Tongan upbringing. His family is extremely religious and heavily involved in the Tongan Church, a Christian denomination of which his uncle is president. He would go to Sunday school every week and return to Tonga once a year for the Church’s national conference.
“It’s a really amazing way in which we’ve been able to maintain our cultural identity through religion,” he says. “I am ever the appropriator of all things, I will take that part of religion and I love that part of the familial thing. Growing up… the biggest things you learn are acceptance… and loving and being tolerant of people. And I guess that’s what I take from my religious experience.”
For young, gay athletes looking to take their sporting prowess to the next level, relocating to Texas A&M University may seem like an odd choice, but for Fonua it was an opportunity to get out of his comfort zone. Growing up in Auckland, he saw all his friends attending urban universities — Canterbury, Victoria, Wellington — decisions he saw as a bit obvious, a bit basic.
“I got some great responses from urban schools but I wanted to go somewhere country,” he says. “Back then, I was so rebellious and I really wanted to reject what was normal around me. I’d seen all the anti-LGBT+ stuff that was published, A&M was fourth worst on a list to be LGBT+ when I was there and sort of slipped up and down the top ten. But now we have a gay student body president.”
Despite the university’s somewhat intolerant reputation, Fonua’s experiences were, on the whole, positive. He had a close group of friends and when he came out to his swim team there was very little in the way of aggressive homophobia.
“A lot of guys joked about it initially, cracking jokes in the locker room because they were uncomfortable, but after a few months of just giggling at their jokes they just settled,” he recalls.
Fonua believes the machismo and the hypermasculine atmosphere that pervades the sporting world, particularly at an amateur level, are the reasons so many LGBT+ athletes — at all levels — are uncomfortable about coming out. He feels lucky about the way his teammates reacted.
Fonua explains: “Locker-room talk is, culturally speaking, quite fun when you’re on a sports team.” [I suggest you] don’t let anybody see that you’re selfconscious of anything because they’ll go for it and get under your skin. You can’t take things to heart and be too sensitive.”
At the Rio games, Fonua met a lot of closeted athletes, usually through Grindr, each with his or her own reason for staying in the closet. Some came from other countries which criminalise homosexuality and, in some cases, persecute gay men. Others just weren’t ready to risk coming out, despite representing more liberal nations.
“There’s nothing like the Olympic Games to teach you about cultural relativism and what being out means in different countries,” he says.
It’s for this reason that Fonua reacted so strongly when The Daily Beast published its infamous and now-removed article which inadvertently outed several gay athletes. The premise of the piece was to see how many dates the straight male journalist could find on Grindr in the Olympic village. Much to his amusement, he did quite well and described those he met — their weight, height and nationality — in enough detail to compromise their identities. Fonua called out the publication on social media, going viral in the process. He says that some of the closeted athletes deleted Grindr in the aftermath of the article’s publication, while others used the platform to warn fellow atheletes of the situation and to take precautions.
“It was misjudgment,” he says. “I knew leading into London [that there was] all this talk of condom distribution in the Olympic village and the idea of all these really fit athletes in close proximity [to each other], if you will. There was a natural curiosity for that and there is that side of the Olympics. But every journalist is looking for that angle of something different and this one was just so misjudged.
“My only regret about the situation [was] seeing so much vitriolic hate thrown at [the journalist], and maybe I should have said something to ease off and maybe backed people up,” he suggests. “But they never reached out to me to ask, so I didn’t.” Fonua is still in touch with many of the LGBT+ athletes he met in Rio, including those who weren’t out. As far as he is aware, none have experienced any persecution as a result of the article.
And he’s adamant that one day sport will overcome the barriers that prevent many of his peers from sharing his status as an out and proud Olympian. “I have faith that we’re going to get to a point where we’ll have a gay athlete thriving in every sport,” says Fonua. He’ll be diving into the pool again for the World Out Games this month, and hopes to qualify for the World Aquatics Championships being held in Budapest in July.
“The LGBT+ community has done a good job of excelling in every career. Sport is the final frontier for us to conquer. We’ve conquered the arts, we’ve conquered fashion, we’ve even conquered business. This is the final frontier.”
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Location: With kind permission, at the spa at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel. mandarinoriental.com/london