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Tom Daley: ‘For people around the Commonwealth, seeing that Pride flag is a sign of safety’

Olympic diving champion Tom Daley explains why he is fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ athletes in the Commonwealth and around the world.

Tom Daley is not diving at this year’s Commonwealth Games. Instead, he is using his platform to change the world. Daley competed at his first Olympics in Beijing at the age of 14. Now 28, he has spent half his lifetime in the public eye.

The Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth champion is one of the great British sports stars of recent times – and since coming out aged 19 in 2013, he has been an increasingly confident, outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. 

At this year’s Commonwealth Games, Daley will be making an even bigger splash than usual. He is not only highlighting the fact that it is currently illegal to be gay in 35 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth, but actively working to bring about change. This quest has been filmed for a vital new BBC documentary.

On an early morning Zoom call from his home in east London, Daley is relaxed, upbeat and focused on his mission. It began, he says, at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast in 2018. 

“I was competing in the Commonwealth Games, I had just won a gold medal, and was sitting having a burger with my husband and my mum. It dawned on me that I don’t have to worry about any of the ramifications of that.

“I thought about how fortunate I am. Because in over half the Commonwealth countries that are competing, it is illegal to be queer. That was when I started researching how that can be campaigned against, and what can be done in the world of sport to help influence that. Because sport has a real power for change.” 

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Daley means business. Over the last year, during a self-imposed break from competing, he has been travelling across the Commonwealth, meeting LGBTQ+ athletes and advocates, formulating a manifesto. He was then able to use his profile and gold medals to get into the room with the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation to push for change. 

“I guess 21 years of diving has got me to a place where I can start to fight for other people,” he says. 

Tom Daley with Matty Lee winning gold in Tokyo 2020. Photo: Oli SCARFF / AFP/Getty

“I am not going to lie, it is a really scary thing. But there are certain people that cannot stand up for themselves or do not have the platform to stand up for themselves. Once I realised that what I said had some kind of weight behind it, I felt like it was my obligation and responsibility to use my platform and my voice to be able to lift up the voices of the people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into the room.

“I started travelling around the Commonwealth – speaking to athletes and advocates from Pakistan, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tonga, Singapore and asking what they thought the Commonwealth could do better. 

“It was extremely eye opening. My mind completely changed on what I thought was the right thing to do. I had thought that any country with anti-LGBT laws should never be allowed to host any of the major sporting international competitions – it felt to me unjust that places like Qatar were allowed the honour and privilege of hosting a major sporting event without including every spectator and every type of sports person.” 

This does, on the face of it, sound like a fair proposition – no major sporting events without proper, legally enshrined LGBTQ+ rights. 

“You would think that that would be the right thing to do,” continues Daley. “But I was going to these countries and hearing them speak on colonial history and where the laws originated – and it was the British that created and imposed those laws. Now it is part of their culture and ingrained with religion, which makes it difficult. 

“And if someone comes in saying you are no longer allowed to host competitions because of anti-LGBT laws, that puts a massive target on the backs of LGBT people in those countries. 

“Instead we are saying if you want to host, you have to take a pro-LGBT stance, there has to be LGBT sensitivity training. The sporting organisation can lift a mirror up and the Commonwealth Games Federation has the opportunity to be at the forefront – acknowledging colonial history, protecting queer athletes if they come in from places where they could get persecuted, helping put them in touch with charities that can help them seek asylum.”

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Daley also suggests we educate ourselves better about our own history. “Put it this way, I don’t think colonial history is taught in the way that it should be in the UK.

“We are here celebrating the Commonwealth Games – it doesn’t feel quite right to do this without acknowledging where this came from, how originally it was called the Empire Games.”

Another revelation for Daley was the symbolic importance of the Pride flag. 

“Pride is not just a party, it’s still a protest – you still have to show visibility,” he says. “A big thing I learned on this journey is that for people around the Commonwealth, seeing that Pride flag is a sign of safety, is a sign of hope. And it’s a sign of things to come.”

We speak less than a week before the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Daley is still deep in negotiations, pushing to ensure the speeches acknowledge the distance to travel on LGBTQ+ rights and the ceremony puts the Pride Flag centre stage.

“It took a lot of heated conversations and a lot of back and forth,” he says. 

“But we’re hoping that it is going to come off and will be a really powerful moment watched by 1.5 billion people around the Commonwealth. 

“So any kids or young people growing up feel like they do have a place in the world, they do have a place to grow up and hope for. Having spoken to all the athletes and advocates I know it will give people a sign of hope and a sign of belonging and a feeling like they are part of something. 

“There’s still things to be finalised. But there’s going to be a moment within the ceremony where there are going to be people from countries where it is illegal to be LGBT carrying big Pride flags and representing their nations. I hope the commentary acknowledges it and explains exactly why they’re there. Because it will be a powerful moment.” 

Pride House is something, says Daley, that should be present at all major global sporting events. “It’s a place where LGBT athletes, friends, family members, supporters can all go as a safe space to watch the Games,” he says. “But it’s currently five miles outside the Commonwealth Village.

“If you are from a country where it’s punishable by death to be LGBT, you’re not going to go to Pride House for fear of being outed. We need a safe space within the athletes’ village that is a safe space for queer people to go to meet other queer people and allies and learn more about the LGBT community.”

Once the documentary has aired, and the Commonwealth Games has finished for another four years, Daley plans to continue his activism. 

“I feel like the film is the least important part,” says Daley. “It’s going to draw more attention to the campaign, but the campaign is the most important thing to me. The Commonwealth Games is just the beginning. If they take on this manifesto, there’s no reason why any other sporting event shouldn’t take it on. 

“I am going to continue working with the athletes and organisations working towards making the Commonwealth Games the most inclusive. But it won’t stop there. I would love to start these exact conversations with the IOC, then FIFA.” 

When Blackpool forward Jake Daniels became the first male professional footballer in Britain to come out since 1990, it was a big moment. But it was also a sign that there is still a lot of progress to be made in this country. 

Tom Daley on the cover of the new Big Issue

“Maybe I’m to blame,” says Daley. “Because when sports people come out in the UK, it is very high profile and there’s pressure from the LGBT community to be at the forefront of the movement. And sometimes people just don’t want to do that. They just want to be out, they just want to be themselves and play football. They don’t want to have to be in the fight for equality. 

“One of the big pressures is that when you come out, you still want to be the best. I didn’t want to just be a queer athlete, I wanted to be one of the best athletes in the world. But until there’s power in numbers, it’s more difficult. 

“The more that people can come out and just be visible, because that’s as political and as activist-y as it gets, just to be an out football player. So Jake doesn’t have to do anything. Just being is powerful.” 

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Nine years after coming out, Daley is now a role model, someone people turn to for advice, a figurehead. He wears this position with remarkable grace and assurance. Yet he was still unprepared for some of the stories he heard. Many of the contributors are anonymised in the film as even being seen with Daley could have been dangerous. 

“One of the athletes in Pakistan said to me I was the first gay man she’d ever knowingly met,” he says. 

“When I told her I have a husband and we drop our son to nursery, I cried, she cried. She had this moment of imagining what it would be like to be able to have a wife, to be able to have kids. She was asking what I could do to get her out of the country. It really was a lot. 

Tom Daley reads a letter from a gay male athlete in Pakistan in his new documentary. Photo: Luke Korzun Martin

“The laws aren’t necessarily always enforced, but people take it into their own hands. Some of their friends had been stoned to death in the streets – not by the police, but by passers-by. I was absolutely gobsmacked about what they had been through.

“So, it’s going to be a heavy documentary. But it is things that people need to hear.” 

We talk about Jamaican swimmer Michael Gunning, who features in the documentary and now lives in the UK. He travels back to Jamaica for the first time since coming out in the film. There are so many high-profile Jamaican athletes – could they not join in the fight, become allies? “It’s very difficult with all their endorsements,” Daley says, wearily.

He is also wary of giving general advice. 

“There’s no one size fits all,” he says. “But my big advice is making sure you [come out] in your own time and that it has to be safe. And just being able to be yourself with one person is better than never being able to be yourself with anyone.”

Daley considers his own journey. “I came out back in December 2013. Initially I was just doing it because I didn’t want to feel like I had to hide any more. Since then, I mean, I’ve been married for five years, I’ve got a son that starts school in September – it’s all gone very quickly. 

“Lance, my husband, has been a massive influence in terms of teaching me about LGBT history. Lots of people my age and younger are completely ignorant of LGBT history – and if a younger generation starts to get complacent with rights, they will be shipped away again. We’re at a pivotal moment. If we get complacent now, we could be going very far backwards – especially when you look at what the United States is doing [on abortion rights].” 

In the future, Daley will be combining activism with parenting, designing clothes for his Made With Love range, and competing. He seems better set up for post-competitive life than many sportspeople, who struggle without the structure of training and competing. But watching the recent World Championships got the competitive juices flowing. 

Tom Daley at his first Olympics aged 14. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock

“I love diving and the moment I choose to stop is going to be really sad,” says Daley. 

“It’s only two years until the Olympics in Paris. It is a short cycle. It has been weird watching the World Championship scores and comparing them to what I’ve done in the past. The score I got for bronze [in Tokyo] was 40 points more than the gold medal score. 

“But it has been nice to set different goals this year. I spent three nights in Pakistan, three nights in Jamaica, but otherwise, I’ve just been with Robbie and Lance and it’s been so special.” 

He might not have any medals to show for it this year, but Daley might just have had his best year so far. 

“Between my family, knitting and fighting for LGBT rights this year been really nice,” he says. “My priorities and perspectives have massively shifted in terms of what matters most. I feel like I’m going to look back at this as one of the most important years of my life – and the one when I really started to be active in the movement.” 

Watch Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me, Tuesday August 9, at 9pm on BBC One and iPlayer

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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