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Tongan Olympic swimmer is competing for a medal and against homophobia

The Tokyo Games will mark swimmer Amini Fonua's third appearance at the Olympics. He talked to NBC News about training amid Covid and his "quiet activism."
New Zealand Swimming Olympic Trials: Day 4
Amini Fonua competes on March 28, 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand.Hannah Peters / Getty Images file

When swimmer Amini Fonua competed for Tonga at the 2016 Summer Olympics, he was one of only 56 openly LGBTQ Olympians at the event, according to OutSports.

But as he readies for his meet Saturday at the new Tokyo Aquatics Centre in the Tatsumi-no-Mori Seaside Park, that number has practically tripled, to 163.

“It’s really incredible,” Fonua, who will compete in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, said of the surge in queer representation.

But while there will be a Pride House for LGBTQ athletes and staff, strict pandemic protocols mean opportunities for connecting are limited.

“It’s a bummer that we can’t leave the village,” he said. “But I still think there’s going to be a lot more camaraderie. I think we all know we’re sharing this incredibly strange, but still amazing experience.”

Like for many others, 2020 took a toll on Fonua’s mental health — especially since he was living in New York, experiencing the pandemic in one of the hardest hit cities in the world.

“I broke up with my boyfriend and moved to Manhattan in April 2020,” he said. “At first I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, in what was once the maid’s quarters.”

Because of the pandemic, Fonua’s usual coping mechanisms weren’t available to him.

“I teach swimming, and that was closed,” he said. “Gyms were closed, too, so I couldn’t get my stress out there. I had to learn mental tricks to cope — to develop psychological resilience. I started seeing a therapist and taking time to work on myself. I’ve come out the other end — well, we’re not out the other end yet — but I’m a stronger, more aware person for it.”

Fonua’s training was also heavily compromised during the lockdown.

Amini FonuaCourtesy / Amini Fonua

“You need at least 20 hours in the water a week to really be competitive,” he said. “And that’s not even including weight training and cardio work. And I was averaging three hours a week; the pools were only open four times a week for 45 minutes.”

Even more frustrating, he said, was knowing there were other places around the world where people were acting like there was no pandemic, where Olympians had full access to training.

“But you can’t compare yourself to what other people are doing,” he said. “Only to how you did yesterday. The show must go on. You have to get up and perform every day. I had to learn to overcome focusing on what I couldn’t control, like how much time I had in the pool, and focus on controlling my attitude.”

While Fonua said he is disappointed there are no spectators at this year’s games, he’ll actually get a chance to see his mother, who is joining Team Tonga as the swim team’s manager.

“That’s probably the highlight of the trip,” he said. “Normally, I see my family at least every Christmas, but it’s been two years now. The Games are the first time I’ve seen her since Christmas 2018. We’re gonna have a lot of mom energy, which I’ve needed.”

While in New York, Fonua trained with Team New York Aquatics, an LGBTQ-centered U.S. Masters Swimming team. Swimming can be lonely, he said, but being a part of a team — especially amid a global health crisis — made it feel less so.

“You’re in the water, your head is submerged, you’re practicing alone," he said. "But I found my family here with this group.”

Tokyo will be Fonua’s third Olympics after competing in London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Asked if these will be his last Olympic Games, the 31-year-old was ambivalent: “I want to be positive and optimistic, but every year the body says, ‘I’m not supposed to do this.’”

Fonua's time in Rio was tainted by an article published by the Daily Beast in which an editor, Nico Hines, who is straight, posed as a gay man to engage with athletes in the Olympic Village on hookup apps such as Grindr and Jack’d.

The article was later edited — and eventually taken down — but the original version included potentially identifying information about the Olympians with whom Hines matched, some of whom came from nations where homosexuality is criminalized.

Fonua understood the damage Hines’ story could inflict more than most: He was openly gay when he competed in Rio, though homosexuality was at the time — and still is — technically illegal in Tonga, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Fonua emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the Daily Beast piece, unleashing a torrent of angry tweets from the Olympic Village in Rio.

“As an out gay athlete from a country that is still very homophobic, @thedailybeast ought to be ashamed,” he posted, condemning Hines for “preying on closeted people who can’t live in their truth yet.”

“Some of these people you just outed are my FRIENDS,” he added in a later tweet. “With family and lives that are forever going to be affected by this."

Fonua said the incident was eye-opening in terms of where the International Olympic Committee stood in regards to the LGBTQ community.

“They went very long without addressing it,” he said. “They were so focused on protecting their image and didn’t know how to address it. The IOC had never acknowledged the queer community before. It was a viral moment they were forced to confront, and I’m glad that, eventually, they did the right thing.”

Hines’ story went live Aug. 11, 2016, and in an Aug. 14 statement to Outsports, an IOC spokesperson said, “This kind of reporting is simply unacceptable.”

While Fonua said he believes the IOC revoked Hines' press credentials, the spokesperson only told Outsports that “We understand the organization concerned recalled the journalist.”

During and after Rio, Fonua said, it was important for him to speak out about the lack of queer rights in the Pacific region. But these days, he’s more invested in what he calls “quiet activism” — creating opportunities for his community “rather than telling people what’s important.”

After the 2016 Olympics, he went home and worked with his family to open the House of Tonga, a hotel in the capital city, Nukualofa.

“The name is an homage to ball culture in New York,” he said. “We want to create a higher standard than what people expect of Tonga, and a space where everyone is welcome. You have to do what you can where you can."

Though Tonga’s bans on homosexuality and cross-dressing are seldom enforced, the society is deeply Christian and socially conservative. Fonua said many LGBTQ Tongans leave for the more welcoming environments of nearby New Zealand and Australia.

“When I was last in Tonga for six months, I kept to myself, because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I know the royal family is trying to elevate LGBT rights, but it’s certainly an uphill battle. You have politicians and church leaders telling you, ‘You are worthy of death.’ What a challenge that is to overcome.”

In May, Polikalepo Kefu, the president of Tonga’s only LGBTQ rights group, was killed near their home on the island of Tongatapu, where Nukualofa is also located. Kefu was a Leiti — someone assigned male at birth who has a female gender expression, though does not necessarily identify as a transgender woman.

“I met Poli when the Tonga Leitis Association was allowed to have a meeting with the government to talk about our experiences as LGBTQ people in Tonga. I got to work with Poli quite closely and learn about their life. It was heartbreaking.”

Fonua said the killing was a harsh reminder of how difficult it is to be LGBTQ in the South Pacific, especially in Tonga.

“We still have people dying from homophobia, and that’s what happened to Poli,” he said, though the circumstances surrounding the killing are still being investigated. “They’ve made an arrest, and we have to hope that justice will be served.”

It’s not lost on him that other countries where LGBTQ people are persecuted are rewarded with international sporting championships.

Russia, which outlaws “gay propaganda,” hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup. And Qatar, where homosexuality is punishable by up to three years in jail and Muslims of any sexual orientation can technically be put to death for extramarital sex, will host the World Cup in 2022 and the FINA World Aquatics Championships in 2023.

When the 2022 soccer championships were announced in 2010, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested gay players and fans “refrain from any sexual activities” while in Qatar.

“We have huge global sporting events in countries that have terrible human rights records and that discriminate against or even criminalize gay people,” Fonua said. “I’d like to see respect for LGBT rights — and human rights — be part of the requirements for hosting countries."

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