Only one openly LGBTQ+ athlete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics represented any of the 71 nations with anti-homosexuality laws, Sports Media LGBT+ says.
Swimmer Amini Fonua from the South Pacific nation of Tonga, at his third Olympic Games, “deserves huge praise for his advocacy and activism on behalf of Pacific nations over the years,” Sports Media LGBT+ stated.
That praise for Fonua came in the site’s roundup of 10 “quality queer-friendly memories that will linger on long after the Olympic flame has been extinguished in Japan”.
Fonua was also featured by NBC News in the article “Tongan Olympic swimmer is competing for a medal and against homophobia”.
That article described an incident at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, when a Daily Beast reporter poses as a gay man and used Grindr and Jack’d hookup apps to identify and publicize gay Olympians.
According to NBC News:
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, [Fonua stated that] ‘@thedailybeast ought to be ashamed,” condemning Hines for “preying on closeted people who can’t live in their truth yet.” …
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.”