July 5, 2017 at 11:30 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Tongan Olympic swimmer talks activism, career

Amini Fonua, gay news, Washington Blade

Amini Fonua at the World OutGames Miami Human Rights Conference in Miami Beach, Fla., on May 27, 2017 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — A gay Tongan Olympic swimmer who attended a global LGBT rights conference in May said he considers himself an activist.

“I do see myself as an activist . . . in Tonga and sort of in the world and in the U.S. as well,” Amini Fonua told the Washington Blade on May 27 during an interview at the World OutGames Miami Human Rights Conference that took place in Miami Beach.”

Fonua, 27, grew up in New Zealand.

His father was born in Tonga, which is a small archipelago in the South Pacific. Fonua’s mother is from the UK.

Fonua himself is a citizen of Tonga and New Zealand.

Fonua told the Blade he first became involved in swimming when he was 8-years-old because his mother “wanted us to make sure we learned how to swim” after his father bought a boat. The Princess Ashika, a Tongan ferry that sank in 2009 and killed more than 70 people, prompted Fonua to help establish the country’s swimming program.

“That was the initial start of sort of the movement, but that kind of relates to why I started swimming in the first place,” he told the Blade. “My dad had gotten a sort of small dinghy boat and my mom wanted to make sure that we knew water safety and basic swimming if we were to ever go out on the boat.”

“It’s not enough to have a lifeguard or a life jacket,” added Fonua. “She wanted us to make sure that we were at least equipped and well-educated when we would go out on the boat.”

‘I was always out on the team’ at Texas A&M

Fonua attended Texas A&M University on a swimming scholarship.

He was the Tongan flag bearer at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and competed in the 100-meter breaststroke. Fonua came out as gay the following year.

“I was never really in because I was always out on the team,” he told the Blade. “I had been out since 19.”

He recalled there was “a lot of media attention around Texas A&M being sort of an anti-LGBT school.” Fonua also told the Blade openly LGBT athletes were “very newsworthy at the time.”

“I really wanted gay kids, lesbian kids, transgender kids, bisexual kids, queer kids to maximize their opportunities and go to schools like Texas A&M,” he said.

Fonua again criticizes Daily Beast reporter

Fonua competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He was among those who sharply criticized Nico Hines, an editor for the Daily Best who wrote an article about the use of Grindr and other hookup apps during the games that outed athletes.

Fonua told the Blade people who use these apps sometimes come from “places where they wouldn’t typically be able to be themselves.” Tonga is also among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

“What is this was a Tongan athlete,” asked Fonua. “They would have to go back to Tonga and sort of deal with these repercussions.”

“I’m strong enough to be out, but not everyone is,” he added.

Fonua further described Hines’ article and the decision to publish it as “really unfair.” He told the Blade it felt “like an assault because the small community that we (openly LGBT athletes who competed in Rio de Janeiro) fostered disappeared.”

“I am just so perplexed as to the vetting process of how many eyes it saw before it went up online,” said Fonua. “I just don’t know how much of athletes’ private lives are for private consumption.”

Activism is part of ‘the work that I’ve done’

Fonua attended meetings with representatives of the Tongan government after the games in which they discussed LGBT-specific issues. He also spoke about the Tonga Leiti Association, a transgender advocacy group that works throughout the country, during the World OutGames Miami Human Rights Conference.

Fonua told the Blade he is proud of his country. He added he remains hopeful the fact that he is an openly gay Tongan athlete can spur change in the archipelago.

“It’s definitely a sort of element of activism in the work that I’ve done,” said Fonua.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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