Tom Daley: ‘The new gay Superman? I’m just trying to fight the good fight’

Soho House | Tom Daley

Yesterday, the Olympic medal-winning diver appeared in a documentary decrying homophobia in the Commonwealth, but now he’s determined to wrap the rest of the world in a rainbow flag, he tells Soho House

Wednesday 10 August 2022   By Teo van den Broeke

Last night in the UK, Olympic diver Tom Daley starred in a BBC documentary where we saw him visit a handful of the countries that competed in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. The commonality between the countries Daley visited, their former colonisation aside, was the fact that it’s illegal to be gay in all of them. 

Daley spent time in Jamaica and Pakistan, though he stopped short of touching down in Nigeria due to very real fears around his safety as an openly gay figure in the public eye. The resulting hour of television was arresting and moving; Daley’s shock at the treatment of gay people in the countries he visited being matched only by his indignation that many of the homophobic attitudes found within them were a direct result of colonial rule. 

‘There were so many shocking things I learnt [while making the documentary],’ he tells me over Zoom; he’s sitting in his wood-clad kitchen and is characteristically bright eyed.  ‘Firstly, the fact that certain laws were only put in place due to colonial legacy. There was homophobia in the countries before, of course, but it’s the legacy of certain colonial laws that allow people to be persecuted by the state. Also, learning about the part slavery has to play was so shocking, the act of “buck breaking”, in particular.’

Buck breaking was a brutal practice carried out by white colonial slave owners, who would rape their Black male slaves publicly as a form of punishment. ‘It made me understand why there may be more homophobia in the Black community. After the documentary, I came away realising how privileged I am to live in the UK as a white gay man and not experience anywhere near as much prejudice as everyone else in the world does.’

The documentary, Illegal To Be Me, came about as the result of Daley’s recent campaign for more LGBTQIA+ prominence at the Commonwealth Games. ‘The campaign started around this time last year, but stems back to the 2018 Games, where I won. I was sitting having a burger and chips with my husband Lance and my mum, and it just made me realise how lucky I am to be able to do that without fearing persecution in any way. It’s illegal to be gay in over half the Commonwealth countries.’

After battling with Commonwealth bureaucrats for over a year, Daley took his fight directly to the president of the games, Dame Louise Martin, who committed to a raft of changes designed to protect queer athletes. Those commitments include a ‘Pride house’ both in and out of the village, prominent Pride flags in all stadiums, sensitivity training for all staff around queer identity, and readily available resources for all athletes explaining how to seek asylum from persecution. ‘The big thing that was implemented this time around was increased visibility,’ Daley tells me. ‘But moving forward, the new commitments are going to be the core of the Commonwealth Games.’

Daley first came to the world’s attention at the age of 14, when he competed at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He came out publicly on his YouTube channel in 2013, married his partner of nine years, Dustin Lance Black, in 2017 (Daley and Black had a son in 2018), and came away from the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with a bronze medal. Suffice to say, in his 28 short years the diving wunderkind has become one of the LGBTQIA+ community’s most prominent and vocal voices. After the airing of last night’s documentary, I suggest he might also have confirmed himself as the nation’s new sweetheart. 

‘If you had asked me 10 years ago, before I came out, if I would have seen myself in any way shape or form being political or pushing for social change, I would have said no. When I came out I had no idea about queer history or what came before, but I’ve learnt and wanted to expand my knowledge. I feel a sense of responsibility as a white gay man from privilege to lift up the voices of people who can’t get the space. That’s why this manifesto is so important. I’m the vehicle who can deliver it to the right people.’

When I tell Daley that I, as a fellow gay man, sometimes struggle to know how to be a good ally to my own community, he’s quick to offer advice with a kind tone. ‘I think showing up and being there in times of need is so important. Our political leaders are very good at pitting members of our community against each other. It’s about showing up not only for the LGBTQIA+ community, but also the Black and brown community when they need our support.’ 

According to LGBTQIA+ charity Stonewall, only half of lesbian, gay and bi people (46%) and trans people (47%) feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family. One can safely presume that the percentage increases exponentially in countries – Commonwealth or otherwise – where it’s illegal to be gay. 

‘I get messages from people from all different places, especially where it’s illegal,’ Daley says. ‘If you are thinking about coming out, you have to make sure that you’re safe.’ He pauses. ‘When I came out, I told my best friend Sophie. Once I was able to share that with someone I trusted, it made me feel less alone. Being able to create a small group of friends where you can be yourself is so liberating. And as you start feeling comfortable you can be yourself.’ 

With the World Cup set to take place later this year in Qatar, a Middle Eastern country where being gay is punishable by death, I’m intrigued to hear whether Daley will be lobbying the FA with the same fervour that he did the Commonwealth committee. ‘To the organisers of the World Cup I would say, think about the message you’re sending to queer people around the world in terms of how welcome they are in your sport. You may want to create a safe place for queer athletes, but you’ll never be able to if the stands are a safe space for fans to chant homophobic and racist abuse with no consequences. Some of the things people say in the stadiums would get them arrested in the street, but the governing bodies have created an environment where it’s safe for people to do that,’ he says, then pauses. ‘Why would any footballer come out if they didn’t have to? The fear must be great.’

On whether he could be the great gay superhero we’ve all been waiting for, Daley is circumspect (‘I’m just little old Tom trying to fight the good fight’), but on the route by which positive change will be manifest in the future he’s clear. ‘Sport won’t change the law but it starts a conversation, and every law change starts with a conversation that begins to change the way the world thinks about gay people. I’d love for us to get to a point where people just don’t have to come out – where it’s just a way of being and it’s not a question. That’s what I’d love.’ 

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