Log in to Frontiers
At its annual gala, the Center will recognize individuals working to promote queer visibility, including this Olympian who has become an advocate for the gay Speedo set
September 20, 2016 :: 9:00 AM
Saturday, Sept. 24, marks another star-studded event in Los Angeles, but instead of awarding film, television or music, this time it’s the L.A. LGBT Center honoring inspirational individuals who create positive change in the world. The Center’s annual gala, the Vanguard Awards—one of the nation’s premier LGBT charity events—has actually been expanded to a full weekend-long celebration this year, with a Friday launch party at Hamilton-Selway Fine Art and a Sunday brunch at The Abbey. But Saturday’s main event, taking place in the heart of West Hollywood at the Pacific Design Center, will see actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his husband Justin Mikita, as well as two-time Olympic swimmer Amini Fonua, honored at this 47th benefit. Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy are also scheduled to perform.
Before the big event, we sat down with the 26-year-old swimmer—who hails from Tonga, where it is illegal to be gay—to discuss his work with the Center, his advocacy for LGBT athletes and what it means to accept his award from a life-long hero of his.
How long have you worked with L.A.’s Center?
In 2013, I swam at the Center’s annual Beach Classic at Dockweiler State Beach to help raise funds. I was living in New York at the time and flew in for the swim. It was the first time I’d ever participated in something like that before. It was a really rewarding experience giving back to a community that I love so much. Since then, I wore that swimsuit—with the words “gay and lesbian” on it—to every practice leading up to Rio because there’s not a lot of diversity in swimming. It’s a gentle reminder to everyone—and myself—that I’m out and proud. The Center does amazing things for LGBT youth and seniors, for people living with HIV, for the LGBT community as a whole. I wish I had something like the Center back home!
You’ve done a lot of work to promote LGBT visibility in sports. Have you seen a change? What do you think it will take to get to where we need to be?
When we live in a world where every person can live their truth and not be discriminated against, that’s when I think we’ll see a lot more LGBT visibility in everything, especially in sports. To be candid and honest as an LGBT athlete in the sporting world, we’ve still got a long way to go. I find solace in knowing that every Olympics from now on will get more and more diverse representations in terms of sexual orientations and gender identities, because it has to—and that is the natural progression of humanity.
But let’s not forget that most of the fear of being out is determined by the culture where you live. When I walk around the Olympic Village and see so many people in the closet, I’m reminded there are still more countries out there where you can’t live in your truth compared to countries where you can, and that consequently trickles down into why there are still so few out LGBT athletes. If your country is not kind to LGBT people, the likelihood you’ll come out is low. It’s a global issue, and the fight isn’t over!
How does it feel that you’ll be presented your award by American Olympian Greg Louganis?
It feels extra special, because Greg Louganis and I share many similarities. Both of us spent the majority of our youth in Speedos, we both attended the Olympics and we both share the same swarthy skin color, which makes sense given that even our racial backgrounds are similar. While I wasn’t adopted like Mr. Louganis, both my parents are of Euro-Polynesian descent.
I know to some people he’s just American, but to me he’s just as much an LGBT Asian-American Pacific Island role model as he is an athletic one. Don’t even get me started on his HIV advocacy work, because we’ll be here all day! He encompasses and represents a lot of different communities, and I really admire him. I hold him in the highest regard, to the highest level of respect, and I’m truly humbled he—of all people—is giving me this award.
You’ve participated in the Olympics twice now. What can you say about LGBT visibility at the Games on an international scale?
It’s gotten better, but it’s still very problematic. As the broadcaster of the Olympics, NBC is still finding its footing on how to talk about LGBT athletes in a respectful way that doesn’t alienate viewership. People need to know some National Olympic Committees don’t want these issues even discussed on air because they feel it distracts from the real reason why we are there in the first place: the sport.
It’s also a PR issue, because some athletes are out in their sport and personal lives, but they aren’t necessarily out publicly. Commentators aren’t quite sure how to treat the issue at hand without offending and without alienating, so they end up doing shifty things that just seem awkward, like not calling two dudes “dads” and accidentally calling a lesbian’s wife her “husband” when she’s clearly her wife.
They’ve made it all complicated by pussyfooting around the issue, but for me it’s simple. The easiest and simplest thing to do is if you see two husbands on screen, call them two husbands. If you see her spouse is a woman, call the woman her wife. Treat people with dignity and respect. It’s honestly as simple as that.
Gala tickets and weekend passes to attend the weekend of events are available at lgbtvanguardawards.org