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Exclusive: The Bi Life's Michael Gunning on coming out as gay, castmate crushes, and aiming for Tokyo 2020

"We were in the villa for so long, things were bound to happen!"

2018-12-18

As British TV's first ever dedicated bisexual dating series, The Bi Life has lived up to our expectations, offering plenty of sunshine, drama and swimwear-clad boys in Barcelona.

Last month viewers were treated to one of the Courtney Act-fronted series's most heartwarming moments, as 24-year-old Michael Gunning, who had never been on a date before jetting off to Spain, came out to his fellow castmates as gay.

Michael, who was born in the UK but represents his father's native country Jamaica at national level in swimming, joined the E! reality series as a young man who knew he was attracted to other men, but whose lack of romantic experience left him questioning the exact nature of his sexuality.

As a rare example of a professional swimmer who now identifies as a gay while still competing, we caught up with Michael to find out more about exactly what went on in the villa, and his hope to become a sporting role model for young people in the Caribbean, where the criminalisation of homosexuality remains widespread...

Hi Michael! How are you adjusting to life post-The Bi Life?

It's been a bit of a whirlwind but I'm enjoying it all. We were living out there for about five weeks and it's nice we get to relive it all again. We know what's coming up but at the same time you sometimes forget certain things that happened, and all the cast, we come together sometimes to watch episodes, read everyone's comments, and it seems to be having a big impact on the LGBT community, which is amazing.

Before you went on the show you'd never been on a date with either a man or a woman – what had your journey been like when it came to your sexuality?

I think because I am an international swimmer I never really got the chance to explore my sexuality, so thought The Bi Life would be be amazing to put myself out there and find out more about what I'm attracted to. It was quite daunting, but at the same time I liked the fact I was going to be put in a controlled environment where I didn't have to choose my dates necessarily. In the villa you're surrounded by likeminded people - back in reality when you go on a date it can be quite daunting, but I think because we were all in the same boat out there we were all willing to explore. It was very normal there, whereas at home it's seen as different. It's definitely been a rollercoaster!

Were you open about your sexuality with your family and friends beforehand?

Yeah, all my family knew I was attracted to the same gender. I didn't really label my sexuality before going on the show though: I didn't class myself as bisexual, more questioning.

We saw you come to the realisation you were gay and subsequently come out to the rest of the villa on the show a couple of weeks ago - was there a specific moment when you realised that was how you identified?

My very first date was a guy called Ben, and I just wasn't really sexually attracted to him, [but] my second date was with a guy called Sam and I did feel that sexual chemistry between us and did get the feeling I didn't necessarily get from my first date. After that didn't work out I was quite upset about it, and I went on a date with Abby, and I think it was that date, really. Although she was wonderful and beautiful, I realised on that date that there wasn't sexual chemistry towards her. I think it took a day to realise though that I am gay, and then I told the guys in the villa.

How did it feel to put a label to your sexuality for the first time?

It's was so beautiful - the guys cooked a lovely meal and we all took it in turns to share stories. Ryan said my journey had inspired him, and I used that as an opportunity to open up and to tell them. Because there isn't a right moment, I don't think. Everyone was so supportive and there were quite a lot of tears actually. It was definitely the highlight of the whole experience.

Now that you’ve been able to explore who you’re attracted to, have you got a ‘type’?

I think I'm still finding out! I'm still very early to dating. I feel since the show I'm so much more confident - I know what it's like to be on a date, to share that experience with someone.

Bisexual people often face stigma from both gay and straight people that if they like men at all they're ‘just gay’. You didn't label your sexuality beforehand, but going into The Bi Life did you ever worry about how your journey could be received?

Yeah, I was scared to be open about it because it's called The Bi Life, and I think so many people judge and put stigma around the term bisexuality. But I think for me, especially with Ryan, because I did have a close bond with Ryan, hearing his stories and about his past relationships inspired me and made me more aware of what it actually means to be bisexual. Obviously, I don't want to anyone to think that anyone who is bisexual is going to 'turn' gay because of my story, because that's not the case at all. I went in having never been on a date, so for me it was about finding out about my sexuality. For bisexual people who are out and open, there doesn't have to be a percentage of how much they like guys or girls: being bisexual doesn't mean you're necessarily attracted to guys and girls 50-50. That one of the biggest things I've learnt from going on the show.

We've obviously got a few episodes left to see, but did you ever think there might be anything more than friendship there with any of the guys in the villa?

Um, I think... [laughs nervously] It's hard to say because I know what's coming. Things are definitely heating up - Matt and Ryan did go on a date in the last episode. Obviously we were so close and we were in the villa for so long, so things were bound to happen! But you'll have to wait find out...

 
 
 
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Bestie from Barcelona! πŸ’—πŸ€œπŸ½πŸ€›πŸ½πŸŒ΄ @theryancleary xx

A post shared by Michael Gunning (@michaelgunning1) on

Did Shane/Courtney have any words of advice for you when you came out?

Yeah. I came out as gay to Courtney as well and she just said ‘Be confident in who you are and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Everyone’s going to have their opinions and everyone’s going to have something to say’. And she said as soon as I go home [to] just embrace everything and enjoy finding myself. That definitely gave me so much more confidence. It was amazing getting both Shane and Courtney because you gained two extra best friends in one really.

In your own life you compete national level in swimming – have you found the sport and accepting place?

I think aquatics in general are really supportive, but because I was one of the first to come out while still competing it was always going to be a little bit of the unknown. But everyone’s been so supportive and I think I’ve definitely raised awareness by coming out. I’ve had so many messages of support and people asking for advice – younger swimmers and older swimmers – about coming out, and it’s just really made me realise what an impact it’s had.

Mark Foster publicly opened up about being gay for the first time this time last year, and was very honest about the fact he didn’t think he could be out while he was competing – do you think things have changed since then?

I am really thankful to Mark, and speaking to him about it since the show, he said that because he was already winning medals at that level and being a sprinter especially, he already had that name for himself. It’s really opened my eyes, because I hadn’t felt like I needed to keep it a secret. But I feel like we’ve come on so much now, where people feel they can come out. It’s so important to recognise how far we’ve come.

You represent Jamaica in swimming, where sadly same-sex sexual activity is still punishable with up to life in prison. Do you hope you can be a visible role model for LGBT people in Jamaica too?

Definitely. It was quite a daunting thing [going on the show], because when I did mention it to my federation in swimming they… didn’t frown upon it, but certainly didn’t give me any guidance or support. So it was always going to be a risk. But I think people need to start accepting and realising what’s out there. If I can inspire young Jamaican or Caribbean athletes to be themselves then I’m definitely doing the right thing.

Are you ever concerned about visiting Jamaica with your family as a gay man?

We try to go once a year. I never really thought about it to be honest. I know that when I go back I’m quite privileged with the family I have, the clothes I wear. It’s my dad who’s Jamaican and his family’s in Kingston, so every time we go back we feel quite different compared to the way of living there. But I’ve always been myself there.

Of course you’ve only just come out as gay at 24, but did you ever suffer bullying because of your perceived sexuality?

I was different. I was very outgoing, I hung out with a lot of girls when I was younger and did face a lot of bullying growing up, physical and verbal. So I think that pushed me to suppress a lot of feelings and emotions I probably would’ve had a lot earlier if I wasn’t bullied. It did make me lose a lot of confidence.

Was sport an outlet for you away from all that?

With all the pressures of school, swimming up and down helps you forget about all your worries. I definitely took it as a release. But even swimming allowed me to be bullied, because people were saying ‘black people can’t swim, choose another sport’. But swimming was mine, and no one really understood it. I think I learned to live with it, but it was hard.

How do you think life will change for you after all that’s happened on The Bi Life?

I can’t even explain how much it meant to me, I think I’ve made friends for life and it’s forced me to accept my sexuality. I think I’d have done it in the future, but it’s made me confront these feelings and live in the moment. Coming back I’m so much more positive and confident. The FINA Worlds Championships are next July in Korea, so that’s my short-term goal, and then obviously the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo isn’t that far away either. I’m off to Australia in January for a training camp with the [Team] GB guys. So it’s all positive and I’m just taking every day as it comes. One thing I’ve taken from this summer is that who knows what’s in store!

The Bi Life continues this Thursday at 9pm on E!