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Tom Daley to spotlight LGBTQ rights in the Commonwealth in new Illegal to Be Me film

"We wanted it to be something that actually makes a difference."

By Emily Maskell

Words: Emily Maskell; pictures: BBC

Tom Daley will spotlight LGBTQ+ rights across the Commonwealth in a new BBC documentary, Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me.

At the 2022 Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham, the 28-year-old Olympic gold medalist will be the final baton bearer of the opening ceremony as the Progress Pride flag is waved in a statement against homophobia.

This will mark the end of a journey for Daley that has been documented in a sixty-minute film for BBC One and iPlayer, that has taken him to some of the Commonwealth countries regarded as the most homophobic. 

Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me will see Daley advocate for change by speaking to the top sportspeople facing persecution; many are anonymous but individuals named include the only openly gay athlete on Jamaica’s national team, Michael Gunning, India’s first openly gay athlete, Dutee Chand, and swimmers Theresa Goh and Amini Fonua, both vocal supporters of LGBT+ rights in Singapore and Tonga.

Michael Gunning and Tom Daley

Having previously flagged that 35 countries in the Commonwealth still criminalise homosexuality, Daley leads with the question of ‘what can the Commonwealth Games Federation do?’ in regards to both helping the safety of LGBTQ+ athletes and, more widely, pushing for change.

As well as athletes, the British diver will speak with LGBTQ+ experts, including Bisi Alimi from Nigeria and Carla Moore from Jamaica, who explain the colonial and slavery legacy that underscores the criminalisation of homosexuality and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in the Commonwealth.

Carla Moore and Tom Daley

In a statement about the film, Daley says: “I’ve experienced homophobia all my life, competing in countries where it’s illegal to be me and where I don’t feel safe to leave the venue I’m competing in.”

He acknowledges that as a “privileged man” he struggles to imagine “what day-to-day life is like for LGBT+ people around the Commonwealth.”

“We’re working on a campaign that we wanted to be more than just something you see in a documentary that you watch for an hour and then move on,” he notes. “We wanted it to be something that actually makes a difference.

Daley outlines that LGBTQ+ athletes must be able to exist freely without fear of persecution or death and that the Commonwealth Games Federation has been listening “and it’s good to see they’ve started taking a stance towards more inclusion.”

With the support of the Commonwealth Games Federation, which Daley believes could become a “shining example to other sporting organisations,” the Olympian hopes that he can “influence change to horrendous human rights laws that exist in so many countries around the world.”

“Some of these fearless athletes tell us their stories thanks to Tom and his courageous efforts to tackle the issue head-on, and whose manifesto for change leads to an extraordinary and historic world first,” BBC Commissioning Editor, Michael Jochnowitz says. 

Emma Hindley, Creative Director of production company Brook Lapping, says with the brave of athletes and advocates in Pakistan, Jamaica, and Nigeria “cannot be underestimated” and hopes that the documentary, made by a predominantly gay team, “will be a positive and active driver for change.”

Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me will air on Tuesday 9 August at 9pm.

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