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Aggie athlete, openly gay

Olympian swimmer defends his University, identity

Published: Monday, May 6, 2013

Updated: Monday, May 6, 2013 01:05


Roger Zhang

Amini Fonua, senior telecommunications and media studies major, was the 2012 Big 12 Champion in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Fonua 2

Roger Zhang

Amini Fonua holds many titles. He is a former team captain for the Texas A&M swimming team. He was the 2012 Big 12 Champion in the 100-meter-breaststroke. He represented Tonga at the 2012 London Olympics. He is an athlete, student and teammate. And he is gay.

Fonua came to Texas A&M with dual New Zealand and Tongan citizenship with virtually no knowledge of the town or campus. He came to swim, but he will leave with an Aggie Ring and a love for his University.

Fonua, a senior telecommunications and media studies major, said many assume maintaining his identity as an Aggie athlete and a gay man would be difficult and controversial. Yet the Olympian said his story has been a “fairy tale” in terms of what others have experienced and not the trial and battle many perceive it would be.

Fonua said problems tend to arise when one must hide his or her true identity. The Aggie honor code, he said, is not compatible with dishonesty about one’s nature.

“An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal,” Fonua said. “And if you’re living in the closet, you’re living a lie.”

From his personal experiences, he has felt the need to defend the school against accusations of homophobia. Fonua’s openness about his status as perhaps the only openly gay male athlete at A&M comes amid a tumultuous time for the LGBT community, both locally and nationally.

There has been an increased national discourse on the topic of gay rights with California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act under review by the Supreme Court and 48 percent of Americans in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.

On April 29, NBA player Jason Collins became the first active athlete in the history of the four major U.S. professional sports to come out as gay.

On the Texas A&M campus, S.B. 65-70 — a Student Senate bill originally entitled “The GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill” and renamed “The Religious Funding Exemption Bill” — drew attention to the attitude of students attending a school the Princeton Review has ranked the 7th-most unfriendly LGBT campus in the country.

Swimming as a sport is very open-minded, Fonua said, which helped him feel accepted for everything that he is. His worth as a swimmer was purely dependent on his performance during his competition, he said, which is how he believes all athletes should be judged.

“Everyone knows that your success as a swimmer isn’t correlated to your sexuality or your sexual orientation,” Fonua said. “Whether you swim a fast time or whether you make the right amount of hoops or have a high batting percentage, nothing else matters.”

Athletics carries an additional masculine stereotype that can at times make sports even less welcoming for gay men and women than the general public, Fonua said.

“I think the reason people are so fascinated with it in sports is because there is this very hyper-masculine idea attached to being an athlete, especially a professional athlete,” Fonua said. “But at the end of the day, that’s what they are — they’re professional athletes.”

Yet Fonua said he was able to fully express all parts of his identity and felt accepted not only for his talent and skill, but also for who he is. As an openly gay freshman, Fonua said a captain of the swim team took him aside and said Fonua should let him know if he was harassed in any way.

“I think that sort of set the precedent for my journey here because everyone’s open-minded, people don’t judge, and at the end of the day if you’re good at what you do, anything else and everything else is secondary,” Fonua said.

In light of A&M’s perception as an LGBT-unfriendly campus, Fonua said others will ask him how he functions in what appears to be a hostile environment. But he said these perceptions of Texas A&M as an unfriendly campus are directly contradictory to the positive experiences he has had as a student.

“I think I feel inspired to defend Texas A&M and my experience, especially with the Student Senate [bill],” Fonua said. “I’m kind of sick of having to try to defend my school to other people, because I think it’s a very small minority. Homophobia is at every university, it’s not just A&M. It’s everywhere. It might be a little more prevalent here, but I do think that people will sensationalize how something really is.”

The values Texas A&M upholds are personally important, Fonua said. He said though competing in the Olympics was an honor he values deeply, the accomplishment he was most proud of was receiving the Aggie Heart award.

“The Aggie Heart is given to a teammate who puts the team’s needs above their own and exemplifies leadership and has all the qualities of what it means to be an Aggie,” Fonua said. “And to get that as a gay athlete is pretty huge, especially because it’s peer-voted.”

At the London Olympics, which Fonua called “surreal,” he was “overwhelmed by the sheer cosmopolitan of the world.”

“[There was] every single nation in the world, people of all sizes and shapes, all colors, definitely all sexual orientations,” Fonua said.

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