Since he came out at the age of 19, in a sweet and open video revealing that he was in a relationship with a man, the Olympic champion diver Tom Daley has been vocal about supporting LGBTQ+ rights and causes. He has used his platform to speak passionately about wanting to inspire young gay people and to support queer athletes from around the world – from his post-gold-medal press conference at the Tokyo Olympics to his Alternative Christmas Message on Channel 4 last year. Now, with Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me (BBC One), he is attempting to get practical about tackling homophobia in sport.
Daley has not been competing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but he is using the occasion to press for action. There is anti-gay legislation in 35 of the 54 member states taking part in the Games. In some, homosexuality is punishable by death. Daley starts the film with a simple, if crude, idea: that countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws should not be permitted to host the Games. He plans to visit some of these countries to meet LGBTQ+ athletes and public figures – as well as many who remain private out of fear for their safety – to find out what their lives are like in an environment that is deeply hostile to their very existence.
He travels to Pakistan to meet people who request various levels of identity-scrambling before they will recount their experiences. One woman, a cricketer, explains that she is seen as “a mutant”. She asks that her name not be used. Another woman conceals her identity completely and an actor tells her story, one of terror and beatings and self-loathing. A pop star, now in hiding, recalls a “gay as shit” photoshoot that led to a national scandal. Daley explains that he wanted to go to Nigeria, but was advised against it, though he speaks on the phone to a closeted athlete, who tells him about a friend who was lured to his death on a dating app.
I am usually wary of celebrity-fronted films about issues as complex as this. As an athlete and a vocal campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, Daley does have more skin in the game than most, but it still has its limits. Daley is careful to acknowledge his privilege as a white British man, at regular, respectful intervals, but the title is fairly indicative of who the draw is supposed to be. Daley talks about his own struggles with coming out, with unaccepting family members, with hateful messages online and bullying at school. If it occasionally feels Daley-heavy, or unevenly weighted in that respect, then it also makes complete sense that this is the compromise. Daley, if not the nation’s sweetheart then surely one of them, is the headline act, the gateway to a difficult and often harrowing documentary that shines a light on other people’s stories. He is open to discussion and having his mind changed, and there is a sense that many viewers will be learning along with him. It is an oddity, in this polarised age, to find that it is not a polemic, and that Daley is willing to enter into conversations that educate him and inform his developing views.
This is best illustrated in his trip to Jamaica, where he meets a British-born athlete competing for Jamaica, who wants to do the interview in a secluded location, and who talks about his fear of not seeming “masculine” enough when out on the street. But he also meets Carla Moore, an academic whose research examines the connections between homophobia and the slave trade. Daley expresses his guilt and shame at Britain’s colonialist legacy, but she has little interest in indulging this. “That’s level one,” she says. “Level two is, now what?” She urges him to meet activists in Jamaica to find out about their work, moving him away from finger-pointing. It paints a much more rounded picture.
The “now what?” is where this film works best. While, at first, Daley wanted to ban countries with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation from hosting the Commonwealth Games, he learns from the athletes in those countries that they feel this would be punitive and exclusionary; one suggests gay people might even get the blame for it. Instead, they want to see the Pride flag flying and to feel the protection of this symbol of safety and hope. Obviously, Daley has contacts, and anyone who saw his appearance at the 2022 opening ceremony will know what happened next. It is beautiful and very moving. “I just see this as the start,” he says.