By ALLEN REED
Amini Fonua, like many Aggies, was disheartened last semester when he learned a group of student senators wanted to de-fund the university’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Resource Center.
“The first words that went through my head were, `Oh dear, not again,'” Fonua said.
Unlike most Aggies, Fonua is an Olympic swimmer, a school record-holder in the 100-yard breaststroke and the 200 medley relay and an NCAA All-American. He is also openly gay.
The Eagle (http://bit.ly/10LK2uR ) reports Fonua has been open about his sexuality to friends, family and teammates for years, but two weeks ago he came out publicly in A&M’s student newspaper, The Battalion, a few days before he graduated.
Traditionally conservative Texas A&M was thrust into national headlines in March by student senators’ attempts to target the GLBT center. Student body president John Claybrook eventually vetoed the senate’s bill to “stop the bleeding,” but damage had already been done, Fonua said.
In a week of intense scrutiny, A&M was cast as an unwelcoming place. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, Fonua said.
“It’s kind of annoying when people are constantly berating your school,” Fonua said. “I never once experienced anything homophobic or bad. Either I was lucky or it didn’t really matter.”
When pressed, Fonua could only recall one time he felt uncomfortable, but he said that it wasn’t really a big deal. A pro-family organization handed Fonua a pamphlet while he was walking across campus.
“I gave it back to him,” Fonua said. “I told him I was gay so it doesn’t make sense for me to pick it up. He said he would pray for me.”
Fonua, in response to the student senate vote, wanted to let current students, alumni and prospective students know that A&M was welcoming and that as an openly gay man he had never experienced any hate.
“I wouldn’t really be surprised if kids turned down a spot at A&M because of its GLBT issues,” Fonua said. “I see a lot of GLBT kids out there not wanting to come to A&M because of the reputation it has, and I just wanted high school kids to know you can pursue anything you want given you do the hard work and put forth the effort.”
The platform for that message was the student newspaper. The May announcement closely followed the coming out of the first active U.S. male professional athlete, the NBA’s Jason Collins, and a similar statement by the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick, Brittney Griner.
In fact, Fonua didn’t set out to make a statement. He said the genesis of the public coming-out story was that a friend in a creative writing class needed help on a project. Fonua said the other high-profile coming-outs caused him to reflect on his own situation and experiences in College Station, and decide that coming out publicly could help the university he cares about so much.
What started out as helping a friend is likely now a piece of A&M history. No one can say for sure, as it’s not an official stat recorded by Texas A&M, but Fonua’s public announcement might make him A&M’s first male athlete to come out as openly gay. A&M student leaders, members of the GLBT community and people close to the athletic department couldn’t think of anyone prior.
“That’s just kind of the way it is and I didn’t think one way or another,” said A&M’s head swimming coach, Jay Holmes. “The part I got out of that is Amini is proud of Texas A&M. He’s proud to be here … How can you not be a fan of a kid who is going to stand up and fight for his university?”
To Holmes, Fonua is a competitor, a swim team captain and a role model. Holmes said he never imagined that the teenager he recruited out of New Zealand would leave A&M as the 2012 100-yard breaststroke Big 12 Champion with a school-record-setting time of 53.44 seconds.
“You want competitive kids,” Holmes said. “You want them to compete and want them to care. Amini did all those things. It’s really pretty simple.”
That competitive spirit carried Fonua all the way to the 2012 London Olympics. Although he grew up in New Zealand, Fonua’s father is from Tonga – a Pacific Island chain with only a few thousand more people than the city of College Station. Fonua has Tongan citizenship through his father, and that, combined with his swimming prowess, allowed him to be the Tongan flag-bearer at the Olympics.
Marimar Miguel, another recent A&M graduate, has been friends with Fonua for about three-and-a-half years. They met in a women and gender studies course, and bonded through Miguel’s note taking and Fonua’s needing of the notes while he succeeded at swimming. Miguel describes her friend as non-judgmental, supportive and lighthearted.
Miguel acknowledged Fonua’s statement is not enough to undo the negative associations that have built up over the years regarding A&M’s attitude toward homosexuality, but that it was a great step in the right direction. She somewhat jokingly called it damage “clean-up” for the university.
“I think it was a very generous action to do for the university, because the administration did not do a great job on speaking up against what had happened to the students (after the student senate vote),” she said. “(The senators) gathered a lot of bad rap for the university.”
It was powerful and personal for an openly gay man, who is also an athlete, to share his positive experience at A&M, she said. And the responses to the article have been overwhelmingly positive, Miguel said.
“I was excited to see the reaction,” Miguel said. “All of this negative stuff had happened and finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I was excited for him, the university and the future students.”
It was a little too early to think about his legacy at A&M, Fonua said, but he hopes his fellow Aggies will lead happy and honest lives and that others realize that A&M is an accepting place.
“I really hope that any amazing young athletes that are coming through high school don’t feel deterred to come to A&M and excel,” Fonua said. “I did, and anyone else can, if they come and work hard.”