‘This is my identity’: Synchronized swimmer proud to be in the water

Group creates a welcoming space for LGBTQ athletes

A Minnesota-based synchronized swimming team started with the hopes of competing in the Gay Games in 2018. Not only did it compete — it won gold.

Founded as the “Gay Olympics,” the Gay Games is a global athletic and cultural event that promotes acceptance of sexual diversity. Snagging the gold medal gave the Subversive Sirens an even bigger platform for its work promoting equity in swimming, body positivity and queer visibility.

For Jae Hyun Shim, 37, who identifies as queer and nonbinary and prefers “they/them” pronouns, swimming came early in life. Growing up in a Minneapolis suburb, there was a pool in their own backyard.

 Jae Hyun Shim poses for a portrait near a swimming pool.
Jae Hyun Shim poses for a portrait at the Phillips Aquatic Center in Minneapolis on June 13. Shim is a queer, non-binary East Asian member of the Subversive Sirens, a group of body-positive synchronized swimmers.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

But Shim, a Korean-American adoptee, was discouraged from swimming competitively because they didn’t see themselves represented on the mostly white local swim teams and in lifeguarding classes.

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“Swimming is a really white world, like a lot of sports in Minnesota,” Shim said.

Not only that, Shim, who was assigned female at birth, didn’t feel comfortable in locker rooms. Transgender and nonbinary people face additional challenges while swimming because the attire exposes body parts they don’t identify with, Shim added.

Shim said by intentionally creating a space for LGBTQ athletes, the Subversive Sirens is inviting people who would never otherwise consider participating in water sports.

Synchronized swimmers perform in the pool.
Jae Hyun Shim (far right) practices during a dress rehearsal with the Subversive Sirens at the Phillips Aquatic Center.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

“Being a person who can openly and strongly say that this is my identity and this is a place where we belong to,” Shim said, “I think opens up doors for other people who are feeling that way.”

When Shim joined the Subversive Sirens late last year, the group helped Shim feel proud of their identity and included in the sport.

Shim quickly caught on to the routine and performed last month in New York for the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics Championships during Stonewall anniversary celebrations.

Jae Hyun Shim smiles in the pool with other synchronized swimmers.
Jae Hyun Shim (second left) gathers with members of the Subversive Sirens.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

Getting to see people who have different skin tones, features and bodies in the water offers “the kind of representation that a lot of us didn’t get as children,” Shim said.

This reporting is part of The Water Main, our initiative that aims to bring people together, move conversations forward and create meaningful connections that help sustain clean, abundant water for all.