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Amaechi: End 'bigoted' leadership in sport

John Amaechi gears up for a Student Pride debate with questions from Gay Star News
John Amaechi is a patron of this month's Student Pride in Brighton
Photo by Amaechi Performance Systems

There's just a few more weeks before young revellers head to the historic Brighton Dome for national Student Pride.

As well as the promise of a bar crawl and the chance to rub up against a Calvin Klein model, there will be an opportunity to unleash your political side at a Question Time-style debate.

Motivational speaker, Student Pride patron and former basketball player John Amaechi OBE will be on the celebrity panel.

Amaechi was the first former NBA athlete to publicly come out and is now a psychologist, New York Times best-selling author and social entrepreneur working in both the US and the Europe.

To get him warmed up for the debate, we asked him some questions of our own, quizzing him on everything from being a positive LGBT role model, coming out and gay athletes.

As a patron for Student Pride, which runs from 24 February to 25 February, how important is it for young people to have positive gay role models like yourself?

I think it’s important that young people can look around and see people they can relate to. A lot of times the role models the LGBT community get are pretty monochromatic. And I don’t mean that just in terms of their color.

They tend to fall into very discreet types of men and women. It’s important when you have people who are like myself, who resonate with people who aren’t always catered for.

Did the lack of out gay athletes when you were younger frustrate you?

I don’t think I ever considered working with other gay people involved in sports at the time and there certainly weren’t any people to speak of, apart from Justin Fashanu and Martina Navratilova.

But it has to be pointed out that people tend to treat male homosexuality very differently in sport.

I’m glad that I played sport and that we created a different image of what it was to be gay in sport but I hope that’s not the only segment of the population I appeal to as a role model.

How difficult was it being gay and not being able to share it with all your fellow players in the NBA?

I was out to some of my friends and teammates but it’s one of those things where being selectively out to people is quite a difficult thing.

If you have to decide at work that you can only have certain types of conversation with certain people it generally means you stop having those types of conversation at all.

It tends to lead to and support an isolation of gay people. It doesn’t matter if you’re working in a bank or office or whether you are in sport, that same process still happens unfortunately.

What made you decide to come out publicly?

I reached a point where I was out to everybody I knew and who knew me.

Then coming out to the wider world was a larger political statement in an effort to show a different face of the LGBT community, not just in terms of color and sport, but also someone who is equipped to handle the sort of ridiculous questions or statements which are made by LGBT people on a daily basis.

Were you surprised by people’s reaction?

I was surprised by how the reaction was largely positive. I think America is still quite a religious country and people there could be described as religious extremists, with some of them involved in politics and setting policy.

People often don’t realize there are still 30 states in America where you can be fired for being gay and that in no state in America is there protection for housing.

So I felt it was an important move to try and create a new dialogue around gay and lesbian people. That’s why I came out publicly.

Did you experience much homophobia while in the NBA?

Like most people involved in sport, whether at a professional level or otherwise, you experience a great deal of casual homophobia where people say things that aren’t even very well thought through.

One of the surest ways people think they can insult a man is by calling him gay, so in sports that’s only exacerbated more. You can insult a man by calling him a woman or a girl but even worse is calling him a faggot.

What needs to change for more gay athletes to come out publicly?

The leadership needs to radically shift. There are a lot of people out there, and mostly people who have never had an experience with sport, who think that people coming out is what will make sport get better. But it’s just not the way it works.

The fact is, many sports are systematically bigoted still. Sports like football who would convince you they have solved the racism problem and then you look at the last six months and suddenly you realize there’s still a huge problem.

Football has endemic problems with all different types of demographics. If there’s a problem with women and black people, what makes them think there isn’t a problem with gay people as well?

So, we’ve got to change the leadership, meaning the organization, and people will follow. There will always be people who yell something homophobic in the same way there will always be people who are racist.

People are absolutely deluding themselves to think if 10 premiership football players came out tomorrow the people who run football would stop being homophobic. That’s not going to happen.

What is your message to gay athletes who are too afraid to come out?

Coming out is better than being in the closet, everybody knows that, but the reality is people who haven’t played sports don’t understand what coming out in public means.

Most people who come out get to do it selectively. When athletes come out, they come out everywhere.

I don’t get to go back in the closet when a bunch of homophobes walk towards me on a dark night.

There’s a responsibility for these athletes to be role models but we’ve got to help them get to a place where they can do that effectively without having to sacrifice everything.

And at the moment there are still too many homophobic coaches in prestigious teams and that’s where we need to strike first if we want these people to come out.

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