John Amaechi’s Accidental Journey to Becoming the Face of Gays in Sports

Know what we’re loving about John Amaechi? More than knowing, since 2007, that the former NBA baller is a big ‘mo? That he’s a big ‘mo with opinions. Lots of them. And he’s telling people to shove it. Like the U.K.’s Football Association.

And it’s wholly appropriate.

After the FA produced an anti-homophobia PSA (watch it here), it backed off on actually releasing it as part of a wider campaign to fight things like fans calling members of the opposing teams “faggots.” Depending on who you ask, bailing on the campaign was s because FA couldn’t secure participation from leading athletes, who worried about being attached to such a “taboo” PSA, or because FA wanted more time to properly implement the campaign.

But even what it came up with and shelved at the last minute — an Ogilvy-produced 90-second viral spot showing a slur-spewing fan throughout the day before going to a soccer match — was criticized by the likes of Peter Tatchell and, yes, Amaechi: “Football can’t shock fans out of being bigots – this process requires a highly strategic, multi-modal approach, not to mention a significant investment. Ninety seconds of bad language that will only be seen on the internet is not a solution to the problems faced by football and the concept of trying to create a ‘viral video’ to combat homophobia in football feels crass at best. … I have reached out on numerous occasions to help the Premier League, the Football Association and even UEFA make the necessary changes to bring them into the 21st century, but there is simply too much denial in too many quarters to penetrate to the heart of the problem in football.”

And now that there isn’t even a 90-second spot that FA is willing to promote? He says: “The hard task of equality is made easier by the involvement of grass-roots organisations like the Justin Campaign [of which Amaechi is a spokesman for]. As I examine the FA recent anti-homophobia advert debacle, I am saddened to note that their £10,000 budget would have been far better invested in the Justin Campaign.”

Moreover, it’s led Amaechi — who, if the world had bigger name gay celebs, could have easily faded into the ether — to argue that it’s time to stop thinking of homophobia as a “gay issue,” because it actually hurts an unexpected victim: straight boys. He writes in an op-ed: “I think homophobia is an important issue because of the effect it has on straight people. Homophobia is literally and figuratively killing our youngsters – especially young, straight boys. In school, for a boy, being clever and interested in academia is gay, being kind and thoughtful is gay, being respectful to parents, authority figures or women is gay. For a man, being sexually considerate – that is, not sleeping with everything female that moves – is gay. Having non-sexual friendships with women is gay. Being nurturing and considerate is gay. Having a friend who is gay, is gay. Choosing not to drink until you puke is gay. In football, even reading the Guardian or using words with more than three syllables is gay. We still socially reinforce industrial revolution-style gender identity on our boys and men so that to be a ‘real man’ you must be the opposite of anything even remotely considered feminine.”

Noting for the public record that Amaechi is a stand-up guy is barely worth the pixels it would take to display as much. We know Amaechi is a good guy. But what we’re most curious to see is how much pull he has.

Tatchell, the British activist, has a history of loudly speaking out and effecting change. (His most recent victory? Helping get some of homophobic reggae artist Capleton’s concerts canceled.) But it’s Amaechi who operates in this new era of activism.

Sure, by coming out, it’s likely he hoped to show young people, particularly athletes, that you can be gay and successful. But that he intended to become a gay rights activist is less certain. The same way Lt. Dan Choi came out to take a stand, and along the way found himself one of the most prominent figures of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. These are men who just happened to be gay, and part of a certain community at the center of an anti-gay maelstrom.

It’s hard to pinpoint just how much credit any single person, or Gay Inc. group, deserves for changing the landscape for queers. (If the Football Assocation ends up officially releasing the PSA, or ramps up its promised anti-homophobia efforts, does Amaechi get to take credit?) But what’s inarguable is that each of these causes — fighting homophobia in sports, repealing DADT, securing gay marriage rights — needs a public face. And that Amaechi has volunteered to be that one for sports is commendable.