queerty interviews

The Real Reason John Amaechi Doesn’t (Usually) Recommend Gay Athletes Come Out

Last week, with his vocal criticism of Britain’s Football Association’s failed anti-homophobia campaign, former NBA player John Amaechi caught our attention for doing what so few will: Calling out bullshit in sports when he sees it. We said Amaechi was “becoming the face of gays in sports.” Then we began to eat our own words, when Amaechi argued that gay athletes should not come out, something that many of us encourage, with the reasoning that nothing will change until more gay players go public. Yesterday, Amaechi spoke to Queerty‘s David Hauslaib to clear up any misunderstandings about his statements. Namely, that it isn’t athletes who bear the responsibility of being “cannon fodder” to see if sports leagues can handle openly gay players. In fact, says Amaechi, he’s seen this happen before (most notably with the suicide of British soccer player Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and remains the only player to do so), to disastrous results.

Amaechi speaks from experience: He regularly counsels closeted gay athletes on their options. And, he tells Queerty, if he saw any real benefit to them coming out, he’d be on the phone with them day and night lobbying them to do so. But as it stands, almost every sports league remains a homophobic place, where it’s not just careers that get ruined by coming out, but personal lives and mental health as well. And until the Football Association, among other leagues, unveils a clear intent to rid their sports of anti-gay malice, there’s just no point in foisting unestablished gay athletes in front of a firing squad.

(Prior to our interview, Amaechi wrote Queerty a lengthy email in response to our post; we’ve published it in full on the next page. After our interview, Amaechi posted his own reply, saying, “I am not suggesting that an athlete who wants to come out shouldn’t but the 16 year old at a premiership football academy doesn’t owe the LGBT community his immediate coming out – especially when we know it will have a negative impact on their career and probably their emotional and psychological safety as well. People who don’t believe that, are just not paying attention.”)

When should gay athletes come out?
Amaechi: It isn’t the responsibility of the individual to make the environment safe. … Even the most resolute and resilient of young men, many of whom I’ve spoken to, is not going to thrive, and some of them are not going to survive, if they come out. I mean that in the sense emotionally, psychologically, and certainly in terms of their career.

Under what circumstances would you recommend gay athletes stay in the closet?
I’m not recommending it. … I think organizations should help athletes to come out. Now conveniently, people haven’t looked at that at all. But the reality is, these people, from their positions of apparent omniscience, who are talking about ‘It’s the responsibility of athletes to come out,’ they aren’t the ones who have to hear the stories when it doesn’t’ go so well. These people aren’t cannon fodder to be thrown out.

What are the “necessary changes” sports leagues can make to fight homophobia?
Is a 60-second expletive-laden rant education? … Because every teacher I’ve spoken to says that’s not education. … People keep talking about strategy, and how is one 90-second advert a strategy? I keep on saying, “Okay, if I’m wrong, tell me what the strategy is.” … An organization, with that much resource, after two years, they come up with this? … You have to have an explicit statement of intent from the top that say, “This is what we stand for, this is what we will not stand for.” The very same thing that we’ve seen a million times for racism … that needs to come from the very top. … Beyond that, there needs to be a declaration of what it is they’re trying to achieve. … The FA has put it on record that it is not the aim of this campaign [the 90-second PSA] to help players come out. Well I’m sorry, the natural end of any equality and diversity program is the increased presence and the increased ability of minorities to thrive. … It’s just a campaign to stop people from saying bad things at football games. … They want the papers to stop saying the football fans are homophobic hooligans.

Have there been any formidable changes since Gareth Thomas came out?
No. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s such a naive and absurd assumption … people need to stop thinking that we’re going to saved, that everybody’s minds will change because of some gay guy that the fans really respect. It’s utter nonsense. … It’s not at all how change happens in organizations. Marriage equity isn’t going to pass a LeBron James-caliber basketball player comes out. … I often tell people, when they make these absurd suggestions that an elite athlete coming out will change everything for the better.

Do openly gay athletes change the way fans think about gay people?
My problem with your logic is there is an additional step to that. People then have to say, “Because I like this person who I have now found out is gay, I now like all gay people.” And I’m sorry, there’s no evidence of that. Because people who love tennis decided to like Martina Navratilova does not mean people who love tennis will vote differently in an election about gay people, who will then want to bestow additional rights on gay people. It’s a spurious argument, and there’s no evidence of it.

Is the strategy from marriage equality campaigns — that remind voters everyone “knows” a gay person — a farce?
It’s not a question of that theory being a farce, it’s a question of that theory being effective. Now I love Barack Obama, He has appointed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender appointees, and yet he is thoroughly against marriage equity, and will be until he is not the president anymore. So, yes, knowing someone who’s gay does make people less violent toward gay people, less prone to abuse (verbally or otherwise) gay people. What we haven’t seen is the desire for good things to happen to the gay people they know to translate into the desire for good things to happen to gay people in general. We just haven’t seen that transition yet. Now, I could be completely wrong.

What about gay athletes who want to come out but don’t want to be the faces of gay activism?
My issue is that we can’t have a different standard for what we consider sacred about coming for the unknown high school kid, or the theater kid in New York, or the farmer kid in Iowa, to the potentially elite track athlete in high school, or college, or the pros. There isn’t a different standard. I say coming out is like a gestation period. … That doesn’t change because you are thrust by your talent and effort into the position of being an athlete. I can say as a psychologist, it is better — full stop — for any person who is gay, bisexual, or transgender to come out. It is better for you psychologically in the long run. The difficultly with that is nothing stands without context. You might feel really good and resolved, your parents might treat you well — if you lose your job … there’s not much solace, really, when there is 10 percent unemployment and you have to find a new job. … For me, it’s just a little bold to have the entire LGBT community saying, “These people have a responsibility,” without thinking of the individual cost.

Do gay athletes bear any responsibility in making their leagues more gay-friendly?
Gareth Thomas, if he comes out 30 years ago, we don’t have Gareth Thomas [as an out high-profile player].

How about straight athletes?
Absolutely. Isn’t one of the most interesting parts of this that the advert that was originally suggested by myself and Peter Tatchell was one where players we know to be straight are asked to be a part of this? … I’ve been told by players that they weren’t asked; the FA refused to ask them. The FA has also told me, and I have to believe them, they did ask some players who categorically refused.

How will we know when athletes can be openly gay from the beginning and not suffer ramifications?
There will be any number of indications, not least of which there will be indications in other parts of society. Right now, for all this nonsense we talk about sports being the last bastion, there are plenty of people who work in investment banks who don’t feel safe to come out. Look at TV and movies: Really, Doogie is our only — it’s really him and a handful of others. … It’s not safe in a lot of places, it just happens to be especially not safe in sports. I’ve got to emphasize this again: It’s not a question of the fans and the players. The problem with sports isn’t a bunch of stupid players. There will always be Tim Hardaways. There will always be people that are that dumb. … But the reality is most of them aren’t like that.

… We’re not in the position that people think. … If I thought that one or two players who I knew coming out would make the difference, then dammit I’d be on them, never endingly. They’d get a call from me every night. But I don’t know how another Justin Fashanu makes the next 11-year-old gay kid who wants to play football, play football. And nobody seems to be able to answer that question without telling me I’m a hypocrite. I should know by now not to take what I read personally, but for a person such as myself … but at this point to have criticism from people about this issue, especially from the gay community, it’s really bothered me. Because I want change, desperately. I do think that if sports change, they could have a really informative effect on the culture of society, because I do believe sports can have that power.

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  • Christian Young

    This is – hands down – the best piece I have ever read on Queerty. Our community desperately needs more people like John not only advocating and speaking out on our behalf, but reminding us of that being actively proud, zealous and hopeful for an improved attitude towards homosexuality among our heterosexual brothers and sisters does not mean that we lose touch with reality about how cultural change comes about.

  • alicia banks

    homophobia is a wound

    ALL wounds heal best in open air

    BOTH of you are right

    don a and queerty are BOTH telling the truth

    no revolution is bloodless or easy!


    alicia banks
    eloquent fury

  • alan brickman

    still sounds a bit cop out to me….

  • Lukas P.

    @alan brickman: Please say more. I’m intrigued.
    Which part(s) of what he said were [a] “cop out”?

  • romeo

    Some of our guys have the bucks to field a team, not necessarily a gay team, but a gay friendly team where talented gay athletes could feel safe and accepted. I suspect there are plenty of talented straight players that would go for that kind of psychologically relaxed environment. That way the team could concentrate on kicking ass on the field.

    I think the NFL would have to let them participate. After all, nobody would be sharing locker rooms that didn’t want to. Their home town could be here in West Hollywood. We could rip out part of neighboring Bev Hills to build a stadium. It’s had it anyway.

    I’m only partially joking. Why couldn’t we?

  • schlukitz

    No. 4 · Lukas P.

    It’s not alan brickman’s ass or career that is on the line, so he can make such an arrogant and ignorant comment from the safety of his recliner while he takes another swig from his can of Budweiser.

    So the question arises…who is the real cop out here?

  • Endless Men

    Great interview !

  • Lukas P.

    @schlukitz: Uh oh, did my mock sincerity come through again? Damn.

    I think Queerty asked very good questions, and Mr Amaechi gave very thoughtful answers. If anyone is an expert about a man coming out in major league sports, he is. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and hypothesize what we would or wouldn’t do in a given situation, but the real world isn’t so clearcut.

    When some guy at the top levels of the “manly sports”–the ones played with a ball or a puck–is ready come out, to face the team, the coaches, the press, the fans, the sponsors, the family, & the national spotlight, he’ll have an ally in John A.

    Meanwhile, let’s not forget the other sports and the lesser leagues,

    Having seen the effects of an ill-timed or poorly executed coming out process [suicide, self-destruction, banishment] it’s clear that he doesn’t want to witness another trainwreck. Hard for me, at least to argue about that.

  • schlukitz

    No. 8 · Lukas P.

    Tongue-in-cheek and dry-wit are two of my fave forms of humor. You excel at them, Sir.

    I fully agree with you. It was an excellent exchange of questions and answers. And it is obvious that Mr. Amaechi is not a man who will stoop to blowing smoke rings out of his ass when presented with difficult questions to answer.

    He obviously understands the meaning of walking a mile in another man’s moccasins and his ability to empathize is truly remarkable and praise-worthy. Indeed, trainwrecks hurt a lot and like you, it’s hard for me to argue about that as well.

  • Lucas

    I think Amaechi’s a bit more cynical about out athletes and the troubles being one would cause because of how deeply rooted homophobia was when he played. While in 2010 the world isn’t exactly a paradise for gay athletes, times have indeed changed.

    Many of his doom and gloom points of view presented here are engulfed, steadfastly, in a circa-1990 world. Justin Fashanu’s coming out and subsequent suicide is a hearbreaking story for sure, but we must remember it’s one that is dated 20 years in the past. Again, times have changed.

    The John Amaechi’s of the world don’t seem to get what my generation does; past cynicism is no longer a valid reason to halt progress and cage true courage.

    I’m not saying a player coming out would be easy, not at all, but I do think that in 2010, a young player with the courage to came out could brave the homophobic storm and it certainly wouldn’t be as hell and brimstone as Amaechi imagines. With all of the public support we now have, media personalities that are either straight allies or gay themselves, and media avenues such as gay ran ones like this and the very gay friendly larger ones like E! and the rest, he’ll have the support needed to couple with his bravery and become the leader people will make him out to be.

    While I respect John and his good intentions, it entirely seems to me that in these times of Dan Choi, Adam Lambert, and Gareth Thomas, Amaechi’s ideas seem a bit panicky, unduly fearful, and strongly archaic.

  • schlukitz

    Hmm…your comments are certainly food for thought. And being the age that I am (73), I can relate to what you say about things being dated in the past.

    I oftentimes, have to check my viewpoints about things, just to make sure that I am not coming off sounding like a stodgy, old curmudgeon who is still hiding in the closet, which I hasten to assure you, I am not. lol But, as I am sure you realize, sometimes old ideas die hard…even when we have learned better.

    That said, however, I have great admiration and respect for the young people you have named. It take a great deal of courage to come out of the closet when you are in the public eye and I salute them for that courage and determination.

    I have been out and proud since the age of 16 and have been very active in the gay rights movement for most of my life. My only regret is that my age and health now prevent me from being as active as I once used to be.

    Luckily, we now have the Internet and email, and I make frequent use of it, for what it’s worth.

    I may be old, but I am not yet deaf and dumb. LOL

  • Axel

    He is the face of gays in BASKETBALL. No offense to the guy, I get what he is saying. I absolutely do NOT agree. Staying closeted continues to paint the picture that ALL gay and bi men are feminine, wear pink, and work in fashion. He can stay in his little closet. I don’t want to and won’t. And, as I said before, “sports” includes MORE than just basketball.

  • Axel

    There are gay fighters (among other sports) who are open and out. This must apply to the Black male stereotype, I believe, as they seem to have huge ego issues admitting their sexuality more than most others, it seems. In any event, staying in the closet is more feminine (or “soft”) than not. It means you can’t face the heat.

  • Chitown Kev


    Nice racism, there.

    As if a certain retired Edmonton Oiler and New York Ranger didn’t have this very problem.

    If that’s true, then where are the out gay white athletes in Ameican professional sports?

  • Chitown Kev


    And besides, he is speaking of soccer and, I would assume, all TEAM sports, if I am not mistaken…

    I do wonder how Amaechi feel about individualized sports like tennis, golf, track, etc. where there is a bit of a different dynamic (i.e. it’s probably OK and safe for a woman to come out but not a man).

  • David Ehrenstein

    This was an utterly fascinating interview. Times hav changed — and are still changing — but Amaechi can’t forget what he knows about the past, and the way it lingers on in the present. I think he’s trying to be thoughtful and astute. It doesn’t produce a picture as pretty as we would all like, and while he still has much to learn, he’s not being knee-jerk reactionary.

  • Sam

    “It isn’t the responsibility of the individual to make the environment safe.”

    THANK YOU. This is exactly what I try to say everytime someone argues against charter schools for gay teens, on the grounds that gay teens need to stay in their abusive homophobic schools so the straight kids will learn tolerance. (Like that’s helped so far.) Yes, we should all come out when we can. Yes, it helps change people’s minds. But none of us have a RESPONSIBILITY, as John so articulately put it, to become “cannon-fodder” – to sacrifice our careers, our mental health, or even our lives by coming out under horrible circumstances.

    We have to DEMAND that straight people accept us, not demand that our gay brothers and sisters risk everything to come out so that they can… what… single-handedly change every single co-worker’s mind through sheer force of charisma?

  • Chitown Kev

    I mean…

    How many of us really have the “come out of the closet and we lived happily ever after” type of story?

    How many of us, for example, waited until our college educations were near completed or completed prior to coming out to the family, out of fear that financial support (among other things) would be lost?

  • Cam

    My problem with this is….hell if I could I would recomend to sports stars to not grow up poor, to grow up strong, to grow up good-looking, to grow up with a non-abusive family, to grow up with parents that buy you a car when you start driving etc… You can try to say that you are just shielding people but there comes a point where people are who they are. If sports is homophobic, fine, then prosecute the teams for not being open to gays. Treat it like any other job discrimination issue.

  • Rikard

    In Utah we are lucky to have had Amechi play here. It may be a brief association, but like Dustin Lance Black’s mormonism it is a connection with the powerful voices that inform the movement. They often have the words that give me the courage to speak. The network of people we admire, quote and know is where we draw strength.

  • Zach

    Yeah, cause NOTHING has changed in the world (or in England, or in America) in the twenty years since Justin Fastenau committed suicide.

    Come on John, twenty years from now will you still be using Justin’s story to argue that athletes can’t come out because they’ll be treated just like Justin?

  • Jay

    The best Queerty post I’ve ever read.

    And only 23 replies, while Matt Bomer gets 200 odd? Sad.

  • schlukitz

    No. 24 · Jay

    I was thinking precisely the same thing, Jay. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

    It definitely imparts a deeper understanding of the word “shallow”.

  • killjoy99

    I completely respect what Amaechi is saying, but the bottom line is that things must change culturally before gatekeepers and those with institutional power feel a need to lend a hand… and honestly, in American sports/entertainment, that’s going to mean a superstar/diva/game-changer/outlier athlete that is immensely talented AND understands both the business and the politics behind their sport.

  • Dionte

    “Yes! Hide in shadows and shame and for what, the respect of heterosexuals, they are nothing to us, they are merely breaders” in Akasha voice

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