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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.


I saw and appreciated your piece a week ago about me – I am certainly not attempting to be a spokesperson for gay sports, but as my mother said, if the hat fits…

I read your blog daily and so of course I saw your latest piece – and I see that I disappointed you.

I knew when I spoke to the Telegraph that some of what I said wouldn’t be what people wanted to hear – especially gay people. Fortunately for them, they aren’t the people who get the emails, and lately calls, from the people I “inspired to come out” who got unholy smack downs from family, friends, workplaces and yes, sports teams – even a couple of sports professionals here in the UK.

I am not basing my assertion that it is not safe for gay footballers, gay rugby players and the like to come out on anecdote – I spent the last 18 months working with football; finding almost total resistance to even moderate improvements. I heard it all from coaches and executives, from “there is no place here for faggots” to an email from a player who reported that his sexuality was being used as fodder in contract renegotiations.

I want people to come out – it is better for them, and for us all – but I won’t tell people unable to pay their university fees to come out when they are on scholarship unless I know that decision won’t jeopardise their education.

I won’t tell one of the hundreds of thousands of high school senior athletes that coming out won’t impact their chances of a scholarship when I know that for many – maybe even most high profile team sports (women and men)- it would be a differentiator.

I won’t tell elite-track athletes to come out until I know that doing so won’t destroy them emotionally or even just through what we in the UK call “constructive dismissal.” I know I was an average NBA player but my decline on arrival in Utah, wasn’t because of an endemic lack of effort on my part – or an overactive social life.

I did speak in far more nuanced terms and more detail to the reporter whose piece you read, but of course, they know what will spark debate…and that’s what they ran with.

I WILL keep addressing the issue of organisational prejudice – sporting and otherwise – it’s part of my job and frankly, I like being a pain in the status quo.

However, I do honestly believe that for both the LGBT community and the old-fashioned organisations that cause so much of the pain to collude in stressing the idea that “things will change only when a or enough player(s of requisite talent) come out” or even worse, the false idea that “one or two young gay players coming through the system will change it for the better” are ass-backwards and frankly unverifiable by any current understanding of change management.

I know intuitively we want to believe that LGBT equality will follow a civil rights pathway, that one or a few inspirational characters will change everything over time. There is just no evidence of that – indeed in the US things are going in the opposite direction with LGBT equality under fire in every state, the country moving ever rightward and a President (who I like and voted for) but who is not and probably won’t become a liberal until he is an ex-President (which I still hope won’t be for another term and a half.)

In the UK, and please know that I was speaking about Football and football players mostly in the article, there has been an opportunity for the FA to prove what they told me, and what you are upset about me not endorsing. This idea that the organisation will change – certainly and enduringly for the better – when a player comes out.

Justin Fashanu gave them an opportunity to prove that. He was the first, black, million pound player EVER, not a “chump” like me – but instead of the promised support, his coach openly mocked and savaged him in the media, the FA stood by silently by, the media hounded him and his brother abdicated his responsibility to stand by him.

He did not die because he was weak, he died because he was honest. Maybe I am weak for not being willing to lead others down that path when I have observed so keenly that nothing in football – or much in British sports – has changed in 30 years.

I fight these recurring myths, even though it may seem against convention:

It is not the job of the individual to make an organisation emotionally, psychologically, occupationally or physically safe.

A safe atmosphere is not ‘triggered’ by the presence of a minority, and an unsafe environment rarely changes just because of that presence.

Even those great stories of gay athletes in college or high school who come out to great support are not evil, bigot teams that turn gay-friendly because of “the out gay”; they are good teams that are only needed the opportunity to show their support (just like my college team did btw). It would be a mistake to extrapolate from those anecdotes to a wider truth that the sporting world has changed. I work in it, and the investment banks I have worked with, the one who are accused of screwing the UK and US economies are more progressive and proactive than the administrators and executives of sport.

If I thought it was true – that coming out would change the systems – I would be encouraging the players who contact me to come out as early as they could so they would not live with regret in their later days.

Sadly, It is not true in too many cases, and certainly not true in premiership football. The FA big-wigs have shown themselves to be racist, homophobic, and misogynous and they seem to have effectively resisted the presence of women, black people and gays at any significant level before and since Justin’s dénouement – an athlete whose life and death, by convention, “should have changed it all.”

In this same way, middle America seems to be well able to look past Shepard, Sandy, King, and that endless list of gay martyrs and I am not keen to make more – maybe my resistance to cracking a few eggs to make this omelet is my weakness – but I don’t feel so confident as some, in deciding for myself, the role in the struggle other young LGBT people will take.

We must challenge the institutions because the way change will come is evolving – marches on Washington that were so effective in decades past, do not work as they once did. The evangelical, inspirational leader that might galvanise society as King once did are now drowned out by droning AM radio and vicious opinion journalism.

I want change more than most and put my self and my thoughts on the line and on record with my goals for equality.

I am far from infallible, but I am no hypocrite as some have suggested.

I did not wait to come out until I retired for the money – anyone who looks at my career knows that for a fact.

I did not wait to come out until I retired because I was a coward, although I have no proof of that other than my ongoing actions.

I did not come out in the US publicly until I retired for two interconnected reasons:

1. I thought America was past the point of no return for LGBT Equity – Ian McKellen changed my mind back then and the general public reaction to me further warmed my disposition – but I still think the question up in the air: after all, a country with (formerly) a democratic supermajority, a black, democratic President and fighting two wars with a shrinking pool of military recruits still can’t end DADT, still has States where you can be fired for being LGBT and still has leaders who legislate discrimination.

2. Had I come out in high school, or in college, or before I would not exist as a public figure. As surely as my current place in the world started the day I said “yes” to the question “would you like to play basketball?” Would that place disappear had I come out in high school or college.
I scrapped and clawed to get into the NBA by a fingernail as a weird, overly-academic, slightly overweight, outspoken, uppity Brit. Adding gay to that equation would mean we weren’t having this conversation about my suitability as a role-model.

I appreciate what you do, I am glad you hold me (and others) to task and hope I am always outspoken enough to have you notice when I speak, but know that I am no hypocrite, nor am I am coward, but as a psychologist and a person of good conscience, I can’t tell young LGBT athletes or LGBT people in general to put themselves in harms way.

It isn’t about their future earnings and endorsements, it’s about the fact that telling, for example, those young men who have contacted me from premiership academies to come out because “they’ll make everything change for the better” is currently a lie and because it will probably also mean that they don’t get to the position where they could really make a difference. As you say in your commentary, you don’t think that is a credible position, but while I fight to change these organisations, I won’t offer up youngsters as cannon fodder.

Anyway, again, I appreciate your site and your critique – even when it hurts, it’s always insightful.

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