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.