Coming Out in the NBA

Katie Spencely 31 January 2008

Katie Spenceley talks to openly gay basketball player John Amaechi about the taboo of homosexuality in sport.

In the mid-1990s, John Amaechi emerged as Britain’s most successful NBA basketball star, playing for the Orlando Magic, the Utah Jazz and even representing England in the Commonwealth games.

Since retiring from basketball in 2003, he has gone on to even more ambitious things—running a consultancy company, founding the ABC Basketball foundation in 2002 and acting as an ambassador for organisations such as the NSPCC, National Literacy Trust and the Kick-It-Out campaign.

In February 2007, he also became the first NBA player ever to come out as gay—a move that shocked and inspired in equal measure. In an interview with The Cambridge Student (TCS) he explained why he felt homosexuality in sport remains so taboo:

“Rather than sport being a thing that informs society, society is a thing that informs sport. I think, though, that homophobia in sport is more condensed, perhaps. It’s a microcosm that has been dominated by a very powerful male stereotype for a long time and the nature of sport—a group of men who in extreme situations are bonded together—has a homoerotic quality which creates a reaction against it.”

Amaechi’s thoughts on the changing attitudes towards homosexuality were similarly philosophical: “There’s progress. In England, especially, there has been change, and in a number of countries there’s been tangible policy alteration; but I’m afraid that in America things are about twenty years behind. It’s always remarkable to me when I fly over and realise that I’m illegal in thirty-three states.

“There needs to be change, especially in America and England, where there haven’t been that many success stories in coming sports stars out. There also needs to be a change in society that says that this a part of diversity that makes us strong and that we should embrace.”

It was this desire for change that made Amaechi come out in 2007. He says: “My decision to come out was as much a political statement as anything else. My aim was to engage a dialogue above the ‘waistline level’—because normally when people talk about this issue, the talk turns to sex… I was quite surprised by the positive reactions, actually. The largest number of voices were positive. Except for the volume of their voices, the minority was very, very small. People wanted to know about my homosexuality from a human perspective. There was a massive amount of interest in seeing gay people as beings rather than bizarre sexual oddities.”

But not all the reactions were positive. Fellow NBA basketball star Tim Hardaway famously responded to Amaechi’s revelation by claiming that he hated gays. John Amaechi is understandably derisive of his attitude: “You know, his words were moronic—but also very telling. His words opened up the flood gates for a vocal minority who had wanted to say negative things. Once he spoke, this minority felt they had permission and the amount of hate mail I received exponentially increased. It was very damaging, not necessarily to me, because I had chance to brace myself, but literally thousands of young people called and emailed me telling me how his words had pained them.

“Homophobia is very insidious in many respects and though people focus on the homophobia that is virulent, that isn’t the majority. The majority is accidental, incidental, off-hand and people don’t think about it.

“The real problem is that people make assumptions that you are straight. I never assume that people are straight, or gay. It’s strange, I’ve been on every major television show in America—including Oprah—so there aren’t many people who don’t know that I am gay—but there are some people who still ask me where my girlfriend is. You think, ‘Come on, I’ve come out on Oprah and know I’ve got to do it again.’ It’s an incredibly powerful thing that people do by putting you back in a box.

To Amaechi, language is an incredibly important tool. On his web site he quotes Kipling and argues that words are one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for social change. It is not surprising, then, that he damningly criticises those who use “gay” as an insult: “It is unacceptable, totally unacceptable. Gay means homosexual—it does not mean evil, wrong or stupid. People need to realise that the reason why it’s become an insult is because people think that homosexuals are all these negative things.

“We need to get to the point where people can become more sophisticated. The media tried to stereotype me, but luckily the fact that I’m gay and English provided some interested amusement. Also the fact that I’m smart meant they couldn’t just throw me into the ‘stupid athletic’ box or the ‘flamboyant gay’ box.

“It frustrates me that people don’t learn from an earlier age that identity is something very nuanced. The idea that we have one part of our identity—gayness, blackness—that jousts with the other parts of our personality for supremacy is really fundamentally flawed.

“To tell a story about a gay person—as if ‘the gay’ is the thing that sits on top, that is riding the horse of their identity, is naïve.

“We need to find a way to show people that you can be British, black, athletic, smart and gay all wrapped up in one package and that describing that is going to take a lot more than a few square inches.”

Katie Spencely