washingtonpost.com
Life of a Gay Pro Athlete

John Amaechi
Author, former NBA player
Thursday, March 1, 2007 2:00 PM

Former NBA player John Amaechi discusses his book, "Man in the Middle," and his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his life as a pro basketball player.

Amaechi was be online Thursday, March 1 at 2 p.m. to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

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washingtonpost.com: John will be joining the discussion shortly.

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Sterling, Va.: Did you find it difficult to interact with your teammates knowing that you were gay? Did you feel like you were hiding a piece of yourself by not allowing them to know about that part of your life?

John Amaechi: I think that while being gay is a significant, important part of me, not knowing I'm gay doesn't shroud the rest of me. I had good relationships with my teammates, I was lucky to have great teammates during my career. Overall, I thought the balance was right.

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Vancouver, B.C.: From your experience, what would you say is the underlying structure that makes being gay in professional sports difficult? Is it a lack of education and experience from other players/coaches/managers? Or is it more of a taboo that just needs to be overcome? Something else?

John Amaechi: I certainly think it's a stereotypical taboo with lots of unfounded fears that need to be overcome. That will happen with education and policy changes. I think one of the points that people are missing is that it's a global issue. It's not about being gay in sports. It's about many, many people in many, many environments that people don't feel comfortable coming out. There are environments across North America and Europe where people don't feel comfortable coming out. This experience has highlighted that through sports.

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Houston: John,

Based on your experiences, have your found homophobia to be more prevalent in the black community or the white community? Also is homophobia more prevalent in the U.S. or the U.K.?

Thanks.

John Amaechi: I don't think that Europe and the UK is a utopia, but governmental backing of homophobia doesn't exist in the same way it does in America. As for the white and black communities, I think they have a disconnect that is being manipulated by people for political gain. I think both regional and national elections are being won on the back of trumped up bigotry.

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Washington, D.C.: As the pastor of a church committed to being inclusive of gay and lesbian persons, I wonder: In your struggle, has any spiritual or religious organization or representative reached out to support and affirm you?

John Amaechi: I have been contacted by a number of pastors of affirming churches that have wanted me to come and do things with their churches.

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D.C.: The biggest issue I see is with sharing locker rooms/shower facilities. Would you be offended if the news came out while you were active in the NBA and it was requested that you have separate locker facilities? They would never allow coed locker rooms, so why not for those who have different orientations?

John Amaechi: The question is so absurd -- the idea that gay people can't keep their hands or eyes or thoughts off other men, especially straight men, is absurd. It's based on all the worst stereotypes. This is all based on the idea that gay people are predators and cant keep their hands off people. If people can't look back 60 years at separate water fountains and separate bathrooms, then people will never learn from history.

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Oakton, Va.: As a gay Penn State alum (Go Lions!), I wanted to offer my support. I found that my years in which I accepted my sexuality were made easier by the environment and tone set by faculty and staff at PSU. Did PSU have any affect on your self-awareness/self-acceptance? What advice would you give to institutions who want to create a positive environment?

John Amaechi: Penn State had a very positive effect on my as a person, on my ability to be involved with so many aspects of the school. But not because I was gay -- I wasn't clear on that myself at the time.

What do they need to do? It is the responsibility for every institution across every nation to embrace diversity. If they are serious about education, they will embrace diversity. If they are serious about the well-being of your members, they will embrace diversity. If they are serious about performance, they will embrace diversity. Because diversity isn't just about the minority, its about the majority as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi John,

In your opinion, how many NBA players are driven by love of the game, and how many are driven by love of the money, cars, fame, and everything else that goes with the NBA?

John Amaechi: I don't know if I can give you numbers, but I think it's fairly clear to me that a great many people appreciate the trappings of the NBA as much as, if not more than, the idea of winning basketball games. Again, I would say that's not a damnation, because there are investment bankers and architects who feel the same way. You don't expect dentists to be excited about every day at work after 20 years. So it's natural in a way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi John,

How much do you think your intellectual curiosity, rather than sexual preference, had to do with alienating you from your teammates? In your book you talk of going to museums and other cultural pursuits that seem anathema to locker room culture. I play ball in various rec. leagues and even at this level, locker rooms are not the place where I would be caught dead talking about the latest gallery opening I attended. I leave that kind of stuff at home and expect instead to talk about women, ball and other "manly" pursuits.

John Amaechi: I wasn't alienated from my teammates -- they didn't know the whole of me, but we had a genuine relationship as teammates. But when I talk about diversity, I don't mean just gay or straight, I mean that there will be somebody in the locker room who is into post-modern paintings, and someone who likes classical music, and someone who drinks tea, and someone who is Russian, and sometimes all those things added up.

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Arlington, Va.: You mentioned that Greg Ostertag was the only player who ever asked you if you were gay and that you regretted never telling him. Have you heard from Ostertag or any other former teammates since you came out? I was wondering what there reaction was? Thanks.

John Amaechi: I have heard from some former teammates from college but not from the pros. I don't know what their reaction was.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: First, mad props for your bravery.

What did you think about Barkley's comments that guys in the league have known before that they were playing with a gay teammate and didn't care? I know you said you had some understanding teammates but do you think that homosexuality and understanding teammates (or at least ones who turn a blind eye) are as common in the league as Barkley made it seem?

John Amaechi: I think people suspected I was gay, I'm sure people knew in their own heads, but they weren't told. There's a massive difference between knowing and being told. When you aren't told, you can mask the issue. If they had been told, I think that would have changed things drastically.

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Durham, N.C.: What would you say to the millions of young men/sports fans in this country who grow up learning to use the word "gay" as the most common kind of derogatory adjective?

John Amaechi: Stop it. Stop it now. There's nothing so juvenile and immature than seeing grown men use the word gay for any purpose other than what it's meant to be used for. Not only is it juvenile, it's damaging. If people knew the damage it did, if they had a little bit of empathy, they would stop it. And I'm telling people -- it hurts. And not just gay people, but straight people who get the word used at them. It damages us all.

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McLean, Va.: How do you respond to people who think that it took no bravery on your part come out after you retired, as opposed to while you were still in the NBA?

John Amaechi: I understand what they feel, and I never used the word "brave" in association with themselves. Dave Kopay was brave, Martina Navratilova was brave, in her own way. I'm simply doing what a person of good conscience does when they are prepared and ready.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for coming out John. I've heard it said that the toughest part of coming out while you played wouldn't have come from the locker room, but would have come from how you were treated by the opposing teams' fans and the names you might have been called. Do you think this is true?

John Amaechi: Yeah, I think the issue of coming out in pro sports is sometimes localized to the 12 people around you. It's so much more than that, it's about all the fans everywhere, it's about walking down the street with your partner, living in the same house. It's about much more than the players around you. And the media circus would be a massive hindrance, when you're just trying to win games.

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Paris, France: Are you currently in a relationship? If so, how is your significant other responding to your book and the negative remarks being made about you?

John Amaechi: I'm not currently in a relationship -- but my family certainly hasn't been that thrilled by the negative comments. But as I keep telling them, the overwhelming number of remarks have been positive and supportive. I was expecting less positive and far more negative, so it's been a pleasant surprise.

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Philadelphia: Would you consider coaching basketball? How do you think you'd be received as a coach or assistant coach today in the NBA?

John Amaechi: I don't know -- it's hard to tell you because I have no interest in coaching, at all. In England I'm received as a coach, because I'm a good coach at my community center. If you're serious about winning, then it's not important if they are gay, straight, black, white, English, whatever. If they can help you win, then you want them to help you win.

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Downtown 20001: The NBA does not hide its association with hip hop culture as many rappers have a small percentage in NBA ownership. For the most part, hip hop is homophobic. Do you think that the NBA's association with the hip hop culture play a role in how an NBA player perceives the gay lifestyle?

John Amaechi: Excellent question, and yes. Popular culture has an impact on how people think, so I think certain aspects of popular culture play a role in how gay people are perceived.

I think it's the responsibility of the NBA to ensure that their partnership with people is congruent with their philosophy. We saw their relationship with Tim Hardaway wasn't congruent. And it's important to note that not all hip hop is homophobic, and there's gay hip hop, too.

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Bowie, Md.: Do you think any of your teammates or other players suspected? What did you do when topics such as women came up in conversation, or if the players wanted to hit gentlemen's clubs?

John Amaechi: Yes, I know people suspected and knew. When the conversation turned to women, I would listen -- I'm not blind, I recognize attractive, beautiful people whether they were male or female. But I'm also not misogynistic, and I've never been to a strip club, and I would never go there. Not to disparage the people who work there, but it makes me uncomfortable. Not because there are breasts in my face, but because there are dollars being stuffed in their g-strings.

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Salt Lake City: Hi John,

I just want to let you know that there's a fan out here in Salt Lake who doesn't care that you're gay. I've been saddened by some of the comments you've made about the Utah climate, though they are certainly understandable. I hope that climate here continues to change in the right direction, and perhaps your recent coming out will contribute in some way to that.

Cheers!

John Amaechi: Thanks -- I certainly think that despite a difficult relationship with the coaching staff in Utah, there are a great many things, including a great many friends who made my time in Utah very enjoyable.

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Lugano, Switzerland: When did you realize that you are gay, at what age?

John Amaechi: Nine or 10.

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Laurel, Md.: Knowing what you know now, if you could turn back the clock, would you have come out sooner?

John Amaechi: No -- I don't think there's any way of saying that. I think that I'm pretty pleased with the way this has worked and the discourse that has opened up, without disrupting my job and my teammates.

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John Amaechi: I want to thank people for taking the time to login and ask questions -- I'm sorry I couldn't get to more. I hope to see some of you at some of my signings (I'm at Lambda Rising Bookshop at 6:30 on March 2), whether you buy a book or not, it's always nice to talk to people.

Let's keep the conversation going.

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