RECOGNISING HIS SOUL IN THE DARK
JOHN AMAECHI INTERVIEW
Monday, 27 April 2009
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Personally and Professionally what challenges have you faced, particularly during your time with the NBA, what compromises did you have to make in your personal life at that time?
JOHN: Playing in the NBA, like many jobs in America, is not basically compatible with being a Gay person.” John then adds that it is still possible to be fired in the US for having a non-normative sexual orientation and that there are “a great majority of LGBT people who simply do not disclose their sexuality or don’t really have a social life outside of work.
Would it have been impossible for you to have “come out” during your time with the NBA?
JOHN: I think so. I wasn’t a superstar by any means and I don’t think that I would have been protected, certainly according to the law, I wouldn’t have had any legal protection or standing. So, to me, it was too big a risk to take.
In 2007, why was it important then to disclose your sexuality? Was this because you had retired at that point from the NBA?
JOHN: It was a political thing as much as anything else, to decide to have a conversation that hadn’t really been had in America regarding these workplace issues. The fairness, the equity of having people who must choose between their vocation and their social life.
What was the response initially?
JOHN: An outpouring of very positive messages from people in general. Within the sport, a number of people said very nice things about me to the newspapers; players and coaches, but there was also a very vehement, outspoken minority who made it very clear that they didn’t approve.
I was aware of Tim Hardaway’s homophobic comments at the time and wondered if John even wanted to discuss this anymore. I asked, were Hardaway’s comments reflective of a general feeling within the sports world?
JOHN: No, no I don’t think his comments were reflective of a general feeling within the sports world. He said things that a minority, a very vocal minority, of people wanted to say. If anything, he was a spokesman of that tiny minority. That wasn’t the majority of the messages that I received.
I’ve heard you speak about the impact that those sort of comments can have on Lesbian and Gay youths…
JOHN: Yes, indeed and it’s not just about LGBT people. That message has emboldened other bigots and also people who are perceived as being different in lots of different ways find themselves marginalized and under attack as well. As we’ve seen tragically recently with two 11 year old boys in America who killed themselves. There is no particular evidence that either of these two were gay but simply the perception that they were effeminate or whatever else led to their persecution.
Did you receive good feedback from readers of your book, Man in the Middle?
JOHN: Absolutely. A lot of people read it in a rounded way which is what I would have wanted.
The feedback from readers has been positive. It has had an impact on their lives. Did you get any emails or letters from people that you feel you might have helped by writing your book?
JOHN: It’s been people from all walks of life; people from the military, a lot of people from sport…a lot of people who are setting out to do extraordinary and very difficult things, the book resonates with them.
Was it a cathartic thing to document your experiences?
JOHN: It wasn’t particularly cathartic. It was a hard slog in the midst of trying to do my work. To go through the process of recalling and trying to order my thoughts of 16, 17 years ago. I think it was a valuable experience to do it and I think that the product is one that I can be proud of.
Do you think it is important for sports figures, musicians, politicians to come out at the height of their careers. Perhaps to set an example of how successful you can be in this world and does this benefit the LGBT community?
JOHN: I think having more role models is better. I think the idea that if everybody in these top positions came out all at once would be a tremendous thing. There’s an element of truth to that in an “Am I Blue?” type of way. The problem is, when it’s just ten people there’s the tall poppy syndrome where I think we’d end up with a lot of martyrs. It shouldn’t take people losing their lives or even losing their jobs and, to me, the idea that a sportsperson would make, you know a football player in Britain or a basketball player in America would make people change their minds about homophobia seems absurd to me. When we’ve had young people killing themselves on a daily basis. The evidence of that is in newspapers and on the web every day and yet that seems not to pluck at the heartstrings of society. If the death of an innocent doesn’t do it then why would a gay football player?
I wondered if showing a greater diversity of gay people might help to show that there’s a balance there and not necessarily the stereotypes that are shown in the media.
JOHN: Again, that doesn’t change the fact that if that person then comes out and loses their endorsements, team-mates react badly…what message does that send?
Your “coming out” did facilitate an enormous amount of public discussion on the subject of sexuality and sport. Is that what you’d anticipated at the time?
JOHN: Yes, it was important but also in a way whether it be because of my background or because of my career in psychology I felt very equipped to handle whatever came. And not all people will feel so equipped. Not all football players or barristers or whatever profession we’re talking about will feel as able to explain themselves, to stand up for their position. I managed to maintain the conversation above the beltline and keep it somewhat cerebral.
I think that’s what has helped the discussion move forward…
JOHN: What happens if it is your favourite football player who perhaps is not as good at making that same point?
That’s right. It has to be done eloquently and with a level head; more cerebral, seeing different perspectives and trying to understand where other people are coming from in their perceptions, which is what you have done in previous interviews.
JOHN: Not always successfully. There have definitely been points where I’ve been pushed past irritation and not handled myself as well as I would have liked. It’s a far more difficult task than most people imagine.
Did you become a broadcaster and writer in order to speak out about the homophobia which prevails in society? Was this the main motivation and are there other reasons why you have gone into this area of work?
JOHN: The work I do with APS, my company, is far more broad and the work in the media is far more broad. I’m also black, I have a Nigerian father, mixed race, 6’ 9”…there are so many other factors; identity is more nuance than the media will allow us necessarily to say. The idea that my one sole purpose would be to tell people that homophobia is the most important of issues, above racism, above misogyny…I treat all the heads of this monster as equally reprehensible.
Has society moved forward with regards to racism and sexism?
JOHN: No, bigots have become more sophisticated. You can no longer put a little tag on the corner of a CV that suggests that, “this person is from Jamaica”, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are huge discrepancies in hiring and in pay for black people versus white. It doesn’t explain the fact, especially with this new legislation for medium to large size businesses, people will be shocked when they see the discrepancy in pay between women and men.
It all has to be addressed. People love to make a hierarchy and decide which bits are most important to address. If there’s an organisation out there that does work for equality, if they decide that one area is more important to tackle they are implicitly saying that another is less important.
You can’t say the “N” word. We’ve seen it in schools. You can’t say the “N” word in school without a teacher then having you pulled up, suspended and possibly excluded. But “Gay” is du jour; photocopiers are gay, textbooks are gay, homework is gay. The implicit message that they get, young people who get away with saying that amongst other things, is that that’s okay.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
We discuss where this use of the word came from.
JOHN: It’s clear where that came from. A word doesn’t get associated with everything bad, awful, wrong, terrible, anything derogatory you can think of without the people that the word represents being seen in that light too. Let’s not pretend it’s some kind of organic natural evolution of this word on it’s own. It is the likes of Chris Moyles, it is the likes of these people in the media as well popularising that terminology. It is also the fault of all of us that every time that word is used in the incorrect way we don’t say, “Hey, that’s not the correct word to use”. If you mean you hate this homework because it’s difficult, because you think it’s unfair, because you think you haven’t got the material right, then say that.
So, it’s laziness in the use of language…
JOHN: It’s not just laziness. It’s also the fact that if you are a white person who stands up for black people, people look at you as bold and you’ve got a sense of credibility about yourself, if you are a man who stands up for a woman, you’re seen as progressive and bold and probably eminently more dateable most likely! But, if you are a straight person who stands up for a gay person, none of those things apply. You’re just, all of a sudden, suspected of being gay.
Who were your role models as you were growing up and did you have any mentors perhaps?
JOHN: My mother, would be my most basic answer to that.
Why was that, what was it about your mother’s character that has made her a role model to you?
JOHN: I saw the way that people responded to her. She was a well-loved General Practitioner in Stockport and I used to go on visits with her and watch how she interacted with her patients, spent time and took a great deal of care not just in their medical history but in a pastoral care sense. Also the fact that she coped against enormous pressure and difficulties, a life that was very challenging and yet she always seemed to manage to come out on top.
That certainly comes across when I’ve seen you being interviewed. There’s that character trait which comes across, there’s an empathy, an understanding of the wider world and the individuals within it. Is that what you mean about your mother and the care that she would give to patients, that additional care that not all GP’s necessarily put into place?
JOHN: Yeah. For me it was very clear that she felt that it was a huge part of her job to make sure that people felt safe, more able to cope and more in control.
Which other role models would you have beyond family?
JOHN: Oh yes, there’s a basketball coach, a man called Joe Forber who runs my centre in Manchester. Then I’ve been very lucky in a sense that I’ve chosen well the coaches that I’ve had over time, certainly in the amateur settings while I was in university and High School in America as well. With both the additional coaches I had in University and High School in America, along with Joe, I’ve had a very good example of diligence and hard work and consistent effort…and also a well-rounded picture; I never had a coach at that point in the amateur ranks who didn’t totally endorse my idea that being great at basketball and not being great at anything else would be a real waste. I didn’t have any coach who scoffed at the idea of academic excellence going hand in hand with sporting prowess.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about how basketball was something that you did that had value and has value but you’d always known that you wanted to study psychology.
JOHN: Precisely. I think one of the huge mistakes and certainly the downfalls, the pitfalls in sport is when people’s occupation becomes their definition. I think it’s just a recipe for disaster.
We have to be fully rounded people and, not to have a back up plan but, to have more to you that you have options in life, different choices in life that you can make. Certainly in sports, the career won’t last forever.
JOHN: Yes, for sure, and even if it did last for a good long time, there’s still an element of what you do after that. If it lasts for a good long time, that could still only be for 10 years, or 15 years.
Can you remember a specific time in your life when an adult said or did something which changed you for the better, something which changed your perceptions of yourself or what you aspired to do with you life?
JOHN: Yes. Several. Certainly when I first said to my mother about going to America and playing basketball she asked me if I would recognise my soul in the dark.
What did she mean by this?
JOHN: That most people never know anything beyond the trappings of themselves. They don’t know who they are at their core. They know themselves by their labels, by their relationships with other people, by their job titles and descriptions, by the clothes they wear, their physical appearance is how they define themselves. Soul in the dark is a question of would you recognise yourself stripped of that?
Why is it important, do you think, for young people to have role models?
JOHN: One of the things about a person who is trying to achieve a goal that is difficult is that they need visibility…where standard goal setting doesn’t work if the distance from your goal is really huge. If someone has come from a very impoverished background and is trying to do something extraordinary, the more difficult a journey one is going on the more visible an image of what you what to achieve you need. Inspiration and also to see that it’s possible. That’s why role models are valuable. Like in America, Barak Obama is such an important figure because he shows people that what was previously thought impossible is doable.
There certainly is a move forward in American society that an African-American can be elected.
JOHN: Oh, definitely a step in the right direction. We have to be careful about getting too self-congratulatory about it. There are still an element of people who are straining themselves to pat themselves on the back. “We elected him despite the fact that he is black” is not necessarily any more healthy than not electing him.
No, and making an issue of that…I know that this was a landmark in the history of America…it’s making an issue of that part of who he is and not, like you say, seeing his soul in the dark. What is he really made up of, what is the core of that man?
JOHN: I think he is remarkable because he is an intellect, he understands nuance and you could almost say for the last 25 years there’s not been someone in the White House who understands and embraces nuance, who understands that not giving them a 10 word sound bite answer is not a crime. I would suggest that he is not just a role model for black kids in America, he is a role model for any number of people; the kid who is being picked on because he is interested in science and politics in school or whatever else.
Are we beginning to see a greater diversity of characters in the media, not just with regards to LGBT characters but with ethnic minorities and so on…are we getting away from stereotypes?
JOHN: It is growing. I think the reality is that you still see, in most cases, people defined by their interest. So, most of the black people within the BBC are either in sports or they are on One Extra, Five Live or the Urban channels. Look at television and the representation of LGBT people, there aren’t that many examples.
What would you say to a family who are finding it hard to come to terms with a child who has recently come out?
JOHN: There are two sides to this. The young person’s side is that, I would say – remember patience with your family, even if their knee-jerk reaction is one which really disappoints, remember patience because just as coming out has a gestation period (for some people it’s a couple of days and then BOOM they’re ready, for other people years), parents and families have a process to go through too, we should give them a bit of leeway to work through things by giving them as much information as they need, by being very patient and helping them come to conclusions.
That’s right. The person who is coming-out has had time to think and reflect upon their sexuality, whereas for the family this is a brand new piece of information. What advice would you offer to a young person who is struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation?
JOHN: What they need to do is reach out and find a resource, a support person or network that can offer them a soundboard. Not necessarily to tell them anything specific; someone or some network where you can talk out your thoughts and ideas and your fears and your worries and have someone compassionate and understanding be on the other end of that. It’s very important for people to find a connection, to share their burden. This is applicable in many different circumstances, certainly with coming out.
Do you think that society is moving forward? I know that we’ve spoken about the use of the “gay” word but do you think that society is moving forward, particularly the younger generation in how they see people who may be different to themselves?
JOHN: I think society is moving forwards and young people are definitely a different commodity when it comes to looking at differences, regardless of what they are. The main problem with that, however, is that young people have relatively a lot less power in society and that power is still concentrated in a lot of people who haven’t really changed over the last 30 years, or even 20 years. When you are thinking about societal change, a lot of times people tell you to be patient because what they are suggesting is what we should do is wait for these bigots to die…and I don’t think that’s a terribly proactive option.
The reason that Obama used the word “Change” in his campaign is that it is so much more evocative and meaningful than “Progress”. What we are talking about here is progress. There’s been a lot of progress over the last 10 or 20 years but when that progress becomes tangible to the majority, then we can start looking at it as something monumental and noteworthy. Progress is just progress whilst children hang themselves because they get bullied at school and teachers don’t intervene, or don’t intervene enough. If the job of the teacher is to educate, then it is also to make sure that the atmosphere in the school is conducive to education and, clearly, if you feel victimized, if you feel unsafe, if you don’t feel emotionally protected then it doesn’t matter how brilliant your teachers are, you will not learn.
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