He made history back in 2007 when he spoke about his sexuality, and became the first NBA player to publicly come out. The 6ft 10in retired basketball player and New York Times best-selling author John Amaechi talked to MM about homophobia, his passion for psychology, about door policies on Canal Street, Manchester Pride and the Olympics.
You were the first NBA player to come out. Why did you do it and how did it feel?
In the States the situation for LGBT people was very different than here. For me it was a political as much as a personal thing. I wanted to shine a light on the issues and I felt like I had the right voice to do it.
How did it feel? Before that time, it was terrifying because some people can be quite extreme. All my family, all my friends, most of my team mates knew, so it was not a surprise for them. But it was a big story and it was a bit scary. I knew I would hear that small minority of society – it is a small minority but they speak very loudly.
You were subject to death threats…
I still occasionally get them. I got one recently actually. These people are cowards. They hide behind false emails and false Facebook pages. I never once met a person who stood up and said it in my face. Never once.
They think I am a threat to their worldview. They think that I am promoting homosexuality by simply existing.
Why do you think it is important that people speak out?
It is important for anybody who feels in inequality to speak out. The silence is what kills.
Vulnerable people – be it young people, LGBT people or just different people – aren’t just hurt by the tiny minority who speak out and say nasty things. They are hurt by the vast majority of people who call themselves reasonable, who call themselves progressive and open-minded. Yet when they hear the minority say hateful things, they don’t speak.
We hear a lot about words being used like poison. It is important to speak out so that words can be used as an antidote too.
How do you fight homophobia and how far have we come in fighting it?
As a society, we have come a long way. The problem is we have reached the point where progress has become advanced enough that it is frightening to bigots. Now they are digging their heels and fighting back.
It is a pivotal moment when we have to do more because otherwise we will end up like America where politicians are trying to push the country back.
How can we eradicate homophobia?
It is a function of education and a function of the economy. We know that the more educated people are, the more exposure to the world and the more understanding of history they have, the less likely they are to do terrible things, to judge people.
But at the same time when the economy struggles, when people are fighting to put food on their table, all prejudices creep back in. Now it is an especially important time because the economy is still flat at best and a lot of people are not getting the education they need.
Schools are ground zero for propagating the next generation of bigots. Only by inoculating the children in our schools can we change the next generation.
We have made a lot of progress when it comes to laws and legislations ensuring equality for the LGBT community. How about people’s mindset? In which direction is it shifting?
The mind set is shifting to a point where now bigots – whatever they are bigotting against, be it race, sexuality or gender – are under increasing pressure and that can make them crazier.
You can’t silence them but you have to rebut them. The government here stands at the same side whether is Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems, even UKIP. That really helps.
After your retirement from basketball, you took a new road – psychology. What attracted you to psychology?
I always wanted to be psychologist. I only started playing sport when I was seventeen and I knew I would be a psychologist when I was seven. So sport was just a distraction, it was temporary.
Does psychology help you understand your opponents?
It does help at many different levels not only in terms of diversity. The problem with psychology is that it does not necessarily take away the frustration of people disagreeing and actively moving against you, trying to sabotage you.
Many people just feel that they don’t like a person and they can’t put their finger on why. There is no basis in facts, it is just a sense of fear of what might happen if they came too close. That is the same as with many bigots. They don’t know why they hate strong women, why they hate black people or Muslims or gay people.
Unexplained hate and negative attitudes are often the root cause of homophobia. How would you change this?
You have to start by filling in the gaps for them. You try to pull out the bits of information that are just wrong – people who think that all gay people are paedophiles or all feminists hate men. You have to pull out all those things and then gently insert the correct image. Not through propaganda, but just gently show people the truth and that they don’t have anything to fear from the truth. That is a difficult journey.
What is your experience with door policies on Manchester’s Canal Street?
My experience is generally positive. But very famously, once I was rejected from the door of a bar – Crunch bar in Canal Street, which is closing.
I think there is a difficult balance here. Originally, Canal Street existed because these people were not welcome anywhere else. Therefore, there are many of the long-standing owners of venues on Canal Street who say I want to make sure that the people who come here always feel safe. Ten years ago there was a whole spate of incidents when straight men wanted to fight in order to get into the bar.
It is a very difficult thing to ensure that only supportive people come in. But we have to make sure we don’t profile.
You are one of the patrons of Manchester Pride. What do you like about it?
It creates a crazy but nonetheless an existential, real sense of community. It really feels like you are locked in this big ball of craziness, music, fun and noise. It’s crazy!
I also like the fact that it is the only Pride in England that makes any money. There is a considerable amount of money for organisations – some of them would not have been able to continue. It never feels to me like a half-paid effort.
What do you expect from London 2012 Olympics?
I am sure that the medal table and the gold medal table will be reached or very nearly reached because a massive amount of money has been invested.
But I don’t think there will be any particular massive legacy from the games outside from some really important business things. Great work has been done with all the Olympic partners to bring them up to a new level and a new standard in terms of employee diversity, supplier diversity. That’s brilliant.
But in terms of getting two million people to play sport, which was the original goal, that’s not going to happen. It will be a fun show though, an expensive fun show.
What are your next big plans?
I would like to build another centre and at the moment I am trying to find funding. It is a terrible time to be trying to raise money. But I think I can do something towards the end of this year.
I am also working to be involved more politically. A friend of mine is in the House of Lords and I would not mind going there. I want to be involved in the process and not just yell from the sideline.
You have travelled the world. What is the key thing that you learned?
I encourage people to look at people with benign ignorance. Every time you see a person, imagine you don’t know anything about them. I encourage people to be inquisitive, ask questions and want to know.
Most of the time when we look at someone we build up a picture before even talking to them – by their car, the way they dressed, the house they come from, the job they have... Often, we don’t even bother learning about who they actually are.
I know that when I put this hoodie up, people who might otherwise come to me and shake my hand, will literally cross the street. Because a black person in a hoodie means something. It does not matter if it is John.
So benign ignorance.