Those youths identifying as LGBT are
more likely than their heterosexual
peers to experience feelings of
depression and low self-esteem.
Growing up within a society which
teaches them to hide, and even to
hate, their sexual orientation can be a
key factor in the increased instances
of academic failure, substance abuse
and suicide amongst members of this
Surviving these teenage years intact
and negotiating the coming-out process is better achieved when a LGBT individual has
support and understanding from peers, family and friends. Just as we should
acknowledge and respect the spectrum of different cultural backgrounds and religious
beliefs, we should also advocate an atmosphere where respect is given to all people
regardless of sexuality. Parents, families and educators can and should uphold their
moral obligation to offer children guidance on the true diversity that exists within society.
Schools and colleges need also to have in place policies which protect the welfare of all
students. These policies need to be vigorously upheld so that every student is shown
equal respect and support. Otherwise, there is likely to develop a sense of
disenfranchisement and a detachment from the learning experience, which will
inevitably result in poor achievement amongst this group of students.
www.ambiente.us MAY | MAYO 2009
NEVER BLEND IN | PART ONE
JOHN AMAECHI | RECOGNISING HIS SOUL IN THE DARK
Researched and Written by David Watters
The Deadliest of Sins
"Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well
-considered, and yet fervent public conviction that the most
deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit."
- Erik Erikson (1902-1994)
The transition through adolescence is challenging for many as this is a period where
identity is most vigorously being shaped. If, during this time, a young person realizes
that he/she is lesbian, gay, or bisexual the societal pressures can be amplified.
These teenagers live in a world where heterosexist values are dominant, where their
sexuality is perceived as deviant, where there is a potential for verbal or physical attack
and perhaps rejection by family and the wider community.
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As we move through our teenage years into adulthood we all need visible and positive
representations of ourselves in the media and society in general. It is necessary, not
just for the validation of each LGBT individual but for social progress that all cultures,
genders and sexualities are fairly represented.
In mainstream movies and television LGBT characters are, on the whole, written in an
inoffensive two-dimensional manner; the gay best friend being a staple favorite.
Programs such as Will & Grace took sitcoms into a new area where gays went from
mocked to self-mocking. Healthy as it might be to have a sense of humor about oneself,
the joke soon gets old. Perhaps, due to the nature of this genre, stereotyping is du jour
because accurate depictions of any group are simply not funny enough.
Thankfully, progress has been made in the area of serious television drama, with well
written shows such as The L Word and Brothers and Sisters, where LGBT characters
are given much more rounded identities and where their sexuality is not the sole focus.
This phenomenon is not unique only to the LGBT community; society as a whole is still
presented, through our television screens, in very simplistic, non-challenging terms.
We need to move beyond stereotypical and simplistic depictions, since these merely
touch the surface and limit our view of the true variety of characters which make up the
It is also vital that other sources of affirmation, validation and inspiration are available.
One key would be a greater visibility of LGBT role models who can present, through
example, a wider palate of career and lifestyle options.
Former NBA star, writer, broadcaster, internationally renowned speaker, member of
LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) Diversity Board,
sporting ambassador for Amnesty International, President of DSE (Disabled
Sports Events) and vice-President of EFDS (English Federation of Disability Sports),
John Amaechi, who now runs his company Amaechi Performance Systems (APS)
spoke with me recently about many of the points mentioned above, about his time with
the NBA, his best-selling book Man in the Middle, his role models and his thoughts on
how society can develop towards true equity.
Interviewed 27 April, 2009-
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?
“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
Would it have been impossible for you to have “come out” during your time with the
“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?
“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?
“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?
“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...
“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?
“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?
“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?
“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
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?
“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
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.
“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?
“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
I think that’s what has helped the discussion move forward...
“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.
“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?
“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?
“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. ”
We discuss where this use of the word came from.
“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...
“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
“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?
“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?
“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?
“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
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
“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
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.
“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
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?
“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?
“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?
“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
“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?
“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
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
“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?
“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?
“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
“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.
Neither Victim nor Villain
Identifying as LGBT need not, in itself, be an issue. What does impact upon someone
who identifies as LGB or T is the discrimination and/or oppression from and by society.
Portrayals or representations of homosexuals in the media also have a powerful effect
and a lack of family support can destroy the developing identity to a point where self-
esteem is low and true potential is not fulfilled.
We all have a moral duty to nurture and support our children, to understand their needs
and their vulnerabilities. If we fail in this obligation, the results, as we hear daily, can be
devastating; with children finding no better option than to harm themselves in order to
escape the intolerable despair resulting from perceived or actual rejection, religious
intolerance, harassment and a lack of any visible positive inspirational figures.
Openly gay and successful role model figures, such as John Amaechi, play an
enormous part in highlighting the wealth of possibilities available to young people.
Amaechi, like those who have inspired him, is successfully modelling
character traits such as determination, diligence, clear vision and a consistent effort to
improve and develop himself; such admirable qualities can only serve to inspire and
encourage the younger generation to lead a balanced, fulfilling and dignified life.
More information on John Amaechi can be found at: www.johnamaechi.com
CLICK HERE for more David Watters
David Watters is a freelance writer and teacher,
based in the UK, who is currently researching two
books, “Never Blend In: The Harvey Milk Legacy”
and a yet to be titled book on LGBT Role Models.
His research, which aims to highlight and tackle
the issue of teenage suicide and the
disenfranchisement felt by many LGBT individuals,
is supported by PFLAG, FFLAG (UK), The Trevor
Project, the Gay Police Association (GPA) and
Schools OUT (UK). Through interviews with a wide
range of prominent LGBT people, including those
who represent the great diversity within the artistic, political and sporting communities,
he hopes to guide readers toward the knowledge and belief that there are a variety of
paths which they may take in life and that there are many positive role models who can
inspire them to follow their aspirations. As Stephen Fry said, “ At all times, but
especially as an adolescent, you need to be told, “You are not alone” – there is no more
positive and euphoric feeling than the discovery that others, including people of
courage, genius, insight, passion, talent and charm felt the kind of feelings you feel.
Especially when society,
religion and the world tell you that those feelings are wrong.” Stuart Milk, nephew of
Harvey Milk and political activist, has said, “I love your work, which is vital to show the
richness of embracing and celebrating our wonderful diversity. As Harvey would say,
you’re bringing medicine into the world that the world needs! Thank you!” Those
interviewed so far include actor and writer Stephen Fry, Dan Nicoletta (LGBT civil rights
photographer and Milk protégé), Darren Hayes (Savage Garden), Ben Patrick Johnson
(Voice-over actor, author, and commentator/activist), Rich Overton (CEO, RJO Artist
Relations & Management), Del Shores (writer of Sordid Lives), Justin Reed Early (Writer
of Streetchild: An Unpaved Passage, who spent his childhood as a homeless youth on
the streets of Seattle and was a credited participant in the Academy Award-nominated
movie, STREETWISE), Herb Sosa (Community activist, Miami historian, preservationist,
freelance writer and President of Unity Coalition|Coalición Unida) and Marcus Patrick
who identifies as heterosexual but “bi-loving” said, “I love the depth of spirit. I like the
direction your questions are heading” and in response to the question “Have you ever
felt inspired to improve your life as a result of the example set by someone you
personally knew?” he added, “I always feel inspired by someone everyday. I think we
should learn something new each day from anywhere or anyone. I'm inspired right now,
by you, answering your intelligent questions Mr. David Watters. It's not often I get to
answer some great meaningful questions. Often it's always about sex or training. So
Copyright 2009|David Watters & Ambiente.
Do not reproduce without prior authorization.