OPINION: Remembering football star Justin Fashanu, 30 years after he came out

by Peter Tatchell | Peter Tatchell Foundation
Thursday, 22 October 2020 00:15 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Justin Fashanu of Norwich City on the attack. Credit: Action Images / Reuters

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

British footballer Justin Fashanu came out as gay on 22 October 1990, but no top professional male players have followed his lead since

Thirty years ago, on 22 October 1990, something extraordinary happened.

British footballer Justin Fashanu became the world’s first professional player to come out as gay. Shockingly, in the three decades since, not a single top-league male football star still playing in the UK, has followed his example. Of the estimated 500 gay and bisexual professional players, all have remained closeted.  

A star goal scorer in his teens, Fashanu made history as the first Black player to be bought by a UK club for £1 million. He was also the first widely known Black person in Britain to come out as gay. Other Black personalities had previously come out, but none had Fashanu’s national name recognition.

Controversially, he came out in the British newspaper, the Sun, under the headline: “£1m soccer star: I am GAY.” He said he wanted to stop “living a lie” and was distressed by the suicide of a 17-year-old who’d been thrown out of his family home by homophobic parents.

Fashanu wrote in the book, “Stonewall 25”: “I felt angry at the waste of his life and guilty because I had not been able to help him. I wanted to do something positive to stop such deaths happening again, so I decided to set an example and come out in the papers.”

Fashanu said he chose to come out in the Sun because it was read by football fans and homophobes. He wanted to educate them about LGBT+ issues.

But he suffered a terrible backlash. Even his brother, fellow footballer John Fashanu, disowned him: “My gay brother is an outcast,” he declared.

FILE PHOTO: Justin Fashanu - Norwich City. Credit: Action Images / Reuters

John later admitted to offering Justin £75,000 to keep his sexuality secret: “I gave him the money because I didn’t want the embarrassment for me or my family.”

The reaction of the wider Black community was no better. Fashanu’s coming out was denounced by the Black newspaper, the Voice, as “an affront to the Black community... damaging... pathetic and unforgiveable”.

Voice columnist Tony Sewell wrote: “We heteros are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty."

Sewell, who now heads the British government's commission on race and ethnic disparities, has subsequently apologised for his remarks, saying he had been "wrong and offensive".

Although Fashanu later said that he "never once regretted" coming out, the homophobic reaction of many in the Black community hurt him deeply.

Justin Fashanu and I were close friends.

He told me that since Black people knew the pain of racial prejudice and discrimination, he expected they’d be understanding and supportive. Some were, but many condemned him for bringing “shame” on their race. As far as I recall, not a single Black public figure supported his coming out or condemned the Voice and others in the community who trashed him.

Despite the deluge of abuse, Fashanu remained defiant and later told the Voice: “Those who say that you can’t be Black, gay and proud of it are ignorant.”

Nevertheless, he was blindsided by the backlash and the “heavy damage” that coming out inflicted on his football career. Like many Black players in those days, he was subjected to racist taunts by fans from rival teams. But it was anti-gay prejudice that ultimately dragged him down.

"A bloody poof!” is how Fashanu’s manager at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, described his star player. Although Fashanu laughed this off, Clough's sneers hurt inside, making it hard for him to concentrate on scoring goals.

Fashanu’s performance on the pitch went into a downward spiral. His sometimes erratic, reckless and indefensible behaviour can only be fully understood in the context of a potentially brilliant football career cut short, largely by homophobia.

Tragically, he committed suicide in 1998, aged 37. May he rest in peace at last.

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