Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay professional footballer. The homophobia and persecution he received for this cost him his life.
Justin and his brother, John, grew up in Norwich. His mother had placed them in Barnardo’s orphanage. She was a single parent with three more children. The two boys were adopted by a white couple and John recalls that the only other black people they saw were celebrities. They knew very little about their own race and were beaten up numerous times by their peers who knew even less. The boys realised that the only way they would succeed in life is to become strong and good at sport. They had never seen a black lawyer or doctor but there were plenty of black sportspeople.
Justin was seen as the more talented sportsman of the two, and tensions grew between him and his brother. He became the first black footballer to be sold for a fee of 1 million, and played for many English teams and the under 21 national team, scoring a total of 138 goals over 376 appearances. However, Justin’s sexuality was coming to the notice of the people around him, and it didn’t go down well. His manager, Brian Clough, chided him for “going to that poof’s club” and their relationship broke down. John felt terribly ashamed of his brother’s sexuality and offered to pay him to hide it. In his own words, he was a “red blooded African man” and thought that a gay brother was a threat to his “macho image”. I saw so many preconceptions in John’s words: black people must be macho; footballers must be macho; gay people can’t be macho; not being macho is bad; black people can’t be gay; being gay is bad; black people can’t be gay. Black footballers especially can’t be gay.
Justin’s defiant reaction was to take the money and go straight to the Sun newspaper to sell his story. “I am GAY. Justin Fashanu confesses!” screamed the headline, in a manner usually reserved for those who commit heinous crimes. Unsurprisingly, this did nothing for his career, and his demise was compounded by a knee injury. He flitted from club to club, never really settling. (From my perspective, his five games with Leyton Orient were the pinnacle of his career. Justin may not have agreed with this statement). His colourful private life and liaisons with a variety of men formed many a headline.
In 1998, while in the USA, Justin Fashanu was accused of rape. His accuser was a seventeen year old male. Justin vehemently insisted that the act was consensual and that the young man had blackmailed him, threatening to go to the police if Justin did not give him a large sum of money. Justin called his bluff, but it wasn’t a bluff and sure enough, the man went to the police. Even if Justin was believed, he would still have been breaking the law, because at that time any homosexual act was illegal in Maryland. The papers went to town on Justin, accusing him of rape and child abuse, laying down their verdicts before the trial had even started. He fled the US and a warrant was put out for his arrest.
On 3rd May, 1998, Justin Fashanu’s dead body was found hanging from a flex cord in a garage in Shoreditch. Realising that he would be found guilty and face a lifetime in jail, he had taken his own life.
How much has changed since Justin’s death? While there is no shortage of black footballers, there are fewer black managers and even fewer black fans. Racist incidents at football groups are sadly commonplace, with bananas being thrown at players and racist chants sung. And as for homophobia, not only was Justin Fashanu the first player to “come out”, he was also the last. But on the cobbles of Coronation Street, there is a glimmer of hope with the storyline of black, gay, teenage footballer James Bailey. After initially facing press intrusion into his sexuality and a complete lack of understanding from his father, James comes out to his teammates, flirts with local superstar Tommy Orpington, is accepted by all and picked for the first team, whereupon he sets Tommy up with a stunning goal and becomes the hero of the day. How I hope the next footballer to come out will have an experience that echoes James’ and not Justin’s.
Kick It Out are a charity who tackle racism and discrimination in football.