As a new campaign launches to fight homophobia in English football, it’s a good time to remember Justin Fashanu, the first footballer in England to come out. The child of Nigerian and Guyanese parents, Fashanu was also the first black player to have a £1 million transfer.
What follows is a brilliant and moving article written by the great activist Peter Tatchell back in 1998, shortly after Fashanu’s death:
Justin Fashanu was a trail-blazer. He was Britain’s first million pound black footballer, and the first (and only) professional player in Britain to come out as gay.
But trail-blazing cost him plenty of heartache. In 1980, aged 19, he was signed to Nottingham Forest football club for £1 million. The expectations of Justin were huge. There was the pressure to deliver goals and to become a black spokesperson. He found his sudden celebrity-status both a flattery and a great burden.
Back then, in 1980, Justin was not open about his homosexuality. Indeed, he didn’t come out until 10 years later. During that decade of closeted double-life, he found it immensely difficult to cope with the strain of hiding his gayness in the macho world of football - not to mention the stress of living a secret gay life while constantly in the media spotlight.
Homophobia was not his only problem. Like many black footballers in those days, Justin suffered racism too. He was subjected to frequent racist taunts by fans from rival teams. They would make monkey noises and gestures, and throw bananas onto the pitch. But it was anti-gay prejudice that ultimately dragged him down.
"A bloody poof!" That’s how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described his £1 million star player, Justin Fashanu. Homophobic attitudes like that unsettled Justin. Although he laughed them off, Clough’s sneers hurt inside, making it hard for him to concentrate on playing ‘the beautiful game’. No wonder his football career nose-dived.
Justin and I met at the London gay night-club Heaven in 1981, soon after he realised he was gay. I had been selected as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, and he had recently transferred from Norwich to Nottingham Forest. We became good friends for the next ten years.
During that time, Fashanu confided to me about the problems he was having at Nottingham Forest. “Clough doesn’t respect or support me”, Justin complained more than once. Although Fashanu was not at that stage open about being gay, Clough appears to have long suspected he was a “poof”.
In his autobiography, Clough recounts a dressing down he gave Fashanu after hearing rumours that he was going to gay bars. “‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose’. ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s’. ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”’
In that hostile, stressful atmosphere, anyone’s performance would suffer. Unsurprisingly, Justin failed to score goals.
The pressure Fashanu was under from Clough made it extra hard to come to terms with his sexuality. When we first became friends, he was only 20 and just starting to realise he was gay. Justin had considerable difficulty in accepting his sexual orientation, but through our talks - often late at night on the phone from his hotel in Nottingham - he began to feel good about his gayness.
Although he had not publicly declared his homosexuality in the early 1980s, I was already partly out. Despite the evident risk of his own exposure by association, Fashanu thought nothing of going out with me to night-clubs, parties, family celebrations and high-profile events where he was the guest of honour. He knew journalists and photographers would be there. It was almost as if he wanted to be outed by the press to end the pretence and pressure of leading a secretive double-life.
All this was happening in the run-up to the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, when I was standing for election to parliament. I, too, was in the media spotlight; with prominent press reports about my advocacy of lesbian and gay human rights. Indeed, I was often tailed by tabloid journalists eager for a scoop on my private life. Justin was, to his great credit, determined that our friendship would not be compromised by the threat of newspaper exposure. I was more cautious and protective. So, when we planned a night out together, I resorted to devious means to lose the tabloid reporters that often trailed me. They never did catch us.
Around late 1982, Justin seriously considered coming out. He was fed up living a lie. We talked through the pros and cons many times. It was I who advised him to wait until he (hopefully) sorted out his problems with Brian Clough and got his football career more firmly established.
Sadly, the clash with Clough was not resolved. Their relationship turned from bad to worse. Justin’s performance went into a tail-spin. With no long-term gay partner, he was desperate for emotional reassurance. He turned to evangelical Christianity. Although that did give him a period of stability, it didn’t last.
Becoming a born-again Christian screwed up his life. With his Church damning homosexuality, he became very confused and unhappy about his sexual feelings. Desperate attempts at relationships with women failed. His longing for the love of men never went away. While publicly proclaiming Christian celibacy, he ended up resorting to furtive gay sex. That made it impossible for him to have a stable gay relationship. Caught between God and gayness, he suffered terrible emotional and psychological turmoil.
The combined homophobia of the football profession and Christian fundamentalism was an unbearable strain, sending Justin’s career into free-fall. Things were made worse by a knee injury that would not heal (the pressure he was under may well have compromised his immune system and contributed to the lingering infection). He became erratic and unpredictable, on the pitch and off it.
His major league football career was already over when Fashanu finally came out in 1990. He was distressed by the tragedy of a 17-year-old gay friend who had been thrown out of his family home by homophobic parents, and who subsequently committed suicide. “I felt angry at the waste of his life and guilty because I had not been able to help him”, Fashanu wrote in the book Stonewall 25. “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”.
Justin was the first and last professional footballer to be open about his homosexuality. That took courage. Others have not shown similar honesty and bravery. At the time, he and I knew of 12 top footballers who were either gay or bisexual. None have followed Fashanu’s example of openness.
Although he later said that he “never once regretted” coming out, the hostile reaction from many in the black community hurt him deeply. He thought that his fellow black people - who know the pain of prejudice and discrimination - would be understanding and supportive. Some were, but many denounced him for bringing “shame” on their race. Still, to this day, Justin is the only prominent black person in Britain to come out as gay.
The manner in which Justin came out in The Sun newspaper was condemned by the black weekly, The Voice, as “an affront to the black community…damaging…pathetic and unforgiveable”.
"We heteros", wrote The Voice columnist Tony Sewell, "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".
"Even if Fashanu had chosen to come out in The Voice rather than The Sun, I doubt his reception would have been any more sympathetic", noted Gay Timesmedia columnist, Terry Sanderson. "Rejection by his own community was profoundly damaging to him".
Even worse was to follow. Justin’s own brother John publicly denounced him: “My gay brother is an outcast”, John told The Voice. Although John later apologised, Justin never fully got over what he saw as betrayal by a brother he loved. Who can blame him for confiding that there were moments during his coming out saga when he felt “incredibly, almost suicidally, lonely”.
Fashanu’s sometimes bizarre, indefensible behaviour can only be fully understood in the context of a potentially brilliant football career cut short, largely by homophobia.
There can be no denying that he progressively disappointed many people who put their hope and trust in him as a role model. He became trapped in a downward spiral of declining football performance, bad debts, false claims about sexual affairs with leading politicians, unreliability and desertion of long-standing friends.
At the time of his death, Justin had embarked on a new career coaching the US football team, Maryland Mania. The team president, A J Ali, is quoted as saying that Fashanu was “happy here”: “He had lots of friends here. He was helping literally thousands of players. He had a tremendous amount to offer the soccer world”.
Those hopes were shattered in April 1998 when a warrant was issued for Justin’s arrest on charges of sexual assault against a 17 year old youth. Fashanu’s suicide note denied the charges, claiming that he was being blackmailed by his accuser.
Whatever the truth about these particular allegations, Justin had - like all of us - his share of failings. Without excusing these mistakes, they were the culmination of a lifetime of rejection. That rejection began when, as a young boy, he was given up by his parents and put in a Barnardo’s Children’s Home. It was compounded by the racist jibes he suffered on the football pitch, and by the homophobic abuse inflicted on him at Nottingham Forest by his manager Brian Clough. When he turned to the Church for solace, it piled on more rejection, condemning his gay lifestyle and demanding that he renounce his sexuality. Then, when he came out as gay, he was rejected by much of his own black community, including his dearly beloved brother, John. Not one prominent black leader supported Justin when he was being crucified in the black press.
Nevertheless, despite all the rejection he endured, Justin had a remarkable, praiseworthy capacity for forgiveness. Talking of the hurt inflicted on him by others, and acknowledging his own errors of judgement, Fashanu wrote in 1994: “I don’t think you ever forget those mistakes, or the mistakes that other people make that wound you, but it is important to forgive”.
Justin Fashanu was a bright shining star - not a flawless star - but a star nonetheless. And I am proud to have counted him as my friend.