Life and legacy of first openly gay footballer

April 22, 2021

Collage by Angela Mascolo using cartoon of Justin Fashanu by David Shenton and background image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Angela Mascolo explores the history of the English game’s first player to come out, and progress made to tackle homophobia

In an age of Rainbow Laces, Pride Sports and LGBT+ fan groups, we could argue that football in the UK has never been more welcoming for LGBT+ people than it is now. However, it hasn’t always been like this. Over 30 years ago, Justin Fashanu came out as England’s first ever openly gay male footballer. Homophobia was rife in football terraces when he did so in the 1990s, and there have been significant efforts to tackle homophobia in football since.

Fashanu was the focus of a podcast I produced for my Masters in Public History. I first came across him when writing my final year dissertation during my undergraduate degree, which explored Black LGBT+ communities in Britain in the 1980s-90s and intersections of race and sexuality.

I was disappointed to discover that, despite being England’s first openly gay player and £1 million Black footballer, he did not appear to be a recognisable figure outside of football circles – not even within LGBT+ circles. None of my peers, LGBT+ and not, had ever heard of Justin Fashanu.

It was extremely difficult to be publicly gay in the macho, straight world of football

This inspired me to come back to him for my podcast, where I explore his life story and its significance for understanding the history of homophobia and racism in British football.

Justin Fashanu was born in 1961 in Hackney, the son of a Nigerian barrister and Guyanese nurse and the third of four children. His parents split when Fashanu was two. After his father moved back to Nigeria and his mother struggled to make ends meet, Fashanu and his younger brother, John, were sent to the children’s home Barnardo’s. Fashanu was six when Alf and Betty Jackson from Norfolk agreed to foster the Fashanu brothers.

Both excelled in football and Fashanu began his career as an apprentice with Norwich City. He signed as a professional in December 1978 and, within a month, made his league debut. Fashanu scored 35 goals in 90 appearances for Norwich City over the course of three seasons. His strike against Liverpool in February 1980 was voted BBC Goal of the Season and is still remembered as one of the greatest goals ever scored.

His performances were rewarded with a call-up to the England under-21 squad, where he scored five times in 11 games between 1980 and 1982. Fashanu also caught the eye of European champions Nottingham Forest. He joined Forest in 1981 to become England’s first £1 million Black player; a seminal moment for Black British history.

However, like many other Black footballers during this period, he was subjected to racist taunts by fans from rival teams who would make monkey noises and gestures and throw bananas onto the pitch. In my podcast, Exposure’s own Andreas Koumi describes his memories of this when watching Tottenham Hotspur matches, as well as the anti-Semitism in the period when Fashanu was playing (you can learn more about this history by watching Exposure’s documentary about Spurs called ‘Memory Lane’).

As well as dealing with racism, Fashanu was also a closeted gay man. It was extremely difficult to be publicly gay in the macho, straight world of football. In October 1990, fearing that he would be outed in the press, Fashanu revealed his sexuality in an interview with The Sun under the headline: ‘£1m soccer star: I am GAY’. In so doing, he became the first openly gay professional footballer in the UK.

In 1988 Section 28 prevented the promotion and teaching of homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship in schools

However, Thatcher’s Britain of the 80s and early 90s was a hostile environment for gay people, not least because of homophobic rhetoric around the AIDS crisis and the introduction of Section 28 in 1988, which prevented the promotion and teaching of homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship in schools.

In July 1991, a year after The Sun interview, Fashanu told Gay Times that he had not anticipated the backlash he suffered. He revealed that whilst he had received a lot of money to tell his story, people close to him had offered even more to keep his sexuality a secret, including his brother, John, himself now a professional footballer.

A week after Fashanu appeared in The Sun, John gave an interview to The Voice, the only British national Black newspaper in the UK, with the headline ‘My Gay Brother Is an Outcast’. John expressed incredulity with his brother’s sexuality. The Voice had also suggested that Fashanu’s coming out contributed to the lack of ‘positive images’ of Black people in British media at the time.

The controversy surrounding Fashanu, along with his diminishing goal-scoring abilities due to knee surgery, meant that few clubs were willing to sign him. Fashanu embarked on a new career in the late 1990s, coaching the US football team, Maryland Mania. But hopes of a fresh start were shattered when in April 1998 he was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy. Fashanu subsequently returned to Britain, stating he would not receive a fair trial because of his sexuality.

Only a handful of publicly gay male professional footballers have come out since Fashanu did in 1990

Of course, this was a problematic episode, considering the large age gap and power imbalance. Our idea of consent has changed significantly since that time. However, it is important to consider the homophobic climate that Fashanu lived and played football in, with the stereotypes of the ‘predatory’ gay man.

On the morning of 3rd May 1998, Justin Fashanu was found dead, having hung himself in an abandoned garage in East London. He had written a suicide note in which he denied the charges against him. Part of the note read: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”

Today, Fashanu is remembered not only as the first publicly gay professional footballer, but as one of a handful of prominent Black footballers of his era and an exceptional player.

In 2020, Fashanu was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame, housed at the National Football Museum in Manchester. The Hall of Fame celebrates the achievements of the all-time top footballing talents of the English game. At the National Football Museum, you can also find items from Fashanu’s playing career, including the shirt he wore during an England under-21 fixture.

Fashanu’s legacy lives on through the work of the Justin Campaign, founded in 2008 to raise awareness of homophobia in football through art, events, education and sport. Their material can be found in the Justin Campaign Archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Newcastle Football/Rainbow Laces ad (photo by Don Barrett on Flickr)

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bishopsgate Institute also holds the Justin Fashanu Goal of the Season scarf, donated by the Proud Canaries, Norwich City’s LGBT+ supporters’ group. The scarf was designed by cartoonist David Shenton, and marks the 40th anniversary of Fashanu’s Goal of the Season. It also honours Fashanu’s courage and determination to be out as a gay man in the hostile environment of football.

Fashanu’s legacy also lives on through his niece, Amal Fashanu (daughter of John). She has been an avid campaigner against homophobia in football since 2012 after creating an award-winning BBC documentary called ‘Britain’s Gay Footballers’. In 2019, Amal co-founded the Justin Fashanu Foundation to encourage positive discussions around racism and homophobia in football and their impact on mental health.

Despite these efforts to promote Fashanu’s legacy, only a handful of publicly gay male professional footballers have come out since Fashanu did in 1990. In February 2013, ex-US international Robbie Rogers came out as gay, and in so doing had to leave football.

There is clearly still a long way to go to make football safer for LGBT+ people, but there has no doubt been progress in tackling LGBT-phobia in football since the year Fashanu came out. LGBT+ supporter groups today such as the Proud Canaries, whose founder Di Cunningham features in my podcast, have played an important role in this.

Proud Canaries at the 2016 Pride in London parade (photo by Katy Blackwood)

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Proud Canaries launched in February 2014 at the Norwich City v Spurs match, the second officially recognised LGBT+ supporters’ group in England. In February 2020, Norwich City fans unfurled a 20m long banner (which the Goal of the Season scarf design is based on) at a Norwich City v Liverpool match to memorialise Fashanu’s spectacular strike in 1980 and celebrate his legacy.

Other LGBT+ supporter groups include the Proud Lilywhites for Tottenham Hotspur and Gay Gooners for Arsenal. You can find a full list of the UK’s LGBT+ football supporter groups here.

Fashanu’s legacy serves as an important reminder of how far football has come in creating a safer environment for LGBT+ players and fans, and what progress still needs to be made in UK football and around the world.

In particular, Fashanu’s life helps us understand the importance of intersectionality in sport and in the LGBT+ community. As Darryl Telles, author of ‘We’re Queer and We Should Be Here’, highlights in my podcast: “For Black LGBT people, we can’t divide ourselves. We can’t say one day we’re going to be anti-racist and the next day we’re going to be anti-homophobia.”

My podcast will be published online soon, where you can also hear my interviews with Andreas Koumi, Di Cunningham, Darryl Telles and Stefan Dickers (Archives Manager at the Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives).

Also check out the Proud Canaries’ Show Some Respect campaign with Norwich Pride.

Our thanks to Thrive LDN’s Right To Thrive grant scheme for making this project possible.

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