He was the world’s first openly gay professional footballer
London, UK – 19 October 2020
“Thirty years ago, on 22 October 1990, Justin Fashanu became the world’s first professional footballer to come out as gay. To this day, he’s the UK’s only top-tier male football star to declare his homosexuality while still playing in this country,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who was a close personal friend of Fashanu from 1981-85.
Mr Tatchell added:
“Justin was the first black player to be bought by a club for £1 million and the first widely known black person in Britain to come out as LGBT+. Other black personalities had previously come out but none had Justin’s high profile and national name recognition.
“Justin came out in The Sun newspaper, 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. He 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.’
“His brother, fellow footballer John Fashanu, disowned Justin in the black newspaper, The Voice: ‘John Fashanu: My gay brother is an outcast,’ ran the headline. John later admitted to offering Justin £75,000 to stay quiet and keep his sexuality secret. He told the Daily Mirror: ‘I begged him, I threatened him, I did everything I could possibly do to try and stop him coming out…I gave him the money because I didn’t want the embarrassment for me or my family.’
“Justin told me he was heartbroken by what he described as the ‘terrible’ things John said about him. He never got over what he saw as betrayal by the brother he loved,” said Mr Tatchell.
The reaction of the wider black community was just as bad. His coming out was condemned by the Voice as “an affront to the black community…damaging…pathetic and unforgiveable.”
“We heteros”, wrote 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.” Sewell only very recently apologised for those comments.
“Even if (Justin) 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 Times media columnist, Terry Sanderson, at the time. “Rejection by his own community was profoundly damaging to him.”
Although Justin later said that he “never once regretted” coming out, the hostile reaction from many in the black community hurt him deeply.
Mr Tatchell continued:
“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 denounced 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 denounced him. Justin later told the Voice: ‘Those who say that you can’t be black, gay and proud of it are ignorant.’
“Justin was blindsided by the backlash and the ‘heavy damage’ that coming out inflicted on his football career. He received homophobic abuse from some fans.
“Like many black footballers in those days, he was subjected to 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!’ is how his manager at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, described his star player. Although Justin laughed this off, Clough’s sneers hurt inside, making it hard for him to concentrate on scoring goals.
“Justin became erratic and unpredictable, on the pitch and off it. His sometimes bizarre, indefensible behaviour can only be fully understood in the context of a potentially brilliant football career cut short, largely by homophobia.” said Mr Tatchell