Football and Homophobia : The Tragedy of Justin Fashanu


This is a special article about Justin Fashanu, who will remain as one of the most significant characters Football has ever seen.

When Barcelona’s attacking star Luis Suarez mocked Atletico Madrid left back Phillipe Luis for posting a picture of the Brazilian’s injured foot in social media after the match, by calling football “a man’s game’’, what the Uruguyan international insisted was the concept of masculinity associated with the game. This factor deliberately propagates gender stereotyping. Moreover the construct of heteronormative consciousness within the football culture prevents a footballing person to express his or her sexual orientation publicly if it is otherwise. A player’s participation with homosexual identity in ‘The beautiful game’ is still considered to be a grave problem. The culture that the game has nourished has been strictly homophobic.

However a recent poll arranged by BBC Radio 5 Live Survey has revealed that Britain’s football supporters apparently have progressed mentally and psychologically as their opinions convey that 82% of the supporters have no issues if their clubs sign gay players and 71% think that the clubs must try to educate the fans about homophobia; 8% remain hostile to gay players.

Last week, FA chairman Greg Clarke expressed his fear that if they encourage gay players to come out with their identity publicly, they may face significant abuse. He said, “If they want to take that risk I would respect them and support them. But we can’t promise to provide them at the moment with the required protection. We need to redouble our efforts to provide that safe space.” This context immediately brings everyone back to the incident of coming out of Justin Fashanu, the only professional player in men’s football to come out publicly while playing, to declare himself as a gay in 1990. But the consequences he had to face for his whole life till his act of committing suicide at the age of 37, brought out the sordid reality of the world.

Justin Fashanu was born in inner-city London. He was the son of a Nigerian barrister and Guyanese nurse. Justin and his younger brother, John, were sent to Barnardo’s, a charitable British institution that takes care of children for fostering and adoption. Initially a promising heavyweight boxer, Justin turned into a promising football player when Norwich City scouted him. Fashanu made his debut against West Bromwich Albion, a team that started with black people to voice against persistent racism in England. However, Fashanu’s brilliant goal against Liverpool, one of the dominant clubs then in Europe, brought him into the limelight.

The forward was later bought by Nottingham Forest, another dominant club in European and English football, for a record 1 million pound transfer fee and he became the first black player to be transferred with such amount. For Norwich City he scored 35 goals in 90 appearances. Such dazzling performance by a youngster was rewarded as he got Under-21 International cap and scored 5 times in 11 under-21 international appearances between 1980 and 1982. He was a rugged striker with gifted skills, decent finishing and power.

However Fashanu’s stint at Nottingham Forest was disastrous. He managed to score only thrice in 32 games for forest and was sold to Notts Country a season later for a meagre fee. He seemed to have lost his focus from football as he looked detached from the game in the field. He was subjected to racist slants and gay slurs together. Moreover his relationship with the Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough was not a healthy one and it affected the youngster’s game. Clough reacted angrily to the rumours of Fashanu’s visiting of gay clubs. In his autobiography Clough wrote about their conversation:  “’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 poof’s club?’”

Davy Lane wrote in ‘The Life and Death of Justin Fashanu’, “It simply would not have occurred to most followers of the game that a soccer player could actually be gay”. English crowd used to jeer with every possible abusive language.

Justin suffered a knee injury at Notts County and his future in football career was almost determined with that. Once destined to be an excellent player, he couldn’t settle for any club and floated from England to America.

Peter Tatchell, Justin’s friend, an activist of Human Rights, LGBTI freedom wrote, “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.”

Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 to proclaim that he was Gay. The news spread through The Sun, the most unsympathetic and gossiping newspaper and the reaction was hostile, especially from black people. Black weekly The Voice wrote, ”Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty”. Even Justin didn’t get the support of his own brother John, who later became a successful football player and Nigerian football star. His interview was headlined in The Voice, “John Fashanu: My gay brother is an outcast.”

Tatchell wrote about Fashanu’s coming out: “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”. Tatchell claimed they both knew almost 12 gay players who couldn’t show courage to come out.

In 1998 Fashanu was coaching a US based team Maryland Mania. But a sudden warrant of sexual assault on a 17 year youth saw Justin Fashanu committing suicide. His suicide note denied the charge and said it was a blackmailing attempt. His last words were “I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me home.”

Thus died Justin Fashanu, once an aspirant and promising talent in professional football. During his entire career he was subjected to racism, exclusion from football team, exclusion from family and community and the society due to his sexual orientation. Despite all such hostilities of the world, he 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”.

Time will tell whether football, the beautiful game, can remain beautiful its followers but undoubtedly Justin Fashanu will be remembered forever for stepping up and giving the world a message just as Casey Stoney, England’s Women’s team’s captain evoked after coming out two decades later, “A person’s sexuality is never at the forefront of anybody’s agenda or thought processes anyway, so it’s just been about what they do on the pitch and what sort of person they are, not who they are going with.”

Photo by Kiwicanary