In 1990 Justin Fashanu stunned the football world as the first professional footballer to come out as gay. At this time racism and homophobia were endemic in football.
Justin’s early years
Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu was born on 19 February 1961. He was raised in the London area of Hackney, where his Nigerian father was a law student and his Guyanese mother a nurse. When he was a young boy, his parents split up and his father returned to Nigeria. His mother Pearl was unable to cope so Justin and his three siblings sent to Barnardo’s, a charitable British institution that prepares children for fostering and adoption.
Justin was six years old when Alf and Betty Jackson from Norfolk, agreed to foster the Fashanu brothers.
As a teenager Justin had been a promising boxer, he was a British Amateur Junior Heavyweight finalist when aged 14 and 15. He could have pursued this career a persistence scout at local football club, Norwich City persuaded him he could have a career in football. Justin was signed as an apprentice with Norwich City and spent his school holidays honing his skills with the pros. By the end of 1978, he turned professional.
Racism in football
Throughout the 1980s, black players in Britain were constantly subjected to racist abuse from the terraces. Monkey chants and bananas were hurled on to the field along with vile epithets. Despite the disgusting behaviour of football fans more black players made the grade for the biggest clubs and being chosen to represent the English national team.
Gay slurs at football matches were also common in this era. Terms such as “faggot”, “fairy” and “tart” were normal, along with other foul language and bigoted speech that was typical of English football crowds, and most sections of public culture, at the time. It simply would not have occurred to most fans of the game that a football player could actually be gay.
As a footballer, Justin Fashanu was a ground-breaker. In 1981 he became the country’s most expensive black player with his £1m move to Nottingham Forest. He endured a miserable season with the team, scoring only three goals while being subjected to extreme verbal abuse from club manager Brian Clough. During that season Fashanu became a born-again Christian and struggled the rest of his life to reconcile his religious beliefs and his sexuality.
Rumours of Fashanu frequenting gay bars in Nottingham rattled Clough. In his autobiography, Clough recounts confronting Fashanu about the whispers, “Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A bakers, I suppose.’ Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butchers.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poof’s club?’” Fashanu’s private life was now a matter of in-house mockery.
In 1982 Fashanu injured his right knee, and he was never able to play at the same level again. He moved to Brighton & Hove Albion FC in 1985, but his contract was cancelled in 1986, and he was advised to retire. Following an operation in Los Angeles, Fashanu played professionally in North America while unsuccessfully attempting a comeback in England.
In 1990, when a tabloid newspaper threatened to out him, Justin accepted their paltry payoff and gave them all the tawdry gossip they wanted to hear. The truth did not matter. Justin was the first to come out of the closet in a toxic era. He was never going to own his own truth. The story was published on October 22 under the headline “£1m Soccer Star: I am Gay.”
His brother John who was also a professional footballer confessed years later that he had offered Justin £75,000 to stay quiet and keep his sexuality to himself.
John Fashanu told the Daily Mirror newspaper: “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. Had he come out now, it would be a different ball game.
“There wouldn’t be an issue, but there was then. Things are different now. Now he’d be hailed a hero.”
After Justin came out John never spoke to him again.
Accusations and suicide
In 1998 Fashanu became a coach in Maryland, US. On March 25 of that year, he was accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old male. At that time homosexual acts were illegal in Maryland. Furthermore, the teenager stated that the act was not consensual. After being interviewed by the police, Fashanu returned to England. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and on 1 May Maryland authorities issued a statement noting that they wanted to interview Fashanu.
On the morning of 3 May 1998, Justin Fashanu was found dead. He had hung himself in a disused lock-up garage Shoreditch, East London, about a mile away from where he had been born in Hackney. He had spent the hour before his death at the Chariots Roman Spa, a local gay sauna.
His last words, in a suicide note, were: “I wish that I was more of a good son, brother, uncle and friend. But I tried my best this seems to be a really hard world.
“I hope that Jesus, that I love, welcomes me home. I will at last find peace… Being gay and a personality is so hard but everybody has it hard at the moment so I can’t complain about that.
“I want to die rather than put my friends and family through any more unhappiness.”
Fashanu is considered by many in the game as a pioneer. As the first black man to command a seven-figure fee and the first professional footballer to come out as gay, he broke through two ceilings at a time when football hooliganism was at its peak.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK. Other countries search Befrienders Worldwide for help in your area.