1990 was an historical year for the UK. Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation as British PM after John Major was chosen to lead the country and conservative party. Poll tax was introduced causing mass demonstrations all year round from aggrieved Britons who claimed the tax moved the tax burden from the rich to the poor. The region experienced the highest temperatures ever recorded in its history (which was broken last year) and amidst all these major changes, Justin Fashanu, a major league football player, took a brave step that etched him in forever in history books as the first male professional footballer to come out as gay. But that’s not the beginning or end of his story.
Early Years and Football Career
Born Justinus Soni Fashanu to a Nigerian father and a Guyanese mother. Justin’s early years were tumultuous. His parents split before he turned six, and he and his brother were sent to Barnardo’s which is a charity home for vulnerable children. They were eventually taken into the home of Alf and Betty Jackson as foster children and grew up in Norfolk. Despite the rough start, Justin grew to be excellent at sports. He excelled at boxing as a youth, and was rumoured at one time to be pursuing a professional boxing career instead of his footballing career.
His football career kicked off at Norwich city in the late seventies where he made 103 senior appearances and scored 40 goals, including a spectacular goal against Liverpool which earned the BBC goal of the season award. Justin’s dual citizenship made him eligible to play for Nigeria and England but he played for neither. He was, however, capped by England’s U-21 team six times. Justin’s name had been linked with bigger clubs for some time, and in August 1981 he became Britain’s first £1million black footballer, when he signed for Nottingham Forest.
Unfortunately, Justin’s career stalled as his professional relationship with the club’s manager deteriorated due to conflicts based on rumours of his sexuality. Justin was eventually loaned out to Southampton and over the rest of the 80’s he switched through different club sides in Europe and North America.
In October 1990, he publicly came out as gay in an interview with the Sun, becoming the first player in English football to do so. Although he claimed that he was generally well accepted by his fellow players, he freely admitted that they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation, and he also became the target of constant crowd abuse because of it. Justin Fashanu was interviewed for the July 1991 cover story of Gay Times Magazine where the situation was summarised as:
“The Sun dragged out the tale with titillating stories of sexual encounters with unnamed MPs, football players and pop stars, which, he claims, were largely untrue. The revelations, nevertheless, earned him a considerable sum of money but he says he was offered even more by others who wanted him to stay in the closet He admits that he wasn’t fully prepared for the backlash that followed and his career in football … has suffered “heavy damage”. Although he’s fully fit, no club has offered him a full-time contract since the story first appeared.”
Eight years after he came out and while he lived in Maryland, USA, a seventeen-year-old claimed to police that he had been sexually assaulted by Justin after a night of drinking. Homosexual acts were illegal in Maryland at the time. Justin was questioned about this by the police on 3 April, but he was not held in custody. A warrant was placed to arrest Justin but he had fled back to England where he tragically committed suicide. In his suicide note he denied the charges, stating that the sex was consensual, and that he had fled to England because he felt he could not get a fair trial due to his homosexuality, and he added: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”
In March 2009 a football team, The Justin Fashanu All-stars, was named at a special event in Brighton. The team, named in his honour, was created by the Justin Campaign, which is a campaign against homophobia in football and promotes the inclusion of openly gay players in football. Justins brother, John, has since stepped back on his early homophobic stance and stated his regret for not being more supportive of his brother on a documentary on Justin’s life directed by his niece Amal Fashanu.
Football still largely remains an homophobic game with attitudes around the women’s game being more tolerant than the men’s as some major female football players have come out as gay. Since Justin came out, only one professional footballer from the UK has come out and that only happened last week!
Last week, former Hull City player @IamTomBeattie came out as gay. He is only the second British male footballer to do so and explains why now felt like the right time for him.
'There's still a lot that needs to be done within sport and outside of sport.' pic.twitter.com/h1aAqcAn7h
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) July 2, 2020
In Nigeria, that has not happened for obvious reasons.
Despite these all, Justin will always be remembered and loved for opening the door, challenging homophobic narratives, and being true to himself . Thank you, Justin Fashanu.
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