Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay professional football player and the first black footballer to get a £1 million transfer fee. He was recognised for his skill in the game and even won the BBC Goal of the season in 1980 scoring against Liverpool. Fashanu was born on the 19th of February 1961. His football career spanned from 1978-1997, playing for a variety of English clubs, as well as a few across the Atlantic. He also had six England caps under his belt.
Whilst his sexuality had been known by staff and players at his early clubs, it wasn’t until October 1990 that he publicly came out during an interview with the tabloid press, becoming the first professional footballer to publicly come out. Unfortunately, being openly gay meant he received less favourable treatment than other players. His club manager at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, recalls in his memoirs “So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club” – part of a ‘verbal dressing down’ he gave the player. Although Fashanu reported being largely accepted by other players, he admitted that his sexual orientation made him the butt of many jokes. In addition to this, since the story broke in The Sun newspaper, no club would offer Fashanu a full-time contract.
In 1998 Fashanu took his own life, after allegations of him engaging in homosexual activities with a young man. The date that this happened and the significant steps in the law to decriminalise homosexuality since shows just how far gay rights have come in the past 20 years. Fashanu admitted to engaging in consensual sex with the man, but the next day he demanded money from the footballer, who when he refused was told ‘you wait and see’. The young man was 17 years old – which although by today’s standard makes him a consenting adult, in 1998 in the UK the age of consent for homosexual sex was 18. Furthermore, the incident took place in Maryland in the USA, where Fashanu lived at the time. Any homosexual activity was illegal in that state.
Fashanu fled to London, and less than two months after the allegations he committed suicide. In his suicide note he mentions “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.” Given the legislation at the time, Fanashu believed he would not receive a fair trial because he was a gay man.
Fashanu’s football career made him a trailblazer in both queer and black histories. In 1981, nearly 100 years after Arthur Wharton became the first black player to make an appearance in British professional football, Fashanu signed to Nottingham Forest for a record one-million-pound deal making him the first person of colour to do so in this country. For a bit of context, in the same year that this deal was signed, Liverpool Football Club were only just signing their first ever black player, Howard Gayle.
Racial inequality is still rife in professional football, with non-white players often being subject to racial abuse from fans and other players. Whilst some progress is being made, certainly there is a more diverse group of players than in the nineties, we now see teams taking the knee before kick-off – a symbol asking for racial equality and as a show of solidarity among players.
The steps towards ending homophobia in football and other sports have perhaps been slower. However, the number of openly gay sportspeople is on the rise and acceptance is shown by allies during the rainbow laces campaign, which is run by Stonewall, with the aim of making sport everyone’s game. “Over a million people have worn rainbow laces in support of LGBTQ+ inclusion”.