So if you know me at all, you’ll be fully aware that I have absolutely no interest in sports. Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay professional footballer. Justin’s story is tragic due to its ending, yet his bravery to come out as a gay man in professional football is legendary. Furthermore, Justin broke the glass ceiling for gay men in professional football, leading the way for footballers like Thomas Hitzlsperger and Anton Hysén to come out.
Justin Fashanu was born in 1961 in Hackney, London but later moved to Shropham in Norfolk following the dissolution of his parents’s marriage, with Justin and his brother John sent to a Barnardo’s home. He began his career as an apprentice with Norwich City, becoming a professional player in December 1978 and making his league debut in January 1979 against West Bromwich Albion. His success at the club was notable, scoring often and well, winning the 1980 BBC Goal of the Season award. In total, he managed a total of 103 senior appearances for Norwich and scored 40 goals. His success during this time was also at an international level, being capped six times for England at under-21 level while at the club.
Justin became Britain’s first £1 million black footballer when he transferred to Nottingham Forest in August 1981 at the age of just 21. Yet his career stalled as his professional relationship with Brian Clough deteriorated. Clough, allegedly homophobic, discovered Justin’s homosexuality and his trips to gay bars. As a result, Clough barred him from training with the team leading to Justin’s confidence failing as he was unable to fit in with the demands made upon him by Clough. In August 1982, he was loaned to Southampton. The manager of the club, Lawrie McMenemy would have liked to make the move permanent considering Justin’s success with the club, scoring 3 goals in 9 appearances, yet lack of funds prevented this. He was sold to Notts County in December 1982 for £150,000, scoring 20 times in 64 games for the Magpies before then moving to Brighton & Hove Albion in June 1985 for £115,000. However, while playing for the club, a knee injury appears to have ended his career prematurely. Heading to the U.S for surgery, Justin would play for Los Angeles Heat following this, later going to Canada to play with the Edmonton Brickmen and the Hamilton Steelers.
Returning to the UK, Justin joined Manchester City in October 1989 in an attempt to resurrect his playing career. Yet, after barely a month after joining the club, he moved to West Ham United, later having a trial with Ipswich Town. In March 1990, he joined Leyton Orient, subsequently joining Southall before spending the summer with Toronto Blizzard. Following this, he signed up for semi-pro Surrey team Leatherhead.
At this point, in 1990, Justin came out publicly as gay in an interview with The Sun, which ran a headline that said “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY”. Due to this, Justin began to be the subject of cruel jokes by fellow players as well as becoming a fixture of crowd abuse. Not only this but Justin said in July 1991 in the Gay Times that he had not been offered a full-term contract since the news came out. He began a trial with Newcastle United in October 1991 but the manager at that time, Ossie Ardiles refused to give him a permanent contract. He later signed for Torquay United playing 21 league games and scoring 10 goals that season. Justin was given the role of assistant manager of Torquay United in February 1992, maintaining this position as player/assistant manager until 1993, playing for Airdrie and then Trelleborg and Heart of Midlothian before being terminated in 1994 for unprofessional conduct. He then moved to the US, working with the Atlanta Ruckus before joining the New Zealand team, the Miramar Rangers, in 1997.
Outside of football, Justin did some media work. He agreed to host Loud’n’Proud, a new national radio series aimed at the LGBT+ community. The pilot with Justin was turned down by BBC Radio Five, but it was commissioned with a female presenter for BBC Radio 1.
Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998, following an allegation of sexual misconduct by a 17 year old in Atlanta, Georgia in March 1998. Justin wrote that he did not feel, as a gay man, he would be allowed a fair trial and was already presumed guilty. He cited the possible embarassment of his family and friends as another reason for his suicide. Yet, Justin Fashanu is remembered as a key figure in the LGBT+ community, listed as #99 in the Top 500 Lesbian and Gay Heroes in The Pink Paper, a fitting legacy for a man who broke the glass ceiling on professional footballers coming out.