30 years after Justin Fashanu came out publicly to the world, former friend Peter Tatchell reflects on the late sportsman’s complicated legacy.
Attitude report –
Thirty years ago, on 22 October 1990, Justin Fashanu became the world’s first professional footballer to come out as gay. To this day, he’s the UK’s only top-tier male football star to declare his homosexuality while playing in this country. At the time, he said he knew 12 other Premier League footballers who were gay or bisexual. None followed his example of openness, then or since.
Justin was also the first black player to be bought by a club for £1 million and the first prominent black person in Britain to come out as LGBT+. Other black personalities, including the singer Labi Siffre, artist and film-maker Isaac Julien and Lambeth Council leader Linda Bellos, had already come out, but they didn’t have Justin’s high profile and national recognition.
Justin came out in The Sun newspaper, under the headline “£1m soccer star: I am GAY”. He said he wanted to stop “living a lie”. His otherwise dignified and courageous article was marred by titillating tales of sex with a married MP, romps in the House of Commons, and affairs with pop singers, TV stars and other footballers.
It was also tainted by the fact that he sold his story for a huge pile of money, reputedly £70,000 or more. He subsequently admitted that elements of his story were embellished because, in his words, he was “under pressure” from the paper to give them sensational gossip.
A week later, his brother, fellow footballer John Fashanu, disowned Justin in the black newspaper, The Voice. “John Fashanu: My gay brother is an outcast” screamed the headline. John later admitted to offering Justin £75,000 to stay quiet and keep his sexuality secret.
He told the Daily Mirror: “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.”
John later expressed regret about his behaviour. However, he continued to disrespect his brother’s memory when he claimed in a 2012 interview with talkSPORT radio that his brother was not gay but merely a fame-obsessed attention-seeker.
Justin told me he was heartbroken by the “terrible” things John said about him. He never got over what he saw as betrayal by a brother he loved.
The reaction of the wider black community was just as bad. His coming out was condemned by The Voice as “an affront to the black community… damaging… pathetic and unforgivable”.
“We heteros”, wrote Voice columnist Tony Sewell, “are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide-and-seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty.” Sewell only very recently apologised for those comments.
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