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Justin Fashanu: 30 years since footballer came out

By Zoe Applegate & Martin Barber
BBC News

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJustin Fashanu was brought up by foster parents in a village near Attleborough in Norfolk and signed for Norwich City aged 17

Exactly 30 years ago, footballer Justin Fashanu hit the headlines as the first professional player to come out as gay. What impact did he make - and why have no others followed him?

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.

Growing up in foster care in Norfolk alongside his footballer brother John, he had risen through Norwich City's youth ranks.

His majestic strike against Liverpool in 1980 was Match of the Day's Goal of the Season, cementing his legendary status among Canaries fans.

media captionJustin Fashanu's subdued goal celebration saw him raise his index finger while walking back down the pitch before being hugged by team mates

Then, in 1990, Fashanu stunned the football world when he told a newspaper he was gay.

Three decades on, he remains the only male footballer to reveal his sexuality while playing professionally in the top tiers.

  • Gay, out and playing football: Watch BBC East's debate about coming out in football, featuring Amal Fashanu and Thomas Beattie
image copyrightFamily photo/Getty Images
image captionEqual rights campaigner Amal Fashanu, pictured as a child with her uncle Justin (left) and father John, made a documentary about the issues he faced

That might seem surprising, but not to equality campaigner Amal Fashanu, who set up the Justin Fashanu Foundation, dedicated to her uncle.

"It's believable because of the attitude that surrounds football," she said.

The daughter of Wimbledon FC stalwart John, Ms Fashanu was just 10 when her uncle took his own life in 1998, aged 37.

"Justin was an incredible person with a very big heart," she said.

"If he was still alive now people would be able to see that. He accepted everyone as they were, it was all about love - I miss that a lot.

"He was the one person who taught me as a kid how to love, and how to love without judging."

image copyrightShutterstock
image captionJustin Fashanu and Alan Hansen in the match between Norwich and Liverpool in 1980

Despite strides made elsewhere, she said football was lagging behind the pace of societal change.

Same-sex marriages in England and Wales were legalised in 2013. Welsh rugby union star Gareth Thomas came out in 2009, and ex-footballers Thomas Beattie and Robbie Rogers went public about their sexuality after leaving the game.

But to be a gay footballer in the elite leagues was still a "major issue", she said.

"It's always been that powerful, secretive, dark world where there's no place for anyone weaker and a lot of people see if you're gay, you'd be weaker.

"You can't really blame one person - it's the environment of football."

image copyrightThetford Town FC
image captionSemi-professional player Matt Morton said even his "fiercest rivals" had welcomed his decision to come out

Lower down the football ladder, in England's ninth tier, Matt Morton said he had been overwhelmed by positive comments since coming out on Instagram in June.

"Even my fiercest rivals on the pitch have been supportive," said Mr Morton, 33, player-manager of Eastern Counties League club Thetford Town in Norfolk.

image copyrightMecha Morton
image captionMr Morton said people needed to come together to promote tolerance and support LGBT players

He said he had been "flooded" with private messages from people who had quit the game rather than come out to team-mates.

"It has to happen en masse in the lower leagues - or with more high-profile players coming out - to get to the point of normalisation," he said.

"I'm a footballer but sexuality should just be such an inconsequential thing to other people's lives.

"Everyone needs to come together as a whole - you can't expect the minority to take on the mantle."

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That sentiment is echoed by LGBT rights charity Stonewall, which is working with the Premier League and the Football Association (FA).

"Tackling anti-LGBT attitudes and behaviours cannot and must not rest on the shoulders of LGBT athletes alone," said the charity's Jeff Ingold.

"Speculating over why people don't come out ignores the many valid reasons someone may have for not being open about their sexuality.

"Focusing on the absence of openly gay and bi male professional football players often adds more pressure to what is already a high-stress environment."

The charity hopes support for campaigns such as its Rainbow Laces project will lead to more "confident athletes... accepted for who they are".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTV presenter and life-long Canaries fan Jake Humphrey said Justin Fashanu's legacy deserved to be remembered

BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey, a life-long Norwich City fan, said it was "important to remember Justin as a great footballer, but also as the person he was".

He added: "There is no doubt over the years football fans have cheered, celebrated and loved footballers unable to come out."

image copyrightDavid Shenton/Getty Images
image captionA cartoon image of Fashanu was created by artist and club fan David Shenton for Proud Canaries, Norwich City's LGBT+ supporters' group

The FA said it had made moves across all levels of the game to help players and fans be included.

"We have come so far since [Fashanu's] tragic experience, however... more needs to be done," said The FA's Jehmeil Lemonius.

"We will continue to work... to help create a safe and supportive environment for any player who chooses to come out, so we never have a situation like Justin's again.

"Justin wasn't just a fantastic player, but a remarkable man... a role model and trailblazer."

He said the women's game had many players open about their sexual orientation and had shared their stories to help others.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJustin Fashanu, pictured playing against Leeds Utd in 1979, was inducted into the National Football Museum's Hall of Fame in February on what would have been his 59th birthday

For Ms Fashanu, her uncle's spirit remains strong.

"If Justin was still here my foundation wouldn't exist; there would be no need for me to do it - he was so powerful in a very peaceful way," she said."There's no road map to show these footballers what would happen... it would change your life forever to be remembered as only the second gay top-flight footballer in the world.

"We could be doing more considering football has a lot of power and money, but I do think we are doing something."

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Related Topics

  • Thetford
  • LGBT
  • Norwich

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