Justin Fashanu, (1961-1998) was an English football player whose career spanned for 20 years. He is the first black footballer to command a £1million transfer fee when he transformed from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest in 1981. However, Fashanu is best remembered for being the first footballer to come out as openly gay while still active in his career.
Born in 1961 in the UK, Fashanu grew up in a foster home in Shropham, Norfolk with his brother where he excelled in sports, particularly boxing. Despite his early boxing successes, he ultimately chose to pursue a career as a professional football player. His professional career kicked off in 1978 with Norwich City FC and his league debut in 1979 with his first game against West Bromich Albion. By 1980 he was one of Norwich’s strongest scorers and even took home the BBC Goal of the Season award after a match against Liverpool.
In 1981, he became the first black footballer to take a £1million transfer when he transferred to the Nottingham Forest FC. Unfortunately, it ended up being a bad move as Fashanu’s professional relationship with Nottingham Forest owner, Brian Clough, began to deteriorate after rumors of Fashanu visiting gay bars and nightclubs began to circulate. As a result, Fashanu’s confidence began to falter and the skills he developed as a top scoring football player began to diminish.
Not fitting well within Clough’s club culture, Fashanu was confronted with Clough’s homophobic attitudes that had a big impact on Fashanu’s potential as an athlete at the Nottingham Forest FC. As a result, Fashanu was initially loaned out to Southampton for a few games that inspired hope that he could have a comeback, but Southampton was not able to pay for Fashanu to transfer to the club. Unfortunately, he ended up being moved around to various clubs between 1982 and 1990 while also contending with a knee injury that put his career in doubt in 1985.
In 1990, Fashanu officially came out as gay in an interview with the “The Sun” which was a tabloid magazine that picked up the story and ran with it. Later in 1991, Justin Fashanu interviewed with the “Gay Times” in which he clarified many of the claims made about him in “The Sun” and the story was summarized as such…
“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.“
While he said he had been accepted by his fellow players, he did recall that his sexual orientation was often the butt of many malicious jokes from his teammates. In addition, this made Fashanu the target of constant crowd abuse during matches.
Fashanu’s career did suffer as a result of the backlash, while he continued to play for various clubs in England, Canada and Australia throughout the 1990s; he was never signed to a permanent contract again. Fashanu officially retired from professional football in 1997 as an athlete. He moved to Maryland shortly after to coach for the Maryland Mania which was a new professional team just starting up.
In March 1998, a 17-year-old boy reported to police that he was sexually assaulted by Fashanu after a night of drinking. At the time, homosexual acts were illegal in the state of Maryland and the youth stated that the act was non-consensual. The police initially questioned Fashanu but was not taken into custody. However, a few days later police had arrived to take Fashanu into custody but by then Fashanu had already fled back to England.
On May 3rd, Fashanu was found in a garage in London where he committed suicide. In his suicide note, he denied the charges against him and stated the sex was consensual. But that he fled to England because he felt that he would not get a fair trial. His death was officially ruled as a suicide and he was cremated.
Jon Fashanu’s legacy as the first openly gay male professional athlete to come out while active in his career earned him the 99th spot on the Pink Paper’s top 500 Lesbian and Gay Heroes. In 2009 a football team, the Justin Fashanu All Stars was named after him for a special event in Brighton by the Justin Campaign to fight homophobia in football. In 2017, Netflix released the film “The Forbidden Games: Justin Fashanu Story.”
By Dirk Smith