20 years after his death, why Justin Fashanu is still so influential to LGBT history

Justin Fashanu became the UK's first openly gay footballer

It’s been 20 years since Justin Fashanu died on May 2, 1998. He made history as the first professional footballer to come out as gay while playing at a top level.

Fashanu was born in the UK to a barrister father and a mother who worked as a nurse.

Following his parents’ split, Justin and his younger brother, John, also a footballer, were fostered by Alf and Betty Jackson and brought up in Shropham, Norfolk.

Fashanu began his football career with Norwich City, turning professional at 17 in 1978. Three years later, he became the first black footballer to command a £1 million fee when he transferred from Norwich to Nottingham Forest in 1981.

However, after his transfer, rumours about his sexual orientation began to spread within the club..

In the 1980s, British society was still extremely biased against gay men and gay sex.

At the time Fashanu joined Nottingham, it had only been 13 years since homosexuality had been partially decriminalised in England and Wales, and stigma against gay men was rampant in and outside of the sporting world.

Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough eventually sold Fashanu to Notts County for £150,000 – just above a tenth of what he had paid for him to come play for Nottingham.

The player hopped from one club to another. During his 20 years-long career, he played for 22 clubs in the UK, the US, Canada and even New Zealand.

Fashanu came out as gay on October 22, 1990, becoming the first professional footballer to ever come out in the UK. 

He gave the exclusive to The Sun, which ran the headline: “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.”

The interview was met with serious backlash from both members of the public and football personalities who felt gay men had no place in team sports.

“He was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong,” said Fashanu’s niece Amal told Yahoo! Sports in 2013.

Justin Fashanu in 1981 – Allsport UK /Allsport

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