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

A year later in July 1991, Fashanu told Gay Times that he had not anticipated the backlash he would suffer from the interview. He said his career was “heavily damaged,” and that no club had offered him a contract since he had made his homosexuality public.

Fashanu revealed that he had received a lot of money for his Sun exclusive, but that people close to him had offered him even more money to keep him silent.

Fashanu’s own brother, John, was one of those people. He offered him £75,000 not to come out.

A week after Fashanu came out in the Sun, John gave an interview to the Voice which ran the headline: “John Fashanu: My Gay Brother Is an Outcast.”

Forbidden Games, a 2017 documentary examining Fashanu’s life and legacy, shone light on the Fashanu brothers’ relationship, which had always been a complex one. Footage in the documentary showcase a somewhat bitter John, complaining that he “couldn’t go anywhere without people calling [him] Justin.”

In a Guardian interview promoting Forbidden Games, John Fashanu admitted that when his brother came out, he was afraid people would think he was the one that was gay. He also said he was “cross” with himself for not seeing “these challenges Justin was having.”

John Fashanu in 1985 (Allsport/Getty)

“A little bit more understanding and a little bit more softness could’ve changed a lot of things…”

20 years ago, Fashanu’s body was found in a lock-up garage in east London. The footballer died by suicide following rape allegations against him stemming from his time living in America. He was accused of sexual assault by a 17 year old. Fashanu said the sexual relationship was consensual. 

Part of his suicide note read: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family. I wish the Jesus I love welcomes me home.”

Fashanu was the first professional footballer to come out, and so far, he’s still the only to have done so.

However, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing, thanks in part to Fashanu.

A spokesperson for the Football Association (FA) said in 2017 the league was “committed to tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football at every level of the game.”