To this day, Justin Fashanu remains the only player in elite men’s footballer who has come out as gay. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2.2% of the UK population identified as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual in 2018. Considering the fact that players from across the world play in the Premier League, it is statistically very unlikely that there are no queer players in the league. Indeed, Amal Fashanu, Justin’s niece, says she knows of seven Premier League players who are gay but all of whom have told her they don’t feel safe coming out.
Eni Aluko, a former England striker, has detailed to a government select committee that she is aware of players who are out to their teammates, but are scared of fans’ reaction. If this is one of the reasons men’s players don’t come out, what are the other reasons? Especially when looking at the women’s game where there are large numbers of out-players, it is concerning that those in the men’s game do not feel able to do the same. There are a number of reasons and much of these can be examined through the experiences of Justin Fashanu. Sadly, his story does not have an uplifting ending as he died by suicide in 1998 — only eight years after coming out publicly. There have been signs of change, with Troy Deeney recently voicing that he would support a player who came out. That Fashanu’s story is the the only one, at least in England, has not helped players with the security they need to feel safe, however.
As Fashanu discovered very early on in his career, the culture surrounding football is rife with hatred and discrimination. Even before coming out, he was facing rumours around his sexuality and coping with the pressures which came with being one of the few Black players in the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Football in the 1980s was at the height of hooliganism and as such homophobia and racism was extremely commonplace.
Just how much has this changed though? In just the last few years, we have seen a reemergence of racism on the terraces and in the months since lockdown lifted in England, there has been a renewed focus on tackling racism in the beautiful game. As for homophobia, a survey held by Stonewall in 2016 found that 72% of sports fans had heard homophobic abuse at live events within a five year period. Fashanu no doubt experienced this from the stands but he also had to contend with it within the locker rooms in which he played. As rumours of him visiting gay bars circulated his then-manager, Brian Clough, essentially froze him out of Nottingham Forest. For Clough, “gayness” could not be reconciled with the macho culture that is found in football. Fashanu had moved to Forest from Norwich on a £1 million transfer, becoming the first Black player to go for such big money. Fashanu should not only be remembered for his coming out, but as his niece Amal has said, he must be remembered for his brilliance on the pitch first and foremost.
Fears of this culture remain to this day. Although there are not any out-players in the Premier League, there are some examples of players in other leagues. Anton Hysén is one such player and he has noted that what gay and bi players fear the most is the reaction of fans and the potential of losing sponsorships or even careers. Fashanu certainly experienced the latter with his tremendous talent faulting because of the ostracisation he faced. It is not that being gay is the issue, rather it is the way which gay players are treated, or even simply the fear of how they might be treated if they came out. As recently as this year a Premier League player penned an anonymous letter in which they said they are gay but that “the truth is I just don’t think football is ready yet for a player to come out.”
As the years go by, it has now been 30 since Fashanu came out, the pressure builds and if/when a player does choose to come out, it will a monumental affair. It would “break the internet” so to speak. Who could take that step? The publicity which players face is huge. The Premier League is a global brand and players are known in every corner of the planet. Coming out is incredibly personal, with the position these players are in it would be hard to keep it this way. It was this publicity which Fashanu found so hard and indeed even mentioned it in his suicide note; being gay and a personality is “so hard”.
This pressure on who’ve that next player might be is deeply unfair and unasked for. It would be a seminal moment of course, but queer players shouldn’t have to be “brave” when straight players are simply able to “be”. And this is what makes the situation so tricky. If we look at the women’s game, it has historically not been as public as the men’s game and this has helped to allow the players to come out in a relatively low-key fashion. The more who came out the easier it became for those who followed. The same would likely be true in the men’s game, it just takes that first person doing it but as we have seen that pressure on the first is so immense. It cost Fashanu his life.
Another issue at play is acceptability politics and the pressure on a single person to be the representative for a whole group of people. In the last Women’s World Cup, 41 players and coaches were out as queer, in the men’s 2018 World Cup there were none. Women’s players, or young aspiring players in the women’s game, have at least 41 examples of what queerness looks like in football. They have possibilities for who they might be and for those involved who are queer they do not have the pressure of being the “perfect” image of queerness. Fashanu being one of just a few examples of men who’ve come out whilst still playing means there was, and oddly still is, a pressure on him to be the perfect image of a gay man. Whatever that might mean. This pressure, again, cost him his mental health and sadly his life. Since his death it has meant we often do not get the picture of a whole person and rather are feed a story of “inspiration” and “courage”. The sad thing is this wasn’t the reality of his life. He was forced to come out when a tabloid paper was threatening to do so without his consent and he clearly struggled greatly with this for the rest of his life. No person should have the pressure of making queerness acceptable to the masses. Nor should they be held to standards of perfection within their own community. The prospect of having to be this person no doubt plays a role in players’ fears of coming out.
A final point to consider when looking at the reasons players don’t feel safe coming out is to look to the decisions made by the governing bodies. In the anonymous letter penned by the gay Premier League player, he called on authorities to look at themselves and implored them to do more to support gay and bi players. The actions taken by authorities are still so minimal and they also do not take into consideration the safety of queer players when planning international tournaments. For example, would a gay player have felt safe playing at the World Cup in Russia? Or at the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar? These two countries continue to have legislation which criminalises queer people to some extent. Perhaps focusing on that is too far afield even; back in the United Kingdom it was illegal for teachers to teach LGBTQ+ education until 2004. Although this is now 15+ years ago, the legacy remains. This too is true of the legacy of Justin Fashanu. The pain of his loss remains relatively fresh in the hearts of the queer community. Governing bodies must do more than asking teams to wear rainbow laces once a year, as they have done since 2013, or putting out rainbow banners. These actions feel empty if no men’s player has felt safe enough to come out whilst playing. The fact that players like Thomas Beattie have felt like they have to wait until retire says it all.
Fashanu remains the biggest name to come out whilst playing football and he truly was a star, a generational talent who never quite reached his potential. Despite having fallen from the top flight by the time he came out, he was a household name and his coming out shook the foundations of English football. Although clearly not enough as it was Fashanu who fell rather than the archaic underpinnings of the game. His tale, sadly, pans out as a cautionary one. The hatred he faced, the pain he endured contributed to a life ending too soon and do not tell as story of a positive coming out. None of this is his fault, rather he was forced out at a time when the world wasn’t ready. Unfortunately many of the same struggles which he endured in the sport have yet to change. There has been some progress, but it is important to note that this progress can be undone. Political writer Owen Jones has said that progress is not given by the goodwill of those in power but the struggle of those below and this means it can be taken away incredibly quickly. To create an environment which is safe for gay and queer men to come out, it will require more Troy Deeney’s to voice their support for teammates, more education and vitally more interaction and learning from the women’s game in which an inclusive culture has grown. All this might go some way to mean that coming out need not be “brave” and rather is a joyous experience. As it should be. The enforced closeting of queer men’s players is a violence upon them. As the anonymous player ends his letter with; “I don’t want to live like this forever.”
About the Author:
Caspian’s greatest love has always been football. They grew up playing it and thinking about almost nothing else. When they came out as non binary at 20 suddenly football wasn’t as much a part of their life. They’ve recently rediscover this love of the game through writing and access to mixed gender sport.
Caspian’s experience of sexism, transphobia and homophobia in sport have driven a passion of raising up the excellence of marginalised people as well as drawing awareness to the struggles they face. They write about sports, history, social justice and everything in between!
After working in HE for a number of years following graduating, they now work in the heritage industry as well as running a blog and podcast, Usually Football. You can find them on Instagram @usuallyfootball!