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Black History Month: Justin Fashanu comes out

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Justin Fashanu fought the odds in becoming the first soccer player to come out while playing. But, sexual assault claims led to him taking his own life.

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Justin Fashanu of Norwich City

The Sun’s tabloid on October 22, 1990 had a headline that shocked all of England and quite possibly the world. It had a definitive declaration from a player that wanted to let the world know who he was:

”£1m Football Star: I AM GAY”

That £1m star was Justin Fashanu.

Fashanu, a native of London, was an athletic kid, excelling at boxing in addition to soccer. Though there was talk of him pursuing a career in boxing, he eventually settled with soccer and a contract with Norwich City. There, the forward entered the starting lineup and became a regular goalscorer for the team, sometimes scoring some insane goals.

With the Canaries, Fashanu scored 40 goals in 103 total appearances. He also was capped six times for the England U-21s. In 1981, he became the first black soccer player to be the subject of a £1 million transfer when Norwich sold him to Nottingham Forest. It was there that his play slipped, and many feel it was because of coach’s Brian Clough’s discovery that Fashanu was frequenting gay clubs in Nottingham. Based in part on the rumors, Fashanu had numerous stops in his career with clubs in England, Australia, Scotland, Canada, and the United States. Some of those clubs included Notts County, Manchester City, Brighton & Hove Albion, West Ham United, Leyton Orient, Heart of Midlothian Hearts, Newcastle, and the Los Angeles Heat of the NASL. His career spanned 20 years and 22 teams.

Throughout his career, he struggled with whether to come out as gay or to remain in the closet while he continued to play. Ultimately, he decided that it was time for him to declare publicly his sexual orientation. He agreed to an exclusive interview with The Sun, where he came out as gay, the first soccer player to do so. He did the interview despite pressure from his own brother, who offered him £75,000 to stay in the closet.

The story spread like wildfire, and it opened up Justin Fashanu to unprecedented scrutiny and criticism. Justin’s niece said later about the reception he received from others:

“[Justin had none] of the warmth, none of the recognition that what he did took so much courage. Instead, he was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong. He was a lost soul, but even then his precedent secretly gave a lot of people hope. I get messages about what an inspiration he was from all around the world, all the time.”

In 1991, Fashanu sat for an interview with Gay Times magazine, where he claimed that The Sun embellished with stories about his sexual encounters, but that also he wasn’t fully ready for the backlash he received. He claimed he was not offered a full-time contract from any club once the story of his coming out broke.

Still, Fashanu continued to bounce around the world trying to find a spot to play, and had several short stints with teams. After he finished playing, he returned to the United States to try his hand at coaching. But, in March 1998, he was accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old boy in Ellicott City, Maryland. After being questioned about it by police but then released, authorities decided to charge him with second-degree sexual assault, first-degree assault, and second-degree assault. They went to his home to try and arrest him, but Fashanu had fled the United States for England.

There, on May 3, 1998, Justin Fashanu was found dead in an abandoned garage that he had broken into after visiting a gay sauna. He had hung himself. He left a suicide note, where he denied the charges and claimed that the sex he had with the boy was consensual. Still, because gay sexual acts were not legal in Maryland at the time, he still knew he was facing jail time and fled because he didn’t think he would get a fair trial. His note, in part, read: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”

It was a tragic end to the tale of Justin Fashanu, but it highlighted the struggles that gay people had to deal with in going public with their sexual orientation. It’s a stigma that is still faced today. He even had to battle stigmas from within his own family. Some think that rampant homophobia was what drove Fashanu to his death. But, while his story is a tragic one, it’s an important one because he paved the way for other athletes to also come out while playing. Very few soccer players have done it during their career. The most notable example is Robbie Rogers when he came out in 2013. But, where Fashanu’s tale was tragic, it gave others the strength to live within their own skin and it gave many hope that as we progressed as a society, the coming out process would be easier on future athletes. For many, they think athletes can learn more from Fashanu’s story and know that in today’s world, openly gay athletes would have way more support than he did. He is viewed as the primary reason why athletes should stay in the closet, but that mentality is a mistake. His story is more important today for that reason.

For that, the LGBTQ community remembers Justin Fashanu. And, all of soccer remembers him too.