Justin Fashanu

Football's Pioneers: Justin Fashanu

Dr. Andy Dawes, from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture, profiles Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to be openly gay.
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Justin was born in 1961 in London. He was brought up by white foster parents in rural Norfolk along with his younger brother, John. Throughout his life, Justin felt a sense of abandonment. However, he concealed this vulnerability with a show of strength. In his youth, he was a successful boxer.

He claimed that boxing worked out aggression and helped with depression. 

Fashanu then chose to concentrate on football. Money and fame came quickly to the powerful centre-forward. He signed as a professional for Norwich City and made his debut at the age of 17. At 18, he was a household name through scoring Match of the Day’s Goal of the Season. 

By 20, he signed for Nottingham Forest for £1M. Though determined to succeed, his self-discipline on and off the field infuriated Brian Clough. Fashanu sought solace through becoming a Christian. Balancing his faith and sexuality was to be a lifelong struggle. 

Fashanu joined Notts County in 1982 and helped his new club secure First Division status. Jimmy Sirrel, like John Bond at Norwich, was a stable influence. After joining Brighton & Hove Albion in 1985, he struggled with a serious knee problem. 

What followed was a nomadic life playing for clubs in the United States, Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and Sweden, alongside attempts at getting his English career back on track at Manchester City, West Ham United, Leyton Orient, Southall, Newcastle United and Torquay United.

In 1990, while at Leyton Orient, Frank Clarke encouraged him to come out. An impending article about him being gay while he was in Canada later that year forced his hand and Fashanu finally came out in an article run by a rival tabloid paper. 

Fashanu had a reputation for being very approachable and popular. Tragically, however, unproven allegations by the press over an incident in Atlanta, together with him thinking he wouldn’t get a fair trial because of his homosexuality, led to him taking his life in 1998. 

Fashanu’s sad death did give way to some hope. He was an inspiration to footballer Robbie Rogers in coming out, as well as to the Justin Fashanu Foundation, which tackles discrimination, and to calls within the church to be less judgemental about homosexuality.

Justin has since been inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame. 

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