Britain’s first £1m footballer took his own life after coming out as gay
The Justin Fashanu Foundation & Football v Homophobia use his legacy to fight discrimination
We spotlight their admirable work on the last day of LGBT Pride Month
Justin Fashanu was bedevilled by bigotry during childhood. “We were the only black kids where we grew up,” said his brother John. The Fashanus, furthermore, shouldered the stigma of being Barnardo’s orphans. They carried the taunt-trigger of having white foster parents.
Racism repulsively pestered Justin into adulthood – despite him scoring one of the most breathtaking goals in English football history and becoming Britain’s first million-pound footballer. Yet the monkey chants, Sieg Heil salutes, phlegm, bananas and death threats, which traumatised black footballers in the 1980s, were just part of the striker’s discrimination distress.
Justin, the brother of a black-belt karateka and an alpha in one of the most growl-happy, macho prides ever seen – Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ – was homosexual. No male professional footballer had previously come out as gay in Britain – nor has anyone since – but in October 1990 Justin did just that to a media tsunami.
“His courage and level of I’m-going-to-be-who-I-am regardless was so, so high,” his niece Amal, John’s daughter, told FIFA.com. “He’s one of the bravest men you could ever come across. I, myself, in the ‘90s, would have never been able to do what he did. It was just out of the question.
“The fact that we still don’t have openly gay professional footballers now tells you everything. It says how difficult, how taunting that experience must have been for Justin.”
Tragically, Justin took his own life, aged just 37, in 1998. Amal was determined that not only should his legacy live on, but that it should benefit others trying to escape the handcuffs of homophobia – and those suffering from mental health and racism.
“In 2012 I made a documentary called Britain’s Gay Footballers for BBC,” explained Amal. “That was my journey into finding out why there weren’t any openly gay professional footballers in the game, and at the same time discovering my own personal journey with my family. Interviewing my dad and getting to the bottom of what actually happened.
“That same year I got invited to Downing Street with David Cameron to a summit [on discrimination in sport]. We discussed ways of helping and raising awareness, and came up with a list that footballers and football clubs could join.
“From there I’ve been campaigning. I made a brand in Justin’s honour called Black Heart Label, which was a fashion equality brand. It does streetwear and t-shirts and jumpers and stuff.
“I always wanted to do more, but I had just come out of uni, was only 22, was modelling and had moved back to Madrid, where I grew up. I just didn’t think I had the power at that time to set up a foundation.
“So when I came back to England around nine months ago, I set up The Justin Fashanu Foundation with the help of the PFA and a few other people. The foundation focuses not only on homophobia in football, but also mental health and racism. I’ve made my mum and my dad trustees, plus Leroy Rosenior,
“Leroy had an encounter with Justin when my uncle went to West Ham. He really regrets not standing up for Justin. There was an incident in the changing room where some guys were in the [communal bath] and Justin came to get in. They immediately got up and got out because Justin was gay.”
Amal planned to launch The Justin Fashanu Foundation on what would have been the former Norwich City and Nottingham Forest player’s 59th birthday and, though he plans were temporarily postponed, she didn’t mind in the slightest.
“We were going to launch on the 19th of February, but I got contacted by the National Football Museum,” explained Amal. “They were like, ‘We really want to induct Justin into the Hall of Fame on the 19th’. So we did the induction, which was amazing. It went even better than I could have imagined.
“Corona came in and has stopped the events we had planned for the Foundation, but we plan on doing a lot of things once we get back to normal. I’m also planning on making another documentary and a drama about Justin and his life.”
The Justin Fashanu Foundation is not the only initiative his legacy has inspired. Football v Homophobia, which “exists to challenge discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression at all levels in football”, has made bigotry-breaking bounds across the world.
“Football v Homophobia was originally an idea that was conceived by The Justin Campaign, which was a grassroots campaign to honour Justin Fashanu,” explained Lou Englefield, its campaign director and a pathfinder for LGBT+ inclusion. “They created the campaign in 2008.
“At that time, there was no specific campaign that spoke about homophobia in football in the UK. The kind of language people would use was, ‘Racism and others forms of discrimination’.
“Various different people felt homophobia was such a big issue in football that it was something that needed to be named explicitly. The Justin Campaign really cleverly came up with the concept, Football v Homophobia.
“They needed a little help so we teamed up with them in 2012 then took over the campaign completely in 2014. By then we already had a full month of action, and that was in response to a request from football itself.
“When it started it was an England-based initiative, but when we took over the campaign we started to work more internationally. We started to partner with the FARE network, who facilitated the campaign by providing small grants during the month of action, and the campaign grew from there.
“We’ve run the campaign internationally on a kind of franchise model. In a couple of countries, we have been approached by individuals or organisations, who have links with us or have followed us. We’ve worked with them to develop Football v Homophobia as a brand in their own country.
“An example of that would be in North Macedonia, where we’ve worked with an organisation called Queer Square. They built the campaign over a few years and a couple of seasons ago, the first-ever homophobia in football round table happened in Macedonia, which was attended by, for example, the Macedonian FA, members of the government and the UK ambassador.
“That’s an example of where the FARE small-grants’ programme has enabled us to build ongoing relationships and to develop the brand in another country. We’ve seen activity for the Football v Homophobia month of action in at least 27 European countries. Greece, Israel, France, Portugal, Spain, all over Europe.
“We’re also been working with some people in Costa Rica. They have been using the campaign particularly to talk about women’s football. It’s achieved some TV and radio coverage in Costa Rica. We’ve worked in partnership with an organisation called in Mexico called DIDISEX. We want to empower people to use our brand in a way that is relevant to their country.”
“We speak at a lot of events too – Bilbao, Germany. We provide a whole load of training and workshops for football academies to football associations to coaches. You name it, we try and work in all areas of football because we know that homophobia intercepts football at all levels.
“Then we do a lot of education work in a whole range of different environments. We work in primary schools, football club community foundations. We’re trying to work with younger children and provide positive messages and contextualise the use of homophobic language in concepts they understand.
“Things like bullying and stereotyping. If we can start talking to children at a young age, we know that we can have a really big impact.”
Just as nonviolent action had needed a Mahatma Gandhi, sexism had needed a Sojourner Truth and racism had needed a Martin Luther King Jr., football’s homophobia-fetid fields needed a pathfinder in the late 20th century. Justin Fashanu somehow summoned the strength to be that superhero. “Hopefully me doing this can help others,” he said at the time.
Tragically, the Hackney native isn’t here to see it, but through The Justin Fashanu Foundation and Football v Homophobia, his wish is being realised.
Thank you, Justin.