The world of Football (Association Football, to clarify, Soccer in North America and Australia) has never been the most friendly place. Memories of the widespread hooliganism of the 1980s were brought back to the forefront of our minds with the rioting at this summer’s European Championships in France. A lot of this rioting revolved around racism, sexism and, unsurprisingly, homophobia. Racism and Sexism have been, to an extent, tackled in the modern game – 9 of England’s 23 players at Euro 2016 were black or mixed-race, and female linesmen are no longer an uncommon sight in Premier League matches, to give one example for each. However, the lack of LGBT+ representation in football is staggering – in the 24 years the Premier League has existed, one player has come out of the closet as gay, and that was after they retired. To try and understand the problem with homophobia in football, let me tell you a story you may be familiar with – that of Justin Fashanu.
Fashanu was born in 1961 in Hackney, East London. Fashanu’s parents split up when he was young and he and his brother John (who also became a professional footballer) grew up in social care, first at a Barnardo’s home and later with foster parents. Justin excelled at boxing in his youth but soon turned to football, and signed an apprenticeship as a Striker with Norwich City, making his professional debut in 1978. Fashanu became a regular at Norwich the next year and also broke into the England Under-21 side, although never appeared for the senior team. In 1980 he won Goal of the Season and was transferred to Nottingham Forest in 1981, becoming the first Black British player to command a transfer fee in excess of £1 million.
At this time Forest were managed by Brian Clough, undoubtedly one of the greatest managers to ever grace the game. However, rumours of Fashanu frequenting gay bars caused a rift between the two, and Clough wrote a rather charming excerpt from a conversation they had in his autobiography, containing some homophobic language.
“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”
After Fashanu told Clough of his sexuality, Clough was horrified and banned him from training with the First Team, later loaning him out and selling him to rivals Notts County. Fashanu played for a number of smaller clubs in England and abroad but his career never really recovered.
In 1990, Fashanu did an interview with the, at this time and still arguably now notoriously homophobic, Sun newspaper in which he came out as gay. The Sun twisted his words and as a result Fashanu faced taunts from the stands whenever he played, and said he was never fully prepared for the backlash. A week later, Fashanu’s brother John, at this point still in the First Division with Wimbledon, disowning Justin and describing him as an outcast.
Fashanu’s life ended in tragedy. In 1998 Fashanu was accused of non-consensual sexual activity in Maryland in the US. At this point homosexuality was illegal in Maryland so Fashanu fled to London, fearing he would not get a fair trial. Maintaining his innocence, Fashanu committed suicide. After his death, John apologized for his comments but later reiterated them, saying Justin was not gay but rather an attention seeker.
To this day Justin Fashanu remains the only openly gay male footballer to have been out of the closet whilst playing professionally in England.
That’s not to say he was the only gay footballer. Thomas Hitzlsperger came out after retirement, having previously played for Aston Villa among others, and Robbie Rogers, formerly of Leeds United, also retired after coming out, although was later convinced to return to the game with Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS.
But no male gay player has come out whilst playing since. And is it any wonder why?
It is said that crowds have matured since and would now not be homophobic, but is this really the case? Graeme le Saux, Freddie Ljungberg and Sol Campbell have both been victims of homophobia in recent times, despite being heterosexual, and even the press have been successfully sued by Ashley Cole for allegations. Football Crowds are vicious and ruthless and many fans would not think twice about using a footballer’s sexuality against them.
Things have been done. Stonewall FC, an amateur club comprised of gay footballers in lower leagues, plays friendlies against All-Star teams to try and raise awareness. The FA have held summits to try and tackle homophobia and the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, which distributed rainbow boot laces to every professional player in the UK as a show of support, have all shown being gay would be more accepted in the game. Except for several clubs explicitly banned their players from wearing the rainbow laces. My club, Tottenham Hotspur, were shamefully and disgracefully one of them. Their excuse? Stonewall, the charity that distributed the laces, received backing from Paddy Power bookmakers for the campaign, and it would conflict with their own gambling sponsorship. Pathetic.
If we look at the world of women’s football, the problem is not as severe. Numerous high-profile female figures in the game have come out as lesbian, including Hope Powell, the former England manager, and England Captain Casey Stoney. But Women’s Football is not as popular as the men’s game, and whilst these people can act as positive role models for young GSRM people, they are nowhere near as well-known as the household names of men’s football.
Do I think we will have an openly gay or bisexual footballer in the Premier League? Yes, and soon. But I do think people over-exaggerate the environment they would be coming out into, and it would almost certainly not be fully positive. I do think homophobia is a problem that needs to be kicked out of football, and sadly I do feel we have a long way to go yet.