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Attitude-Aug04

attitude:iconsJUSTIN FASHANU

As part of its series looking at gay icons, Attitude magazine covered Justin Fashanu in August 2004

Justin Fashanu can be credited with kicking down many barriers, though only one sticks in the mind: he was, and still is, British football's only openly gay player. And in the evening of May 1st, 1998, in a squalid lock-up garage in Shoreditch, this lonely realisation drove him to suicide. Fashanu had steered towards self-destruction and alienation on a number of occasions throughout his career -tabloid exposes, fabricated affairs with Tory MPs, allegations of sexual assault -though the hardest to bear was football's cruel rejection of his sexuality when it was announced in 1990. Bullied by managers, overlooked by clubs and sacked for 'excessive behaviour', Fashanu - football's first £1 m black player and a maverick centre-forward - was a man cut adrift. And so he felt compelled to tie a noose of electric flex around his neck and throw himself from a stack of tyres at the relatively young age of 37.

Today his legacy powers on, though recollections of his career usually teeter on the sleazy. During a recent episode of flamboyant soap opera Footballers' Wives, an ogreish chairwoman orders her closeted player to mask his sexuality in the national press. "I don't want another Justin Fashanu on my hands," she scowls to a solemn nod of understanding. The subtext is clear, even in real life: to publicly reveal yourself as a homosexual footballer is tantamount to career suicide. Since Fashanu's confessions, not one professional footballer has admitted to being gay - a damning indication of the levels of homophobia and fear so prevalent in football. Nobody, it seems, wants another Justin Fashanu on their hands.

For much of his life, Justin Fashanu and rejection walked side by side. After being born into poverty on Sunday, 20th September, 1961 in London, Fashanu and his younger sibling John were abandoned by their father and handed over to the Dr Barnado's organisation in 1964. Their new home in the Barkingside establishment was oppressive, but in 1967 the brothers were to experience stability when they were adopted by Alf and Betty Jackson, a white middle-class family from Attleborough in Norfolk. The boys adjusted to their new rural environment immediately and settled in an area of predominantly white faces. Race was not an issue for the Fashanus, and their physical prowess helped break barriers in the school playground. As the elder sibling approached his teens, PE teachers observed his skilful feet on the football pitch. His strength was his greatest asset and in competitive games he would knock opposing defenders aside like empty beer cans as he charged goal wards. Local First Division side Norwich City were impressed too and quickly signed him on schoolboy forms.

He progressed quickly at Norwich and on January 13th, 1979 Justin was picked to make his debut against West Bromwich Albion. He was only one month shy of his 18th birthday. A string of impressive performances followed before a wonder goal - a 25 yard volley that dipped and swerved into the net - against Liverpool on February 9th, 1980 forced him into football ubiquity. Fans likened him to a black panther. Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough signed him for £1 m -the first time a black player raised such a sum. Sadly, the public enthusiasm didn't last long and on the pitch at Forest, Fashanu resembled a rabbit trapped in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut. Off it, a nagging sexual confusion forced him to experiment in gay bars. This flirted with the wrath of his homophobic manager and he was bullied daily as word filtered back to the club. But despite the continual rumours, he refused to publicly confirm his sexuality, fearing the news would end his career. Even his team-mates were left in the dark. "Justin never confided in anyone at the club," said Forest player Viv Anderson. "I remember (team-mate) John Robertson asking him in the dressing room. He said, 'Err, Fash, are you queer?' Justin responded with a big smile and said, 'Give us a kiss and I'll tell you"' He was religious too, and internally the conflict between sexuality and his strong faith pushed him into a depression. Said friend Peter Tatchell, "He couldn't commit to a long-term (gay) relationship because that would have been, in his eyes, a pre-meditated and staid sin." And so Fashanu fulfilled himself by picking up one night stands in Nottingham gay clubs to gasps of shock from on looking fans. He later dismissed them as temporary lapses to ease his God-fearing conscience.

Weary of the rumours and emotional baggage, Clough offloaded him to rivals Notts County for a cut price £150,000. "God wants me to succeed in the city of Nottingham," Fashanu beamed proudly. And for a short while he seemed right. Away from Clough he excelled, recapturing the form that had wowed fans at Norwich, before a horrific knee injury curtailed his progress. On recovery, Fashanu was a shadow of his former self and moved to Canada after trials at a string of English teams. Here clubs eagerly employed British players in the twilight of their career and he could play competitive football and visit gay bars without fear of reprisal. But disastrously, when he was spotted canoodling with another man by a British tourist, the subsequent holiday snaps found their way to a London tabloid paper.

Fashanu panicked and contacted celebrity agent Eric Hall for help. Hall agreed a fee of £100,000 with The Sun for an exclusive confession, though the Fashanu family appeared uneasy. John, who was a client of Hall's, pleaded with his agent to pull the story and offered his brother an equal sum of money. "He said that if the story did appear he would never work with me again. So much for brotherly love" recalled Hall. The revelations ran in a week long serialisation, though Fashanu's admissions of affairs with MPs and fellow professionals seemed riddled with exaggeration. "There was always the sense that you didn't know where fact ended and fiction began," said Sun journalist, Steven Howard. "There was definitely a touch of the Walter Mitty about him. He was trying to lead the life

of the well paid, high-profile footballer when in reality he was heading for skid row." The black community disowned him and friends believed Fashanu had sold his soul to the devil.
"He'd lowered himself to make few bucks," said Peter Tatchell. Meanwhile, the Fashanu brothers drifted apart. Justin descended into a world of fantasy and self-denial, living the life of a superstar without the money to support his flamboyancy. He moved to Scotland, relying on tabloid revelations to fund his extravagances and bragged of dates with Coronation Street’s Julie Goodyear. It was the first of many lies. "He told me that he had needed the money and that the papers were prepared to pay him for a story," she said. When MP Stephen Milligan was found dead in 1995 after an erotic act of auto-asphyxiation Fashanu told journalists he'd been acquainted with the dead man and described him as "weak". Police later dismissed the claims as an attempt to procure tabloid cash. Fashanu was sacked by his then club Aberdeen for "conduct unbecoming of a professional." Bizarrely, he would later claim he'd been persecuted by "media vultures". In loneliness and rejection, he had become wholly deluded.

With his cash supplies cut, Fashanu ventured to Maryland Mania, a team located just outside Washington, DC in America. Life seemed settled and he made friends easily - his apartment in becoming a regular venue for late night weed and beer parties. It was at one such gathering that Fashanu encountered D Junior, an athletic teenage boy from the local area. The pair got on well, but when Justin made a drunken lunge, he was rebuffed - the teenager claimed to be straight. As the party dispersed, D Junior, by now drowsy with booze, asked to crash on the sofa and Fashanu agreed.

Subsequent events are unclear, though one thing is certain: sexual intercourse took place. D Junior claimed rape, and reported the incident to the police. Fashanu flew to London after questioning, dismissing the accusations as blackmail. He lived in London for a month before the Maryland incident oozed into the British press. John subsequently disowned Justin in public, though he's since expressed remorse. "Of course I miss him," he said. "Losing Justin was like somebody cutting my arm off." Sadly, it was too late for Fashanu. Addled with paranoia and depression, he visited Chariots Roman Spa, a gay sauna in Shoreditch, before breaking into a nearby garage and killing himself. He left only a crumpled note, tucked inside a Filofax, as a final farewell. "I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me," he wrote. "I will at last find peace." Had the football community and his peers expressed a greater level of understanding, one suspects Justin Fashanu could have found that particular luxury a little closer to home.


Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner, was a close friend of Justin Fashanu. To read his account of Justin's life, click here.
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Article written for the August 2004 edition of Attitude by Matt Allen
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August 13, 2004
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