Has football progressed at all since the tragic case of Justin Fashanu?

Just over 30 years ago, footballer Justin Fashanu became the first professional player to come out as gay. When we talk about ‘firsts’ in breaking down identity barriers, we think of pioneers such as Billie Jean King. She was the first prominent professional female athlete to publicly come out about her sexuality in 1981. Since then, we’ve fortunately seen the likes of Martina Navratilova come out in Tennis, Gareth Thomas in Rugby or we’ve even since Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh become the first same sex couple to win an Olympic Gold together. These firsts usually face an onslaught themselves, but it seems a natural progression that their bravery allows for others like them to follow suit.

But in that 30 years since Justin Fashanu became the first professional player to come out as gay, not one English Premier League footballer has come out as a gay whilst they were still playing. In a League of 557 men and in a country where Stonewall says 7% of the male population is LGBTQ+, the numbers don’t seem to add up.

Last year, an unnamed Premier League footballer revealed he is gay in an open letter, but stated that he wasn’t prepared to come out publicly. On the one hand, we can fully respect the fact that someone doesn’t want to disclose their sexual preference to the world, or rather doesn’t feel that they should. However, the bigger issue at play here was the player talking about how his sport isn’t yet “ready for a player to come out” and how “the game would need to make radical changes” in order for him to feel able to reveal his identity.

What was most disturbing about this open letter was the mention of the Professional Footballers Association’s role in fostering an inclusive environment. The PFA have said “they are ready to help a player to come out. And they have said they will offer counselling and support to anyone who needs it.” This is entirely missing the point. The process of being gay itself is not something that often requires counselling; rather it is the prospect of the imminent media onslaught and interrogation that would warrant extra support for players. The answer to this? Educate fans, players, managers, agents, club owners – basically everyone involved in the game.

Ultimately, it’s not the players’ job to come out and break down barriers. It’s the authorities and the footballing communities’ job to foster an environment where players can choose whether they want to or don’t want to come out purely guided by their own feelings.

What is particularly interesting in football is the marked difference between female and male footballers coming out. The discriminatory biases aside, in recent years, high-profile footballers in the UK, and the US especially, such as Megan Rapinoe, have been vocal and unapologetic about their sexuality. After leading her US team to victory in the World Cup last year, Megan Rapinoe stated: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. That’s science right there!”

Why this is, is complex, and generally can be explained by inherent gender biases in football and sport more generally. Gendered expectations manifest in sport, and in women’s football, these women have already overcome the idea that they are going against the perceived grain by playing the game in the first place. Women’s football, as such, has largely always been a bubble of inclusivity and general acceptance due to the consistent barriers that have had to be overcome in challenging historic conservative norms questioning a woman’s suitability to play the game.

In the men’s game however, historical associations with the game as an expression of absolute masculinity and an exclusive male domain, mean that perhaps that culture of inclusivity and difference, is not as prevalent. This, of course, isn’t suggesting that masculine/feminine characteristics and expectations are inextricably linked to sexuality. 

For all the good that has been achieved in the dressing room, it appears that homophobic abuse from fans is still a huge issue, and perhaps a driving factor in dissuading footballers to come out. A 2016 survey by Stonewall Scotland found that 82% of the people who had witnessed anti-LGBT abuse at a sporting event, had witnessed it at a football game. The firm stance by clubs on stamping out racism has truly been commendable, but why hasn’t this been extended to homophobic abuse? Is it because we don’t know the identity of the targeted? Perhaps.

In a recent Guardian article, Ross Hunter perfectly summed up the dilemma in football. He said, “perhaps it is not so much the fear of discrimination that keeps players from sharing who they really are, but fear of the fanaticism and intrusion they would face should they choose to tell the media. A gay football player would not only have to deal with the inevitable heckling of the opposition fans, but also wider society’s need to celebrate them for an attribute they never had a say in; a facet of their character that, unlike their skill as a player, didn’t take years of graft and training. The dilemma any prospective gay footballer faces is that their career would be overshadowed by their story.”

I do take issue with Ross Hunter’s almost flippant use of the phrase ‘inevitable heckling’. Football are too quick to define their own problems as ‘society’s problems’. Racism in the stands is a reflection of a racist society. Homophobia in the stands is a reflection of a homophobic society. Whilst this has some basis, Gareth Thomas recently said, “things are said in a football stadium that would never be allowed on the street. So do not tell me there’s an excuse. If you think it’s society’s problem you will never, ever change football.”

This is perhaps evident when you type in ‘Justin Fashanu’ into google. The top results don’t say: “Justin Fashanu – the footballing wonder who scored some unbelievable goals in the Premier League and was the first £1 million black British footballer.” Rather they solely focus on his sexuality and eventual suicide. Although perhaps I am guilty of feeding into that narrative right here…

In Clough: The Autobiography, the Forest manager recalls a conversation with the young forward: “‘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?’” Fashanu had faced homophobic abuse within his beloved sport, including from his own family. Even his brother John attempted to stop him from coming out as gay, paying him £75,000 to keep silent. In 1992, Fashanu said in a TV interview that he experienced huge backlash from his coaches and club chairman, who effectively shut him out. One would hope that the discrimination within the game would be incomparable to the severity of it during Fashanu’s time. However, I’m sure the first headline when an active Premier League player comes out will not be too dissimilar to The Sun’s insensitive, uncompromising one in 1990 – “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.”

Last year, Liverpool Midfielder, James Milner, was asked why so few male footballers have come out. His response being, “it annoys me the media make such a big thing of it. Who will be the first gay player in the Premier League? A bookmaker started laying odds on it a few years ago, which was just ridiculous. That’s just making it harder.”

In a way, Milner has a very valid point. If we make this a ‘waiting game’ with all eyes on the Premier League, it’s no wonder no one feels comfortable publicly speaking about their sexuality. It feels inauthentic and pressure-filled. However, how do we overcome that? I don’t have the answer, and in many ways, just as Justin Fashanu was, for want of a better phrase, the sacrificial lamb, it may have to be repeated. Fashanu’s death by suicide in 1998 is etched in the mind of any footballer who is questioning their sexuality, and you can’t help but thinking over 20 years on, would the story actually be much different? But it would surely be a positive thing for the LGBTQ+ and general footballing community to have a story that can change up this one-dimensional narrative of the sexuality-football ‘dilemma’. Until young, gay players or people can see openly gay footballers, they may well “hang up their own boots”.

Having already written the first draft of this article, The Guardian’s Donald McRae published an article with Gareth Thomas with the headline quote being “In most forms of work you could come out. But not in football.” What was interesting about the article is how Thomas claims that “if anything it’s probably more dangerous [for a footballer to come out] now as social media has allowed people to discriminate even more openly. I don’t see anything that’s been done within football apart from token gestures.” He echoes the sentiment that athletes get into football to be solely judged on their ability and skill and revel the opportunity to showcase that to fans – that is why regardless of societal change and acceptance, coming out in football will be ‘a big deal’; a ‘big deal’ that most footballers would understandably want to avoid.

This article is all about someone who is already a professional player coming out, and perhaps on another occasion it would be worth considering the scenario of a player who is already openly gay before they reach the professional ranks. It is, I believe, the case that the youth in general and the educational world are far more tolerant than in previous eras, compounded by the football world being generally more accepting because of external pressures.

However, in the elite game, as Hunter said, “An openly gay footballer wouldn’t just benefit the LGBT community; it would benefit football.” However, when these players already have the pressures of performing each week, being good role models, justifying their extortionate wages, or fighting for free school meals, it’s clear why no one wants to play that part.

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