Friday, 3 February 2012

Britain's Gay Footballers.

Ok, so this isn't strictly to do with Sheffield's gay history, but it caught my eye and thought it was worth a look at.

Being as I am a perpetual procrastinator, and often find myself performing mind numbing tasks at my work desk, I am always on the look out for something to watch on the iPlayer. My eye was caught the other day by a BBC Three documentary called 'Britain's Gay Footballers' presented by Amal Fashanu. (available until Monday 13th February)
Those of you with a good memory, or interest in football will instantly know the connection between the Fashanu name and the theme of gay footballers. Amal Fashanu being the niece of Justin Fashanu, the first, and to date last premiership footballer to come out as gay in the UK. Amal follows her Uncle Justin's career, meeting with people who knew him at the peak of his career, including her dad, John Fashanu. I knew in advance of watching this show, just how heartlessly and publicly John Fashanu had rejected Justin's sexual orientation.
In Amal's first meeting with him, John is incredibly vague about the whole situation.
 "His coming out was not favourable. I don't think in two decades of football I have ever witnessed the abuse your uncle received…"
He then reinforces the idea that footballers and football supporters could not accept a gay player, falling back on old stereotypes of gay men as feminine.
"This is a macho, men's game, the game of football is the bully boys, the bulldog, slide tackle, in a wet day, mud all over your face, a few cuts. It was never for two men to do a slide tackle and go back and kiss each other"
Now clearly I am not an expert but this sounds like a pretty homoerotic game to me. Amal then goes home and busies herself trying to get anyone from Premiership football to agree to an interview. Failing in this she goes off to a Brighton and Hove Albion match, and talks to the home fans about the homophobic jeers they receive during matches from opposing supporters. Because Brighton is stereotyped as the 'Gay Capital' of the UK, fans have invented clever little slogans such as "We can see you holding hands" and "Stand up if you can’t sit down". Unsure if this really does constitute homophobia or not, Amal speaks to the paragon of tastefulness and political correctness that is Matt Lucas. He finds the slogans quite funny and draws a clear line between calling one player a 'F***ing P**f' and fans jibing each other from across the terraces. But are homophobic chants the root of the problem?
Amal then interviews John McGovern, former team captain of Justin's at Nottingham Forest, about the attitudes towards Justin's sexuality in the team and how he got on with the other players.
"He was no different from any other player … he used to smell nice, he used to smell lovely"
Amal does not look impressed, and yet the thinly veiled homophobia continues. She asks if they knew about Justin being gay at the time that he played at Nottingham Forest.
"He came out and said he was gay but we didn't actually know at the time"
Lies. During Justin Fashanu's time at Nottingham Forest FC he came out privately to manager Brian Clough. Clough was disgusted by this and suspended him. Defiantly Fashanu turned up to practice anyway, only for Clough to have him escorted from the premises by police[1]. I began to suspect that McGovern's casual attitude to homophobic abuse that Fashanu may have received was having an impact on Amal, and she was beginning to have a real sense of indignation on behalf of her uncle.
Amal then gets an interview with famous PR guru Max Clifford, asking him why no gay footballers have come out and if he thinks they ever will. Once again we find that Amal is fobbed off with excuses about attitudes in football being in the 'dark ages' and talk of footballers coming to him to cover up their homosexuality.  It's even possible that Justin Fashanu himself had taken this route, although this is not touched on in the show. In December 1992, just two years after Fashanu had publicly come out, the Daily Mail reported 'Street's Bet and gay soccer star Fashanu are 'lovers''. This was a short lived attempt to appear as bisexual on the part of Justin, claiming that he and Julie Goodyear were having a relationship.
"A friend of the couple said …they have become lovers and you could say they are an item"[2]
Following this she investigates Rugby, and speaks to Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player who came out in 2009. He spoke of positive attitudes from fellow players and rugby supporters alike, and said that his career has not suffered since coming out.
Amal then talks to her mother, who reminisces with Amal about Justin and their happy times together. It becomes clear that she had no problem with Justin's sexuality, but other family members did. It is here that Amal discovers the truth about her dad's reaction to Justin coming out, which was to effectively disown him.
I found on the BBC Archive site (an amazing page to sit and watch old tv clips if you have the time) an interview with Justin on the early 1990s programme 'Open to Question'. Justin is surrounded by young people who ask ever more invasive and ridiculous questions. At one point he refers to his brother's reaction after he came out and states that John had offered him far more money not to give the interview to the paper, than he got for giving the interview itself[3]. At other points in this programme, Justin speaks of also loving women, and seems to be trying to reverse some of the effects of being 'pigeon holed' as gay.
When Amal finally sits down and watches the TV footage from the time (when Justin came out and when he committed suicide) hearing for the first time Fashanu's suicide note, she is understandably upset.
Following up her initial enquiries, Amal then speaks to a few of the players at Millwall FC. The few players who will actually go on camera to speak about gay players confirm that homosexuality is not a problem in football and that any fellow teammate would be supported in coming out. This seems to satisfy Amal, but I wondered how much of this would be true in practice. Later in the show she meets Anton Hysen, a professional footballer in Sweden who is openly gay. Seeing that he has had little trouble with homophobia and been well supported by family and team, Amal concludes that this positive reaction is probably to do with Sweden's relaxed attitude in general. She may have a point, but this doesn’t explain how we can have an out gay rugby player in the UK, but no footballers.
Finally Amal confronts her dad and asks him whether he could have done anything differently to support Justin. Despite clearly never having been confronted with these home truths before, John remains adamant that his rejection of Justin was for the good of their family.
In the end Amal decides to go right to the top and speaks to the FA's Equality Manager. She is told that the FA has a 4 year plan in place to tackle homophobia in football. This news doesn't impress Amal very much, and quite rightly.
In preparing to write this piece I had a quick scour of some news articles on Justin Fashanu. I found a depressing amount of news pieces on Justin, from the time when he came out, to after his death, which show a clear disregard for him as a human being.
Allan Hall's Daily Record piece 'Justin Cash-in Noo! (Justin Fashanu) He only has two loves in his life big bucks and himself' from 1994 unashamedly drips with contempt for him. Referring to Justin as "a wanton gay man" the reporter tells the story of the time he spent with Fashanu for a news piece in 1990.[4] Not content with emphasising every mention made about money, hotel rooms and the class of flights Fashanu negotiated over the story, Hall feels the need to recall bursting into Fashanu's hotel room to find a man in his bed.
"The story, according to Fashanu, was that he craved the warmth and love of men in a bonding, friendly, companionship kind of way."
Later in the article.
"He hadn't fastened it [the hotel room door] properly the night before. I called his name out and suddenly someone shot bolt upright in bed. It was a tall, young white man, suddenly followed by Justin Fashsanu. "Oh, err, hi" he said. "this is my …friend". Companionship was clearly what he had been missing."[5]
This is just one of a number of scandalising and degrading news pieces I was able to find on Fashanu. It seemed that any time he was around a journalist once he had come out, anything he said or did was fair game for a smear.
Even after his death, former friend and alleged 'lover' Julie Goodyear spoke to the press saying
"He told a lot of lies about me for money…I maintained a dignified silence but I do believe things catch up to you."[6]
Is there any wonder that gay players are reluctant to come out?
Amal Fashanu's programme focused on the UK Premiership, however the presence of gay people in football in the UK can be found elsewhere in British football. Gay Football Supporters Network runs a small league of gay football teams in the UK and has been going for ten years. They run the league based upon the many local all gay football teams in the UK. Some of these, such as Yorkshire Terriers have been on the go since 1997. Anyone interested in getting into gay football should head towards the GFSN.
Clearly there are many hurdles to get over before we are in a position where gay premiership footballers feel comfortable enough to come out. If you want to find out more about the most high profile campaign on this very issue and how to get involved, visit the Kick Homophobia out of Football website.
Or, launch a campaign of your own. Here is the link to the FA's equalities page, which has an email to which you can report homophobic incidents in football. Enjoy!
Lastly I refuse to accept that the barriers to gay players coming out exist in the hearts and minds of the general football loving public. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if those with the budgets and the power to change things don't know how we feel about the state of homophobia in football, there will be little reason for them to do anything about it.

[1] Obituary: Justin Fashanu, The Independent, by Ivan Ponting, May 4th 1998
[2] Street's Bet and gay soccer star Fashanu are 'lovers', Daily Mail by Tim Jotischky December 15th 1992
[3] Open to Question: How has 'coming out' affected the career of Justin Fashanu?, BBC Archive
[4] Justin Cash-in Noo!, Daily Record by Allan Hall February 10th 1994
[5] See reference 4
[6] Fashanu just ran out of lies, Daily Record by Iain Ferguson May 4th 1998

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