‘Come out, come out wherever you are’, British tabloids have dedicated yards of column inches this year exhorting gay and bisexual footballers in the English Premier League to come out. On an almost weekly basis, articles from the likes of The Apprentice mentor and West Ham vice-Chairman, Karren Brady, or out former Leeds football club director, David Haigh, bemoan the lack of out professional footballers. It seems a popular pastime to make estimates of the numbers of gay players at senior levels of the men’s game in England and to speculate on their reasons for keeping quiet about who they have sex with. David Haigh, among others, argues that, “Football needs them to go public.” But whatever the needs of the beautiful game as a whole, the footballers in question seem to have decided that their personal needs are important too.
The release of the documentary, ‘Forbidden Games; The Justin Fashanu Story’ is a timely intervention in this debate. It charts the story of Justin Fashanu, the first million pound black player in English football. A precocious talent, tipped to be a major English footballing star, he tragically ended up committing suicide at the age of 37 in a Shoreditch lock up after a night in Chariots Sauna. He was on the run from US police who had issued a warrant for his arrest for sexual assault. Justin came out as gay in an interview with The Sun eight years earlier.
Adam Darke and Jon Carey’s documentary uses stunningly shot reconstructions, exhaustively researched archive footage, and candid interviews with contemporaries such as football agent Ambrose Mendy, Liverpool legend John Barnes, and most compellingly, Justin’s younger brother, John Fashanu, to tell a complex story about a very complicated character.
Fashanu’s story is interwoven with that of racism and homophobia in 1980s England. Trans-racially adopted in the Norfolk countryside, Justin and John grew up isolated from other black people and resentful of their single mother who gave them up to others’ care. Increasingly reliant on each other, the brothers developed a competitive relationship which saw John publicly denounce his brother as ’an outcast’ in Black newspaper ‘The Voice’ within days of Justin’s coming out. Darke and Carey allow John to tell his side of the tale in the documentary. Articulating his belief that his tough, hypermasculine, ‘Fash the Bash’ persona did not allow him to publicly accept his brother’s sexuality – even seeking to pay him to keep quiet about it.
Justin was effectively kicked out of the Nottingham Forest team when Brian Clough discovered that he had been going to gay bars in town in 1981. His career never recovered. Justin, had become used to media attention and public adulation at an early age in his home county, which set the stage for a series of increasingly bizarre tabloid-baiting stories in order to keep levels of interest in him high. Tory MPs were linked to Justin at the height of the ‘Back to Basics’ sleaze revelations. He also announced a relationship with actress Julie Goodyear in 1991 while playing for Torquay United, which kept the paparazzi clicking and Justin in the limelight.
Forbidden Games manages to capture Justin in happy moments as well as in moments of high pressure and tragedy, and mourns the waste of his beauty and talent. It reminds us that coming out is not always an unalloyed success for all of us, and that it matters what support we have from our families, communities, employers and the broader public.
The experiences of out footballers Thomas Hitzlsperger, the Germany and Aston Villa player who came out on his retirement in 2013, Robbie Rogers who has just retired from US soccer, and lesbians in the women’s game, suggests that fans’ responses to gay players may be changing. Forbidden Games, however, reminds us that societal gains in equality are often made on the backs of individuals and should give us pause in asking the current generation of football players in England to bear such a heavy burden ‘for the game’.
Rob Berkeley will be interviewing Adam Darke and Jon Carey after the Fringe Film Fest screening at Rio Cinema, Dalston on 14th November