Sunday, December 18, 2005

when you're out you're out


This week’s sports rant was to be about homosexuality in sport.

The highest level of club football in England is the FA Premiership. There are 20 clubs, and each club carries at least 30 professionals on their books. That is roughly 600 grown men. Given our society that is supposedly more open about homosexuality (so much so that even a lifelong heterosexual like myself can do a piece about this on his blog without trepidation), why is it do you think that not one of the 600 is openly gay? Nor are any top-flight players across Europe?

Are there any in top-level American team sports? Or is it just the ice skaters (dancing ones of course, not the hockey-playing ones!!!).

And the biggest paradox of all, why is it so difficult for the public perception to grasp the notion of a gay sports man when it they have no problem to accept a sports woman’s homosexuality?

I found an old article from The Guardian by Peter Tatchell that says it all. It is about the tragic story of Justin Fashanu(see pic). There is no need for me to write any more on this subject, you can read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

For my part, I only remember Justin for a stunning goal he scored for Norwich against (I’m pretty sure it was) Liverpool in the early 80’s. With his back to the goal on the edge of the penalty area, he received a pass along the ground, calmly flicked it up over his head, turned around, and stroked a stunning first time shot into the corner of the net. One of the greatest individual top-level goals of all time.


JUSTIN FASHANU - HOMOPHOBIA DESTROYED HIM

PETER TATCHELL says it was homophobia that ultimately destroyed the career and life of football star Justin Fashanu.

Justin Fashanu was a trail-blazer. He was Britain's first million pound black footballer, and the first (and only) professional player in Britain to come out as gay.

But trail-blazing cost him plenty of heartache. In 1980, aged 19, he was signed to Nottingham Forest football club for £1 million. The expectations of Justin were huge. There was the pressure to deliver goals and to become a black spokesperson. He found his sudden celebrity-status both a flattery and a great burden.

Back then, in 1980, Justin was not open about his homosexuality. Indeed, he didn't come out until 10 years later. During that decade of closeted double-life, he found it immensely difficult to cope with the strain of hiding his gayness in the macho world of football - not to mention the stress of living a secret gay life while constantly in the media spotlight.

Homophobia was not his only problem. Like many black footballers in those days, Justin suffered racism too. He was subjected to frequent racist taunts by fans from rival teams. They would make monkey noises and gestures, and throw bananas onto the pitch. But it was anti-gay prejudice that ultimately dragged him down.

"A bloody poof!" That's how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described his £1 million star player, Justin Fashanu. Homophobic attitudes like that unsettled Justin. Although he laughed them off, Clough's sneers hurt inside, making it hard for him to concentrate on playing 'the beautiful game'. No wonder his football career nose-dived.

Justin and I met at the London gay night-club Heaven in 1981, soon after he realised he was gay. I had been selected as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, and he had recently transferred from Norwich to Nottingham Forest. We became good friends for the next ten years.

During that time, Fashanu confided to me about the problems he was having at Nottingham Forest. "Clough doesn't respect or support me", Justin complained more than once. Although Fashanu was not at that stage open about being gay, Clough appears to have long suspected he was a "poof".

In his autobiography, Clough recounts a dressing down he gave Fashanu after hearing rumours that he was going to gay bars. "'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?"'

In that hostile, stressful atmosphere, anyone's performance would suffer. Unsurprisingly, Justin failed to score goals.

The pressure Fashanu was under from Clough made it extra hard to come to terms with his sexuality. When we first became friends, he was only 20 and just starting to realise he was gay. Justin had considerable difficulty in accepting his sexual orientation, but through our talks - often late at night on the phone from his hotel in Nottingham - he began to feel good about his gayness.

Although he had not publicly declared his homosexuality in the early 1980s, I was already partly out. Despite the evident risk of his own exposure by association, Fashanu thought nothing of going out with me to night-clubs, parties, family celebrations and high-profile events where he was the guest of honour. He knew journalists and photographers would be there. It was almost as if he wanted to be outed by the press to end the pretence and pressure of leading a secretive double-life.

All this was happening in the run-up to the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, when I was standing for election to parliament. I, too, was in the media spotlight; with prominent press reports about my advocacy of lesbian and gay human rights. Indeed, I was often tailed by tabloid journalists eager for a scoop on my private life. Justin was, to his great credit, determined that our friendship would not compromised by the threat of newspaper exposure. I was more cautious and protective. So, when we planned a night out together, I resorted to devious means to lose the tabloid reporters that often trailed me. They never did catch us.

Around late 1982, Justin seriously considered coming out. He was fed up living a lie. We talked through the pros and cons many times. It was I who advised him to wait until he (hopefully) sorted out his problems with Brian Clough and got his football career more firmly established.

Sadly, the clash with Clough was not resolved. Their relationship turned from bad to worse. Justin's performance went into a tail-spin. With no long-term gay partner, he was desperate for emotional reassurance. He turned to evangelical Christianity. Although that did give him a period of stability, it didn't last.

Becoming a born-again Christian screwed up his life. With his Church damning homosexuality, he became very confused and unhappy about his sexual feelings. Desperate attempts at relationships with women failed. His longing for the love of men never went away. While publicly proclaiming Christian celibacy, he ended up resorting to furtive gay sex. That made it impossible for him to have a stable gay relationship. Caught between God and gayness, he suffered terrible emotional and psychological turmoil.

The combined homophobia of the football profession and Christian fundamentalism was an unbearable strain, sending Justin's career into free-fall. Things were made worse by a knee injury that would not heal (the pressure he was under may well have compromised his immune system and contributed to the lingering infection). He became erratic and unpredictable, on the pitch and off it.

His major league football career was already over when Fashanu finally came out in 1990. He was distressed by the tragedy of a 17-year-old gay friend who had been thrown out of his family home by homophobic parents, and who subsequently committed suicide. "I felt angry at the waste of his life and guilty because I had not been able to help him", Fashanu wrote in the book Stonewall 25. "I wanted to do something positive to stop such deaths happening again, so I decided to set an example and come out in the papers".

Justin was the first and last professional footballer to be open about his homosexuality. That took courage. Others have not shown similar honesty and bravery. At the time, he and I knew of 12 top footballers who were either gay or bisexual. None have followed Fashanu's example of openness.

Although he later said that he "never once regretted" coming out, the hostile reaction from many in the black community hurt him deeply. He thought that his fellow black people - who know the pain of prejudice and discrimination - would be understanding and supportive. Some were, but many denounced him for bringing "shame" on their race. Still, to this day, Justin is the only prominent black person in Britain to come out as gay.

The manner in which Justin came out in The Sun newspaper was condemned by the black weekly, The Voice, as "an affront to the black community...damaging...pathetic and unforgiveable".

"We heteros", wrote The Voice columnist Tony Sewell, "are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty".

"Even if Fashanu had chosen to come out in The Voice rather than The Sun, I doubt his reception would have been any more sympathetic", noted Gay Times media columnist, Terry Sanderson. "Rejection by his own community was profoundly damaging to him".

Even worse was to follow. Justin's own brother John publicly denounced him: "My gay brother is an outcast", John told The Voice. Although John later apologised, Justin never fully got over what he saw as betrayal by a brother he loved. Who can blame him for confiding that there were moments during his coming out saga when he felt "incredibly, almost suicidally, lonely".

Fashanu's sometimes bizarre, indefensible behaviour can only be fully understood in the context of a potentially brilliant football career cut short, largely by homophobia.

There can be no denying that he progressively disappointed many people who put their hope and trust in him as a role model. He became trapped in a downward spiral of declining football performance, bad debts, false claims about sexual affairs with leading politicians, unreliability and desertion of long-standing friends.

At the time of his death, Justin had embarked on a new career coaching the US football team, Maryland Mania. The team president, A J Ali, is quoted as saying that Fashanu was "happy here": "He had lots of friends here. He was helping literally thousands of players. He had a tremendous amount to offer the soccer world".

Those hopes were shattered in April 1998 when a warrant was issued for Justin's arrest on charges of sexual assault against a 17 year old youth. Fashanu's suicide note denied the charges, claiming that he was being blackmailed by his accuser.

Whatever the truth about these particular allegations, Justin had - like all of us - his share of failings. Without excusing these mistakes, they were the culmination of a lifetime of rejection. That rejection began when, as a young boy, he was given up by his parents and put in a Barnardo's Children's Home. It was compounded by the racist jibes he suffered on the football pitch, and by the homophobic abuse inflicted on him at Nottingham Forest by his manager Brian Clough. When he turned to the Church for solace, it piled on more rejection, condemning his gay lifestyle and demanding that he renounce his sexuality. Then, when he came out as gay, he was rejected by much of his own black community, including his dearly beloved brother, John. Not one prominent black leader supported Justin when he was being crucified in the black press.

Nevertheless, despite all the rejection he endured, Justin had a remarkable, praiseworthy capacity for forgiveness. Talking of the hurt inflicted on him by others, and acknowledging his own errors of judgement, Fashanu wrote in 1994: "I don't think you ever forget those mistakes, or the mistakes that other people make that wound you, but it is important to forgive".

Justin Fashanu was a bright shining star - not a flawless star - but a star nonetheless. And I am proud to have counted him as my friend.

4 comments:

Mike Todd said...

Dang, man. That's a sad story.

Anna said...

That makes me proud to know you - online. Speaking of which, do you think it'd be appropriate if I showed up at Keogh's on Tuesday asking the way to Amarillo? I'd be way early though, my head office is hosting a luncheon in town and we've all been given the day off to attend...any chance you'd show up early?

lauranen said...

It certainly doesn't make sense that is seemingly no gay players in the Premiership. I gather that rugby isn't quite as anti-gay as football. For example, the French national team does a quite gay nude calendar (Dieux du Stade), and the openly gay London rugby team Kings Cross Steelers (http://www.kxsrfc.com/)are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year.

Found this interesting too:
http://www.outsports.com/columns/comingout052401.htm

And that goal of Fashanu's was an elegant one indeed, but didn't Liverpool still win 4-3? :)

JL Pagano said...

Hi lauranen,

Not being funny, but in actual fact the score was 5-3 ;-)

Glad to know I'm not the only one out there who sees the problem, thanks for the input, and for the plug on your blog.