Justin Fashanu, the first professional soccer player to come out as gay, will have his life explored in an upcoming dramatic TV series, finally giving the trailblazing athlete’s legacy some long-overdue retelling.
When they were barely 20 years old, Fashanu and his younger brother, John, both achieved national fame in England by becoming pro-soccer players in the early 1980s.
However, after Justin Fashanu came out in a 1990 British tabloid interview — scandalously mentioning his hookups with closeted Parliament members — his brother and other family members rejected him.
His own coaches and teammates directed crude, homophobic insults at him, and soccer fans regularly chanted anti-gay songs at him during matches. Soccer authorities did nothing to stop the abuse.
Such homophobic jeers were sadly common at the time — and to a degree, still are in pro-soccer — especially since, in the early ’90s, religious and political conservatives regularly demonized gay men as sexually promiscuous spreaders of HIV.
But things worsened when, in March 1998, a 17-year-old in Maryland accused Justin Fashanu of sexually assaulting him during a drunken night together. To escape legal charges, Fashanu fled to England. By early May, he died by hanging himself after visiting a local bathhouse. He was 37.
His suicide note said the sex between him and the teen had been consensual. It stated, “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”
The upcoming TV series, set to premiere on Britain’s ITV network, will focus on Fashanu’s strained relationship with his brother after coming out.
Justin was frequently compared to John, especially as injuries, uneven on-field performances, and repeated trades to other teams destabilized Justin’s athletic career. However, the show’s writer, award-winning Black author Kwame Kwei-Armah, will not just focus on the tragedy of Justin Fashanu’s life, but also his bravery and athleticism.
“I grew up watching the Fashanu brothers,” Kwei-Armah told Deadline. “I was fascinated by them, inspired by them. As an adult, my heart breaks for them. ‘The past is a foreign land’, the saying goes, ‘they do things differently there’. In Fash, I wanted to dive into that past, particularly one that has so many resonances with today.”
Notably, this isn’t the first time the gay soccer player has had his story told. He was one of several players mentioned in the 2010 BBC Three documentary Britain’s Gay Footballers. His story was also told in the 2017 documentary Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story.
It makes sense. Fashanu not only helped pave the way for other pro-sports athletes to come out, but his story also continues to inspire those who struggle to come out against overwhelming odds.
Justin’s niece, Amal Fashanu, who was eight years old when he died, told Yahoo Sports, “Justin didn’t have any of that: None of the warmth, none of the recognition that what he did took so much courage. Instead, he was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong.”
“He was a lost soul, but even then his precedent secretly gave a lot of people hope. I get messages about what an inspiration he was from all around the world, all the time.”
In 2020, Fashanu was inducted into England’s National Football Museum Hall of Fame. This month, Norwich City’s LGBTQ+ fans group, Proud Canaries also began raising £150,000 to erect a statue of the gay soccer player.
Andrew Reynolds, one of the people behind the statue fundraising campaign, said, “It’s time [to honor Fashanu] because we’ve spent too long not including everyone in football.”
“I think it’s time to really open up a space for young kids, who happen to be gay or happen to be bisexual, to feel that they have a place in football,” Reynolds added. “We’re hoping that this really spreads the message far and wide that things need to change to make football more enjoyable for everybody.”
Watch a trailer for the 2017 documentary below…
Here’s also a video of the campaign to erect a statue in Fashanu’s honor.