Britain’s Gay Footballers: A few thoughts
Gay footballers. Why don’t they come out? This is a topic that I visited in November 2010, and I don’t wish to sound like a broken record by going over all of that ground now. More importantly, the BBC 3 screening of Britain’s Gay Footballers presents a good opportunity for an update.
The show was a very good primer for those coming afresh to this issue, and was quite moving at a few turns. The most interesting thing about it was that it was hosted by Amal Fashanu, the niece of Justin Fashanu, who died in ignominy after coming out and then leaving the game in disgrace. The programme was therefore not so much an examination of the issue of homophobia in football as Amal’s discovery of just how Justin’s homosexuality had led to a family rift. Though only 22, she was relentless in confronting uncomfortable truths which, remarkably, she was hitherto unaware. As she discovered how unsupportive her family, and particularly her own father John – a professional footballer himself – had been, it felt like a British Nigerian version of Secrets and Lies, where she stumbled upon details of Justin’s situation in full and sometimes harrowing public view. However, John did clarify in an interview soon after Justin’s death that he had been upset that Justin had told a newspaper about his sexuality, rather than telling his family directly. He said: “If he’d have come to me and said, ‘Look John, I’m gay’ I’d have said, ’so what Justin? I’m heterosexual, I like women. I’m not going to go and scream and shout about it. “‘This is how you were made. No problem at all. Get on with your life.’”
Funnily enough, there was much that was positive to be taken from this tragic tale. It is easy to say this with hindsight, but Justin Fashanu’s appalling experience, ending with his suicide, was a perfect storm. He was struggling with a huge price-tag, having been the first footballer in Britain to be transferred for £1 million when moving from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest. In Brian Clough, he had a manager who was wholly dismissive, though later reportedly regretful. He had a brother who at the time was seething with disgust at what he did.
I think it is this rare confluence of factors that was uniquely toxic. The constant reminder from this programme was that coming out is ultimately about your family, your friends and your immediate team-mates. If they’ll go to war for you on the pitch, in the playgrounds and in the press conferences, then nothing else really matters. Looking at Amal, it’s pretty clear that she would have been a formidable source of strength for her uncle: her resolve, born of a roughly equal blend of innocence and fearlessness, saw her asking difficult questions of those in the game’s hierarchy who really should be doing more. Looking at the story of Anton Hysen, the son of former Liverpool defender Glenn, whose coming out was wholly positive, there is some room for optimism.
What more can football do? Well, plenty. Clearly this remains an uncomfortable subject for several in the game, which is perhaps why Amal’s film features only two players – QPR’s Joey Barton, and Plymouth Argyle’s Darren Purse – who were ready to speak publicly and positively about the subject. I think that football needs to take a lead from rugby, which though ostensibly a more macho sport has accepted the openly gay Gareth Thomas, Wales’ most capped player, as one of its own. Encouragingly, Matt Alexander – a scout at Notts County FC, and the son of the late and much-loved manager Keith Alexander – tweeted last night that “I know pro footballers who are gay and it has absolutely NO bearing on how I view them and it shouldn’t for anyone else”. The PFA and Kick It Out are also to be applauded for their continual efforts in this area.
Football needs to nurture a supportive environment for players, already somewhat in evidence, which will take substantially more than the paltry £10,000 that the FA committed to its anti-homophobia campaign a couple of years ago. Having worked closely with Ogilvy & Mather as a consultant on that campaign, I was surprised to learn from the show that the FA had a four-year plan in place. Until last night, this plan was invisible to me: and in my view inadequate, especially given their high-profile efforts to show that racism is entirely unacceptable in football. As John Amaechi rightly commented on Twitter last night, prejudice cannot be overcome with a poster and some platitudes. The issue, though very slowly edging towards resolution, deserves a far more thorough approach than that.Tagged in: Amal Fashanu, Anton Hysen, BBC3, Britain's Gay Footballers, Darren Purse, FA, football, Gareth Thomas, gay footballers, homophobia, joey barton, John Amaechi, John Fashanu, Justin Fashanu, Kick It Out, Matt Alexander, Ogilvy & Mather, PFA
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