Justin Fashanu and the politics of memory

The narrative that homophobia in football was primarily responsible for his death forms a dauntingly

Fourteen years since his demise, Justin Fashanu remains one of football’s most politicised yet least understood figures – despite conducting his entire adult life in the media spotlight.

Rounding up the coverage of his death for the Gay Times (June 1998), Vicky Powell noted that "scarcely have there ever been obituaries so devoid of feeling, compassion or warmth" as those for Justin. In the aftermath, he was portrayed as "the Walter Mitty of football" (Guardian), a "predatory gay man" (Sun) and "the architect of his own downfall" killing himself to escape "torment over his homosexual lifestyle" (Mail). Only the Independent and the Times placed Justin in any social context, the latter concluding that "he might have had a less troubled life had his talents been made for a more forgiving arena".

As the tenth anniversary of his death approached, there seemed to be little reconsideration of the cultural meanings of his life (all I noticed was a Scotland on Sunday article reiterating the negative perception of Justin). Aware from ex-manager Brian Clough’s autobiography and elsewhere that prejudice from colleagues and crowds blighted Justin before and after he came out, some team-mate at an LGBT club in Brighton and I co-founded the Justin Campaign, aiming to incite a wider debate about homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football.

We held intense conversations about whether it was ethical to use Justin’s memory in this way, however much we thought he might have approved. (We later learned that despite appearing as a role model, he didn’t involve himself in activist groups such as Stonewall or OutRage, or elsewhere, despite his friendship with Peter Tatchell.)

Having studied his life, from his childhood in a Barnardo’s home and with a foster family in rural Norfolk, the goal of the season which made him nationally famous whilst at Norwich City and the failure of his £1m transfer to Nottingham Forest, all before he turned 21, to his subsequently nomadic career and tragic death, we acknowledged that his difficulties were not solely due to homophobia. We could not ignore his mistakes, not least that he died after being accused of sexual assault, but we would emphasise his struggle against discrimination, and ask how it may have affected his mental state. This made our platform workable, and contributed towards more sympathetic reassessment of Justin, and of football’s treatment of sexual and gender diversity (even in the Mail), but also obscured the complexities of his life.

Inflammatory as it felt, John Fashanu’s recent attempt to short circuit the debate by claiming that his brother “wasn’t really gay” is a red herring. Given that he also had relations with women, there is perhaps an argument about whether Justin was gay or bisexual, or something else, but that concerns the validity of identities attached to sexual behaviour, and the pitfalls of assigning (or re-assigning) them to the deceased. Whatever label is used, Justin was not lying about the fact that had sex with men, and spent time on "the scene" in Nottingham, London and elsewhere throughout his adult life, all of which he spent in football.

Famously, this brought conflict with arch-traditionalist Clough, who asked why he kept "going to those bloody poofs’ clubs" but after leaving, he briefly flourished at neighbouring Notts County, then in the top flight. What destroyed him, as much as the clash between sexuality and his profession, were injury, his double-edged engagement with Evangelical Christianity and his Faustian pact with the tabloids – which really began when he tried to sue the Sunday People after it carried a front-page story headed "I am not gay" which published rumours about his nights at Nottingham’s Part Two.

In December 1981, Justin crashed his car for the second time. On the Autocar forecourt in Nottingham, the salesman convinced him to find God. But, to his surprise, Justin’s proclaimed belief, teetotalism and celibacy baffled and affronted Clough as much as his sexuality, and his acrimonious exit from the City Ground was sparked by Justin bringing his spiritual guide to training – Clough screamed "the religious bloke has got to go" and rang the police to escort them out.

After moving to Notts County, where he spent three years, Justin trumpeted his faith – when he joined Brighton & Hove Albion in June 1985, the Argus said it had been "over-stated". Privately, he struggled to reconcile it with his sexual desires, lamenting the lack of support from the Church on the matter in his Stonewall 25 contribution, "Strong Enough to Survive". Perhaps because his religion was assumed to have covered for his sexuality, the subject was seldom raised after he came out, despite the fact that his last words were "I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me home". One indicator of how Justin is remembered, his Wikipedia page, barely mentions it. (As it stands, anyway.)

Coming out by selling his sexuality to the Sun was one way to meet some of the debts he accrued in trying to fix the horrific knee injury that ended his time in the First Division. It did not, as Justin later claimed, end his career, but actually revived it: he was out of League football at the time. Wanting a high-profile yet affordable player to drive up their crowds, Torquay United, newly promoted to Division Three, gambled on Justin (paying him three times more than their previous highest earner) despite doubts about how his sexuality would be received and, his fitness. He performed brilliantly – ten goals in his first season despite his club being relegated – but his realisation that he could make easy money by selling stories about his private life, whatever their veracity, ended disastrously.

After his fabricated "relationship" with Coronation Street’s Julie Goodyear, and various other media appearances (including a Guardian article in May 1992 urging readers to vote Conservative), Torquay chairman Mike Bateson declined to promote Justin from coach to manager. This led Justin to leave, first for Airdrieonians and then Heart of Midlothian, one of Scotland’s top sides. They sacked him in February 1994 after his attempts to sell stories to the Sunday People about his affairs with Conservative MPs ended with him being questioned by the police and his admission that none were true.

No top-level club touched Justin again – but this may have been because he was 33, out of form and playing with an injured knee. (Footballers have done worse and stayed in the sport if clubs feel they have something to offer, after all.) Nor did the tabloids, despite having taken great interest in Justin when he was profitable: the fallout undoubtedly informed their spiteful response to his death, setting the terms for the polarisation of his memory. Now, surely, enough has passed for us to consider the shades in Justin’s story, remembering him as someone who struggled with a difficult family background and a host of prejudices, against his ethnicity, his sexuality and his faith, in a time that probably wasn’t ready for him. Not only is that fairer for Justin, but it’s fairer for any closeted footballers, for whom the narrative that homophobia in football was primarily responsible for his death forms a dauntingly negative precedent.

Justin Fashanu, pictured here in 1981 when he played for Norwich City. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.