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Justin Fashanu and the politics of memory

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

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

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.