Remembering Justin Fashanu a different way, 15 years after his death

Complexity has been ironed out from the footballer's legacy

Share
Related Topics

When Justin Fashanu is remembered, it's as a tragic, allegorical figure. He's held up as concrete proof of the frustrating, still prevalent equation that 'homosexuality + football = danger'. To graceless members of the press/gay community/world of sport, he's 'the gay footballer who killed himself'. It pains me to admit it, but I've probably referred to him as such myself – and in writing this to mark the 15-year anniversary of his suicide at the age of 37, I know there's a possibility of my reducing his legacy as such once again.

However, this is a grossly shortsighted evaluation. Justin Fashanu was first and foremost a great talent: a rapidly rising star in football at Norwich City in the late 70s and early 80s, he became Britain's first £1million black footballer upon signing to Nottingham Forest in 1981. Equally if not more impressive was his coming out as gay in an interview with a tabloid newspaper in 1990, becoming the first professional football player to do so.

Forgive me for pointing out the bleeding obvious, but what an unfathomably brave, amazing thing to do. Perhaps that's my own brand of simplification talking, or my age: like many people engaged in the debate surrounding today's closeted gay sports stars (while we're on the subject, big props to Jason Collins, who became the first NBA basketball star to come out only this week), I was blissfully ignorant to Fashanu's existence while he was alive, which makes my remembering him immediately problematic. Or perhaps it's simply the benefit of hindsight. Even after 23 years, nobody in Fashanu's position has had the guts to do what he did.

So why is he so seldom celebrated? My theory: the vitriolic blaze of negative and often antigay publicity that followed – that pervaded the rest of his life, preying on his alleged 'attention-seeking' tendencies and later career disappointments – has informed most people's recollections of him. If he were alive in today's friendlier LGBT climate he'd be iconised; instead, his sporting achievements are reduced to mere footnotes and his coming out directly linked to his decision to end his life – even though that came eight years later; in truth, nobody has the right to make such an assessment.

The possibility that Fashanu was actually happy in his gay identity (as suggested in this 1994 Independent profile of him) is rarely conceded. Furthermore, when I interviewed Fashanu's niece Amal for Gay Times magazine recently, she raised questions about people's assumptions that her uncle's death and sexuality are inherently linked, pointing out the infinite, incomprehensible reasoning behind such a grave decision. “People think it's related to him being gay, but I don’t," she told me. "He was happy with who he was. It was a lot of trauma over a lot of years. Let’s not forget that Justin and my dad [football player John Fashanu] were Barnardo’s kids. They were fostered by white parents in Norwich where they were the only two black kids; they didn’t have a black role model. And he was very connected to God. There are so many things that go on in the brain."

His suicide was preceded by doubtlessly stressful, unproven and strenuously denied allegations of sexual assault on a 17-year-old boy; his suicide note cited a desire to spare his family “further embarrassment”. Perhaps commentators took this as an admission of guilt (I don't). Perhaps that's why the news was reacted to with such precious little sensitivity, and why he's now remembered in such a one-dimensional manner.

The lives of great talents and complicated public figures are often simplified in death – albeit often romanticised: mistakes, subtleties and inconvenient human truths overlooked. Kurt Cobain, the tortured artist (why is everyone so quick to gloss over his heroin addiction?), Freddie Mercury, the gay pop star who died of AIDS (does his being bisexual make his story more difficult to consume?) and Princess Diana, the angelic people's princess who could do no wrong (people were a lot quicker to reference her adulterous affairs while she was alive). This is where Fashanu’s luck ran out: when he's remembered, it's not through a sentimental filter: it's his troubled personal life and post-80s flailing career that are magnified – or simply, he's 'the gay footballer who…'. And thus, those that look to him and ought to be inspired are instead deterred.

It doesn't have to be this way. To me, Justin Fashanu is a legend, a man of firsts, a man whose achievements in life overshadow the tragedy of his death. Perhaps it's hopelessly, naively optimistic, but today I'm remembering him with celebration rather than sadness.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?