“I have been asked by footballers whether or not they should come out and to be honest it’s not a question I can answer.”
Amal Fashanu, niece of the first gay English footballer to come out says she’s talking to players who are worried about coming out.
The 29-year-old daughter of John Fashanu says they want to be open about their sexuality but there are a number of factors stopping them.
“I know gay footballers. Let’s say more than 5 and two are in the Premiership. They won’t mind me saying that but I won’t out them.
“They tell me they’re sad and unhappy about it and I know it’s affecting the way they’re playing. Your personal life affects you on the pitch so it’s affecting their performance.”
Amal’s uncle, Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 to a storm of homophobic abuse. He’d been the first black player and the first player under 21 to be signed in the English game for £1 million. After the newspaper ‘revelation’, he ended up skipping from one club to another on ever-lower fees, eventually moving to the US where he faced sexual assault allegations from a 17-year-old boy. Fashanu fled to England and on 3 May 1998 and he was found hanged in a garage in Shoreditch in East London.
The death of her uncle has loomed large in Amal’s life, with her dad John Fashanu refusing to talk about his brother. He recently admitted offering Justin £100,000 to keep his sexuality secret.
Today, Amal says her connection with Justin means current players feel able to confide in her: “I’ve always been around footballers really and Justin’s story means gay players have approached me.
“It’s not hard to know gay footballers because it’s not like they’re all ashamed of it or hide it from their friends. I mean, at private parties and nightclubs they’re snogging guys so yeah you’re like, oh well he’s gay then.
“100% there are players who are open about being gay with teammates. They bring their boyfriends to weddings and social things. But people outside their circle of friends can’t know.”
Amal is talking on launch day of the #ComeOut2Play campaign which has a reach of well beyond 40 million people on social media today with the message: ‘“If a gay footballer comes out I’ll support them. It doesn’t matter who they score with off the pitch.’
A Stonewall and Forza Football poll this week showed 80% of English football fans would support a gay or bisexual player
Amal says players know now that they’ll get support but it’s not the fans keeping them in the closet: “Often it’ll be the managers and the agents saying ‘come out when you retire, don’t do it now, do it in 6 years’ but I don’t think that’s fair and it’s not really healthy. It makes me sad that they’re waiting to retire.
“I’ve seen the way it affects them and they do struggle with having to hide who they are. It makes them really stressed and sad sometimes and yeah that does affect the way you play.”
The English Football League has backed the #ComeOut2Play campaign and PFA chair Ben Purkiss recently offered his support to gay players, saying: “Attitudes in society are changing. As time goes by, new players come into the game and attitudes develop, I think and hope people will feel comfortable coming out.”
Amal says players have asked her whether they should risk going public. “I have been asked by footballers whether or not they should come out and to be honest it’s not a question I can answer, I just have to leave it to them.
“I personally wouldn’t want to tell a footballer to come out or put pressure on in any way. I mean, it would be huge. It would be a global story and there would be judgement good and bad on all sides but in the end I do think it would be worth it.
Amal says it’s not just football stopping players from coming out as gay, it can also be their backgrounds. “If you come from an African background for instance it’s often not really acceptable to come out and that’s nothing to do with football.
“Players are saying to me ‘what if my family never talk to me again? What if fans hurl abuse at me on the street?’ It’s desperate.
“I don’t think anyone would be that surprised if they did come out, it’s not really shocking and half the fans probably think it anyway and don’t care.”
It’s almost 20 years since Justin Fashanu took his own life and Amal says the uncle she never knew continues to be an inspiration to her.
“Justin was real and true to himself and to this day I can’t believe that’s what he did.” She said. “He was so brave, I just can’t get over how strong he must have been to do what he did back then.
“It’s hard for gay and bi footballers now but twenty years ago? To me, he’ll always be a hero.”