Tuesday 5th May 1998, BBC News: Justin Fashanu was found dead in a lock-up garage in east London on Saturday. The former Norwich City and Nottingham Forest footballer died as a result of hanging, a post-mortem examination has concluded.
Justin Fashanu was the first footballer to come out; at the time of his death he was coaching a team in the US and was facing a sexual assault charge.
Tuesday 13th January 2009 BBC News: Eleven people have been charged with indecent chanting at a football match after an inquiry into suspected abuse aimed at Sol Campbell. The abuse was both racist and homophobic.
That’s not to say that Justin Fashanu killed himself simply because he was gay, nor am I suggesting anything about Sol Campbell’s sexuality – that’s his affair – but I choose these stories to illustrate the prejudices which still run rife in the so called ‘beautiful game’. For examples of what any gay footballer would have to face, I can highly recommend the article here.
Surely that prejudice, the risk of mockery and abuse, is why so few sportsmen come out, especially when they’re still active within their field. Sportswomen seem more likely to do so; there are plenty of lesbians ‘out’ within the sporting community – Amelie Mauresmo, Clare Balding, Karrie Webb among many others. But ‘out’ sportsmen, those still competing at the highest level? You could count them on your fingers.
Interestingly enough, a number of them are within equestrianism, about the only sport where men and women compete on equal terms. I’m not for a moment implying that equestrian sport is in any way ‘effeminate’. It takes a huge amount of strength, guts and skill to manoeuvre a horse around a three day event cross country course; Blyth Tait does it to great effect, becoming Olympic eventing Champion in 1996. Then there’s Lee Pearson, CBE, who’s won nine paralympic gold medals in dressage, despite having very little use of his legs (he controls the horse through his backside – he says he’s got a great bottom). He’s certainly talented enough to compete in able bodied events. Carl Hester and Robert Dover are other noted ‘out’ riders.
Olympians feature heavily here: diver Matthew Mitcham went to the Beijing Olympics not only having revealed his sexuality, but having applied – successfully – for a grant to enable his boyfriend to go with him. Matthew became 10m platform gold medallist. But of the thousands of competitors who go to the games, only a dozen or so are known to be ‘out’, most of them women.
Rob Newton, Britain’s top hurdler, declared his sexuality and, interestingly, it seems to have had very little coverage. (I’m an avid – some would say rabid – sports fan, and I only found this fact out while researching this article.) That’s a feature about all these sportsmen I’m mentioning here – their being out is neither hidden nor generally discussed , and why should it be? Commentators don’t introduce William Fox-Pitt as ‘the straight rider’ so why should anyone describe Blyth Tait as ‘the gay one’?
I couldn’t finish without a mention of rugby and of course, Supernige – Nigel Owens – who’s not a player but a highly respected referee. And he brings the story full circle, having attempted suicide when younger, tormented by his sexuality and steroid addiction. The fact that he got through that difficult time is testament to his highly supportive family and the fact that he takes to the pitch and doesn’t get abused is testament to the great nature of rugby. He does get the odd shout of “Are you bent, ref?” (meaning biased), sometimes followed by “Sorry, Nige, didn’t mean it like that…”
In contrast to the attitudes within rugby, I still find it difficult to believe that, in my lifetime, any association footballer could come out as gay or have his boyfriend among the WAGs. I hope to be proved wrong.