Homosexuality has a strange place on the pitch in association football. Despite noticeable efforts to improve the situation, there continues to be a noticeable lack of LGBT professional footballers in the men’s game; especially compared to both women’s football and other sports.
According to the 2006 FIFA Big Count, there were a total of 113,000 professional footballers registered with their associated national federations.
However, over the past 30 or so years, just eight well-known professional footballers have come out as gay. And that number was boosted to that as of only a few weeks ago, when Australian professional footballer Andy Brennan came out as gay.
To put those numbers into context, it would give a percentage of just 0.007% of the world’s professional footballers identifying as part of the LGBT community. By comparison, 2.3% of the UK male population, according to an ONS Survey in 2016, identify as gay or bisexual.
However, that’s not actually even the true story of the situation. That percentage takes into account if all eight of those openly gay professional footballers were playing today, which they aren’t. In fact, only three of them are – giving an actual percentage closer to just 0.002% of active, professional players in the modern game being openly gay.
For this reason, there is not a single active professional football within English football’s top professional tiers; the Football League, and even stretching down into the National League. The highest openly gay footballer in England remains former National League player Liam Davis, who now plays for eighth-tier Cleethorpes Town.
The sport that seems to be struggling to keep up with the times
As mentioned, men’s association football has a real noticeable lack of openly gay professional athletes – an issue that seems not to affect many other high-profile sports.
An argument often seen on social media is that football doesn’t have the right atmosphere for players to come out and be comfortable being openly gay, both from fellow professionals and fans alike.
FA Chairman Greg Clarke even previously told a Commons Select Committee in October 2016 that he was “cautious of encouraging people to come out until we do our part of the bargain and stamp out abuse.”
A BBC Survey that same month found that while 82% of supporters said they would have no issue with a gay player representing their club, 8% of respondents said they would stop watching their team.
While there are still certainly problems in other traditionally ‘macho’ sports, the governing bodies and agencies involved within them seem more willing to assist and support their LGBT athletes.
Rugby, of both disciplines, has had high-profile players and officials come out as gay whilst playing, including the likes of Gareth Thomas and Wakefield Trinity prop Keegan Hirst. As well as having visible, openly gay athletes, the sports’ governing bodies have taken a very firm stance to tackling incidents of homophobia.
That was seen most recently with the response of Rugby Australia to posts by Australian international Israel Folau. The talented centre and wing posted on Instagram a message suggesting hell awaited homosexuals in April of this year, and saw widespread condemnation from fellow players and his contract being terminated by the country’s rugby union governing body.
It cannot be put down to football itself, either. In the women’s game, there are a significant number of openly lesbian and bisexual footballers, playing at the highest level of the sport, and this has been the case since the very beginning of women’s football.
One of the most famous names in the early days of women’s football, Lily Parr, was known to live openly as a lesbian. Parr is credited as one of the most influential figures in the early women’s football in England while playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, and in 2002 was the only woman to be made an inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum.
One in thirty-seven thousand – Andy Brennan
On 14 May 2019, Australian professional footballer Andy Brennan made a public announcement through Professional Footballers Australia, the country’s players’ union.
That statement was one that likely took immense courage from Brennan, but in essence boiled down to two words written very early on in the essay.
In coming out, Brennan became the first openly gay Australian male footballer and one of this tiny group of publicly out LGBT male professional footballers actively playing the sport; one for every 37,000 players according to the current FIFA statistics.
Now turning out for second tier Melbourne side Green Gully, Brennan had previously played in the Australian top flight with Newcastle Jets, having made five appearances in his two years with the club.
Brennan explained coming out was “incredible saying that [I’m gay] now; it feels amazing. And weirdly, it doesn’t feel like a big deal. Really in 2019, it shouldn’t be.”
He felt the time he’d spent closeted had been a “mental burden”.
Football’s first openly gay professional – Justin Fashanu
In the history of English football, only one professional footballer has come out as gay whilst playing in the football league; Justin Fashanu.
Also the first publicly out professional footballer, Fashanu’s homosexuality was reportedly known about by his early clubs and in October 1990 he announced via an exclusive with The Sun that he was gay.
The announcement made life difficult for Fashanu, suffering abuse from the terraces often after publicly coming out.
Amal Fashanu, Justin’s niece – who made an award-winning documentary on her uncle – was quoted as telling Yahoo! Sports in 2013 following NBA veteran Jason Collins’ well-received coming out: “Justin didn’t have any of that. None of the warmth, none of the recognition that what he did took so much courage.
“Instead, he was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong. He was a lost soul, but even then his precedent secretly gave a lot of people hope.
“I get messages about what an inspiration he was from all around the world, all the time.”
Ultimately, it was his homosexuality that would cost Fashanu his life too. In March 1998, Fashanu was accused to police by a seventeen-year-old of sexually assaulting him after a night of drinking in Maryland, in the United States, where Fashanu had moved at the end of his footballing career.
At the time, homosexual acts were illegal in Maryland.
Before he could be arrested, Fashanu fled back to England and just a few months later in May he was found dead in a deserted lock-up garage. A coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, with Fashanu having left a note stating that although the sexual relations had been consensual he had fled back to England because he felt he would be found guilty because of his homosexuality.