Gay footballer opens up about “nightmare” of life in the closet

A gay footballer in England’s Premier League has penned a heartbreaking open letter to fans and the sport about the torment of living in the closet.

The letter was released by the Justin Fashanu Foundation, which was founded in memory of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first openly gay footballer who tragically took his own life in 1998 after a career blighted by prejudice.

In the letter, the anonymous player – who should be enjoying the perks of reaching the top of his profession – says that the strain of keeping his secret has become an “absolute nightmare” that is taking its toll on his mental health.

While his family and some friends know about his sexuality, he has kept it hidden from his team and the public. He says that while the sport’s authorities have said that they would support a player who came out, he still does not feel he will be accepted.

“I wish I didn’t have to live my life in such a way. But the reality is there is still a huge amount of prejudice in football. There are countless times I’ve heard homophobic chants and comments from supporters directed at no one in particular,” he writes.

The late Justin Fashanu (Pic: Justin Fashanu Foundation)

The local and international sports world remains overwhelmingly closeted, with very few, especially male, players or athletes being open about their sexuality. In football, homophobic chants continue to be used by fans in several countries, despite the imposition of fines.

“The truth is I just don’t think football is ready yet for a player to come out. The game would need to make radical changes in order for me to feel able to make that step,” says the footballer.  He reveals that “the one thing I am missing is companionship. I am at an age where I would love to be in a relationship.”

UK LGBTQ organisation Stonewall has found that 43% of LGBT people in the UK feel that public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBT people.

Last month, retired professional English footballer Thomas Beattie came out as gay. This was acknowledged and welcomed by the anonymous player but he noted that the fact that Beattie “had to wait until retirement tells you all you need to know.”

The only openly gay male professional footballer in South Africa is goalkeeper Phuti Lekoloane, who came out in 2016. He has previously spoken about his devastation after being stigmatised and discriminated against by fellow footballers in the change rooms because of his sexuality.

Below is the letter in full.

As a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a footballer. I wasn’t interested in doing well at school. Instead of doing homework, every spare minute I had was spent with a ball. In the end it paid off. But even now I still have to pinch myself when I run out and get to play each week in front of tens of thousands of people.

However, there is something that sets me apart from most of the other players in the Premier League. I am gay. Even writing that down in this letter is a big step for me. But only my family members and a select group of friends are aware of my sexuality.

I don’t feel ready to share it with my team or my manager. That’s hard. I spend most of my life with these guys and when we step out on the pitch we are a team.

But still, something inside me makes it impossible for me to be open with them about how I feel. I dearly hope one day soon I will be able to. I’ve known since I was about 19 that I was gay. How does it feel having to live like this?

Day-to-day, it can be an absolute nightmare. And it is affecting my mental health more and more. I feel trapped and my fear is that disclosing the truth about what I am will only make things worse.

So, although my heart often tells me I need to do it my head always says the same thing: “Why risk it all?” I am lucky enough to earn a very good wage. I have a nice car, a wardrobe full of designer clothes and can afford to buy anything I want for my family and friends.

But one thing I am missing is companionship. I am at an age where I would love to be in a relationship. But because of the job I do the level of trust in having a long-term partner has to be extremely high.

So, at the moment, I avoid relationships at all. I dearly hope I will soon meet someone who I think I will be able to trust enough. The truth is I just don’t think football is ready yet for a player to come out. The game would need to make radical changes in order for me to feel able to make that step.

The Professional Footballers Association say they are ready to help a player to come out. And they have said they will offer counselling and support to anyone who needs it. This is missing the point. If I need a counsellor I can go and book a session with one whenever I want.

What those running the game need to do is educate fans, players, managers, agents, club owners — basically everyone involved in the game. If I was to make that step I’d want to know that I would be supported at each step of my journey. Right now, I don’t feel I would be.

I wish I didn’t have to live my life in such a way. But the reality is there is still a huge amount of prejudice in football. There are countless times I’ve heard homophobic chants and comments from supporters directed at no one in particular.

Strangely it doesn’t really bother me during the matches. I am too focused on playing. It’s when I get back on the plane or the coach and I have time to think that it gets to me. As things stand my plan is to carry on playing for as long as I feel able to and then come out when I have retired.

It was great last month to see Thomas Beattie raise his hand and admit to being gay.  But the fact he had to wait until retirement tells you all you need to know. Footballers are still too scared to make the step while they are playing.

For the past year I have been getting support from the Justin Fashanu Foundation, not least to cope with the toll this is all having on my mental health.

It is hard to put into words how much the Foundation has helped. It has made me feel supported and understood as well as giving me the confidence to be more open and honest with myself especially.

Without that support I really don’t know where I’d be now. I know it might get to the point where I find it impossible to keep living a lie. If I do my plan is to retire early and come out. I might be throwing away years of a lucrative career.

But you can’t put a price on your peace of mind. And I don’t want to live like this forever.

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