FOOTBALL, ART AND QUEER CULTURE: THE JUSTIN CAMPAIGN 2008-2009

FOOTBALL, ART AND QUEER CULTURE: THE JUSTIN CAMPAIGN 2008-2009
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This text was originally written to accompany the 'Another Sport is Possible ... ?' exhibition held at Galerija Nova, Testina 7, Zabreb in June 2012, in conjunction with Zagreb Pride. It is reproduced at IBWM by kind permission of the author and the curator.

February 2008: the Brighton Bandits go to Nottingham for a Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) national league match against the Nottingham Ballbois. It’s a long trip – 150 miles each way. A professional football team would hire a bus, and might play cards or watch a film, but as an amateur side, the Bandits drive in separate cars.

About to represent the Bandits for only the second time, I’m travelling with club co-founders Paul Windsor and Jason Hall. They are two of the more socially conscious members of the squad, profiled in Ian McDonald’s documentary Brighton Bandits, the first about a gay football team, which premiered at Brighton’s CineCity festival in December 2007. Indeed, it was this which attracted me, a writer publishing short stories, articles on avant-garde literature and film and a column on transgender culture in Brighton and Hove’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) newspaper one80news, to join.

I soon click with social worker Windsor and artist Hall, who designed the club’s badge. We all play for the Bandits because it provides a ‘gay-friendly’ space: as players and spectators, we’ve found mainstream football culture unwelcoming towards anyone even suspected of straying from sexual or gender norms, and the national and international tournaments for ‘gay’ teams provide a framework for us to meet and play competitively.

Being ‘gay’ is not essential to be a Bandit, which has caused friction (shown in McDonald’s film): do the team want to focus on winning by recruiting the best players possible, regardless of sexuality, or protect their core identity? This manifests itself in the divide between the younger ‘straight’ players who have helped to improve results and the older gay men who formed the club in 2003, and who do the organisational work necessary to fulfil League fixtures publicise the club and attract sponsorship.

Hall, Windsor and I discuss this, but only Windsor calls himself gay. Hall identifies as bisexual and me as transgender, but we’re both discovering queer – sexually, culturally and politically. Besides football, Hall – who suggests rebranding the Bandits as a queer team, but is quickly shot down – and I share a love of genderqueer performance artists such as Jonny Woo and Ma Butcher, Pia Arber and Lucy McEvil, the performers at London’s Wotever World and Transfabulous, and colourful activist groups such as Queer Belgrade, the Radical Faeries or the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

As we pass the City Ground, home of two-time European champions Nottingham Forest, and Meadow Lane, which hosts Notts County, the world’s oldest league club, we talk about Justin Fashanu – still the only professional to come out as gay during his career. Fashanu is not only close to our hearts because of his sexuality. Hall is a Nottingham Forest fan, more proud of manager Brian Clough’s miraculous European Cup victories of 1979 and 1980 than of how Clough treated Fashanu after Forest signed him for £1m from Norwich City, the club I support. We’d all found Fashanu’s suicide – and the tabloid coverage – deeply traumatic, aware that Fashanu had endured so much homophobic abuse: from Clough, who confronted Fashanu over his trips to “those bloody poofs’ clubs” before selling him to Notts County; his brother John, who disowned him after he came out; team-mates and crowds. Ten years later, we wondered why there was so little dialogue about Fashanu’s life and death.

After Jason asked Ian about the possibility of making a film about Fashanu, we agreed to form the Justin Campaign, with Ian documenting its first year. Having a separate LGBTQ league (the GFSN competitions welcomed bisexual and queer players, with its co-ed policy offering lesbian and trans people somewhere to play) was great, and we welcomed the English Football Association (FA)’s work with Stonewall and the GFSN to combat homophobic chanting from the stands, but recalling Fashanu, we felt that mainstream football should be more accommodating for sexual and gender minorities who wanted to play.

We started planning: Hall the artist, with big ambitions; me the situationist, exploring the relation between theory and practice; and Windsor the pragmatist, considering the practicalities. We looked at working from the top down, wanting to ask the FA to back a day to remember Justin Fashanu with black armbands and a minute’s silence, Premier League clubs to discuss the Campaign in their programmes and the Professional Footballers’ Association, UEFA and FIFA to issue statements condemning homophobia. (For all his faults, FIFA President Sepp Blatter criticised former Croatia coach Otto Barić, then managing Albania, who told the Jutarnji List newspaper that “I have no place for homosexuals in my team”. These comments were echoed in November 2010 by Croatian Football Federation leader Vlatko Marković, who stated that gay players should be banned from the country.

But we knew that this type of activism was not for us, with full-time jobs and without direct access to football’s main institutions, so we adopted a more grass roots approach. “The overall emphasis of the Campaign was always on fun,” says Hall. “It could be the gateway for people to understand the issues around homophobia in football. Queer culture and art are closely linked: neither connected much with sport, but I knew that bringing them together would be successful.”

We aimed to combine creativity and politics in art happenings, protests and declarations. “My obsession with gay culture had taken me to a dark place,” recalls Jason, “and I wanted to do something good. Sport and homophobia had been neglected, and a lot of LGBTQ people have poor health as a result. Our methods of campaigning felt new and exciting – that was the draw for a lot of people.” We began with an interview on BBC Southern Counties Radio, deconstructing myths about “the showers” at a gay team, with “nothing much” being the answer, and Fashanu’s career as a gay footballer. I planned a biography, with my discoveries about his life having significant impact on our campaign, but it remains unfinished: I later wrote several articles on Fashanu, some of which accompany this exhibition*. 

Ultimately, we aimed to raise awareness of Justin Fashanu Day, scheduled for 2 May 2009, and the Campaign’s opening after that weekend’s Stonewall Equality Walk. The three of us carried (heavy) placards with slogans such as ‘Justice for Justin’ and ‘A Minute’s Silence, Not a Decade’ to Brighton’s Amsterdam Hotel, a gay venue that sponsored the Bandits, where we held our launch. Jason discussed the need to combat homophobia in football, as did veteran LGBTQ rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a friend of Fashanu’s from the striker’s time at Nottingham Forest until his death.

There was controversy. Many Bandits’ gay players were ‘straight acting’, with some closeted in their day jobs. One asked why we were “raking up” Fashanu’s story, and others expressed concerns about linking the club with our activism, forcing us to demarcate more clearly between the two despite Jason and Paul using Ian’s Brighton Bandits to provoke discussion in colleges and universities. In the film, several players attacked ‘camp’, describing it as a “put-on” and emphasising a masculine gay identity – a prejudice which Jason and I had reacted against, resenting anti-feminine sentiments within some gay, queer or even feminist cultures**.

We screened Brighton Bandits at The Odeon in Brighton for the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) on 17 May 2008: I introduced the film and a question and answer session with several Bandits players, including Paul. Then, accompanied by Tatchell, we went to Jason’s home for his Open House art exhibition, held as part of the Brighton Festival. Jason designed a bedroom for a child who supported a gay football team, filled with Justin Fashanu memorabilia and with Fashanu’s famous Goal of the Season for Norwich City against Liverpool in February 1980 played on a continuous loop.

His installation, Girls’ School, also confronted the audience with wider social discrimination. It ‘consists of a decommissioned tank bullet shell, an AK-47 and some bullets,’ wrote Jason for the Art and Football Against Homophobia press release. ‘I’ve engraved homophobic insults on the edge of the tank shell. This stands as a reminder of words that … are no longer so damaging – decommissioned, if you will … The gun has very likely killed someone in the past, but has now been deactivated. The message is clear: I am on the offensive, and have become active in diffusing homophobia.’

At the launch, a heckler had shouted at Tatchell about the ethics of using Fashanu’s name in such campaigning when he was not alive to give his approval. We debated this subject intensively before the International Gay & Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA) World Cup in London in August 2008, concerned that we were turning Fashanu into a martyr, erasing the complexities in his life, particularly that he died under suspicion of sexual assault; that his Evangelical faith had clashed with his sexuality as much as his sport; and that his football career had been revived at Torquay United after he came out, being ended by his habit of selling stories about his private life to the tabloids. 

Eventually we decided to acknowledge that homophobia was not responsible for all of Fashanu’s problems, but that it affected him before and after coming out, and that a greater understanding of the conflicts between Fashanu’s family background, career, religion and sexuality would help future LGBTQ footballers, amateur or professional. We would focus on Fashanu’s life rather than his death, planning future events such as Football v Homophobia for his birthday – 19 February – rather than the anniversary of his suicide, and making it clear that we didn’t want to force anyone out of the closet, but that we aimed to create a welcoming environment for those wishing to come out.

With our theoretical basis secured, we campaigned with more confidence, and attracted new recruits. This allowed us to start working with the game’s governing bodies. Jason and Ian met the FA’s Equalities Manager, discussing England defender Rio Ferdinand’s homophobic comments on BBC Radio 1’s Chris Moyles Show , and former Luton Town, Aston Villa and Chelsea star Paul Elliott MBE, who repeated Tatchell and Fashanu’s suggestion of October 1990 that there were at least twelve gay footballers around at the time.

However, with Paul, Jason and I remaining the driving forces, the Campaign continued to be dominated by art as a means of raising awareness. Jason displayed his work in the University of Brighton’s Fans, Stands & Homosexuality exhibition in November 2008, his ‘challenge to the last taboo of professional football’ featuring alongside Richard Baskett’s ‘pilgrimage to the Africa Cup of Nations’ and ‘a meditation on the soul of non-League football’ by David Bauckham. His contribution juxtaposed one image of himself exploring a more genderqueer identity, with false eyelashes, eyeliner and lipstick, and another of his face disfigured by a homophobic assault – both with the same expression.

What drew the crowds, however, was Jason’s spectacular football table. “I bought a very regular table and spent a week pinking it up,” he remembers. “I sprayed it, embellished it with diamanté, glitter and a pitch made from a disco mirror ball – I wanted it to be as camp as possible.” The table infused one of British football culture’s gentler elements with queer imagery, creating a “Barbie-esque” object that would constantly remind players of its context, but Jason found that “big rugby lads” had no reservations about using it, ignoring its décor as they immersed themselves in their games.

Before a Brighton Bandits match at the University campus, the Campaign staged a competition to recreate that famous Fashanu goal. Jason designed a trophy for the player who came closest to replicating the strike, in which Fashanu, 25 yards out with his back to goal, flicked the ball over his head, turned and hit a curling volley past Liverpool goalkeeper Ray Clemence into the bottom corner. Everyone got three attempts and – if they scored – also had to copy Fashanu’s iconic celebration, raising a single finger in celebration of his own brilliance. Bandits centre-forward Aidie Norman came closest, and won the cup.

Gathering momentum, we found more possibilities to slot the Campaign into Brighton & Hove’s LGBTQ infrastructure. The city had an annual Pride parade in summer and a festival in winter, and after being awarded a grant by the Winter Pride committee, we worked with the City Council to stage a large-scale event in the recently constructed Jubilee Square to tie in with LGBT History Month.

The Justin Campaign Football Festival took place on 7 March 2009. We turned the Square into a queer-friendly arena, capturing the public with stalls offering information on local and national LGBTQ football, particularly the Brighton Bandits, the GFSN and the life of Justin Fashanu. FA coaches trained children and adults and ran games in the 5-a-side pitch we’d installed (after rigorous health and safety checks to manage the implications of footballs flying around the Square’s new glass buildings). It was chaotic, but as always, fun – people young and old crowded onto the pitch, intuitively recognising that the scenario we’d created was unique, and relishing the chance to play in the middle of a new urban development.

At 3pm that Saturday – traditionally the kick-off time for domestic League matches – and with coverage from the BBC and ITV News, we unveiled our greatest weapon in our fight to unite football and queer culture: the Justin Fashanu All Stars, a team open to anyone (of any sexuality) who wished to represent the Campaign in tournaments or friendlies. Its bright pink shirts were sponsored by local music legend Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, whose record label, Skint, had also backed League club Brighton & Hove Albion. Cook offered a quote for our press release: ‘I am proud that I can be part of Justin’s legacy. He was brave, out – and a great footballer. Hopefully one day, I can be in the strip!’

Designed by Jason with a new badge which doubled as a Campaign logo, the strip did not pass without comment – as intended. “The shirts were controversial amongst gay people – the GFSN thought it too stereotypical,” says Jason. “Pink is a passive colour that’s very confrontational. If you beat a straight team whilst wearing pink, it has more impact, as we’re not shying away from who we are.”

At the Festival, we announced the squad for our first tournament, in Leeds, held by the Yorkshire Terriers, a GFSN League side, before the All Stars went to the Iceland Express gay tournament – patronised by former Chelsea, Barcelona and Iceland star Eiður Guðjóhnsen. Then we prepared the second half of the evening – where the emphasis shifted from football that incorporated queer culture to queer culture that involved football.

This was a table football tournament, hosted by Jonny Woo and Ma Butcher, who compered Soho’s popular Gay Bingo in – “avant-garde queer entertainment” as Jason recalls it. We set up a number of tables in the imperious Jubilee Library, with mixed-gender teams of two people competing to play the final on the glittering pink table. With ‘alternative drag queens’ Woo and Butcher as MCs, their exaggerated femininity punctured by thick facial hair and, in Butcher’s case, a pig’s nose, the tournament had a frenetic, fun feel.

At this point, I left the Campaign, beginning my gender reassignment in May 2009. At IDAHOBIT Day the previous year, I’d met Guardian journalist Chris Borg, who then helped me get my Transgender Journey blog commissioned by the newspaper’s website – the first time that the process had been documented in a major British publication, furthering the possibilities of taking queer culture into a mainstream space that had been resistant, as we had with the Campaign.

So I missed Justin Fashanu Day, with LGBTQ choir Various Voices singing You’ll Never Walk Alone – inextricably associated with Liverpool FC – and Jason staging a minute’s silence at Tate Modern. He stood in the gallery in his All Stars kit, with his banner, paying his quiet tribute to Justin until the security guards kicked him out. Then, when artist Antony Gormley announced his One and Other installation, Jason applied to be one of 2,400 people to stand on the empty fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square, taking his spot on 22 July 2009 – a means of directly confronting the public with the Campaign’s ideals.

Since then, the Campaign has grown – attracting the people who could work with the football authorities, taking a different direction. Like me, Jason is no longer part of the Campaign committee, but like me, continues to play in tournaments for the All Stars, attend its seminars at the University of Brighton and elsewhere, and create work which aims to bring LGBTQ people and football closer together. “My proudest moment was seeing 12-14 year old lads wearing the All Stars at the Amex Community Stadium [Brighton and Hove Albion’s new ground, opened in summer 2011] at half-time during the Denmark v England U19 match”, says Jason. “There’s been nothing better than seeing that happen in front of 18,000 people.”

For me, it was seeing Justin – Ian McDonald’s film about the first year of the Campaign – premiere at CineCity in December 2011. Paul and I were present, looking at ourselves being interviewed by BBC Radio and attending the Amsterdam Hotel launch on the big screen, watching the interviews with Justin’s friend Marisol Acuña, and his niece Amal Fashanu. We remembered when Amal wore the All Stars kit for Football v Homophobia, the conversations with Peter Tatchell about his years in activism, the intense debates we had about the best way to combine queer counter-culture and football, and felt a quiet joy in all that we achieved.

* In particular, my New Statesman article ‘Justin Fashanu and the politics of memory’, published 2 May 2012.

** For further reading, I recommend Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (2007).

For more information on the Justin Campaign, please visit http://www.thejustincampaign.com/

For more on Jason Hall's work (the image used here is not one of Jason's), please see http://www.outlinegallery.com/Home.aspx

For further information on LGBTQ sport in Croatia, go to http://www.queersport.info/

Follow Juliet on twitter @julietjacques.

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