All we have ever wanted is to live our best lives — Jake Daniels’ courage means many more might do just that
The term ‘breaking news’ has become a byline for shocking news of late. So, when Evan Davies uttered those words towards the end of this afternoon’s PM, I braced myself. Was this to be news of yet further atrocities in Ukraine?
I was, as it happens, driving home from a weekly session with my personal trainer — sport and getting back to race fitness after Covid were front and centre of my mind.
But this breaking news was a good news story and a sporting one too. In an interview with Sky Sports, Blackpool FC’s Jake Daniels had become the UK’s first male professional footballer to come out publicly as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990. Daniels is just 17.
My immediate response was physical — a lump in the back of my throat and a welling up of my tear ducts. An overreaction you might think. But the love of competitive sport has been at the core of who I am for almost as long as I’ve known I was gay. And that’s a long time.
One of those things is a lifestyle choice of sorts. The other isn’t.
These days the two things are in harmony with one another in my own sport of athletics. Being a gay club runner is, increasingly, no big deal. But it wasn’t always that way.
Colin Jackson is perhaps the highest-profile athlete to have come out and he did so after he’d retired. What it would have meant for a big-name runner — or even just someone at my club — to have come out when I was in my teens. The loneliness of the long-distance runner had more than one meaning.
Even now, I still come out in the running world. Not to make a song and a dance. But precisely because I want to lower the ladder to young gay runners, not pull it up behind me. Coming out is an act of repetition.
But professional football is another game. One of the last bastions of homophobia in the UK — the final frontier.
I’ll freely admit that football and I have never really got on. When I went up to secondary school in 1972, I was a shy, lanky kid. Not quite the last to be picked in games, but not the lad anyone wanted their team saddled with.
The dissonance between the beautiful game and me ran deep. So much so that when I came out for the first time, to my pal, Howard, in the summer of 1979 just after we left school, the fact that he had been a member of the First 11, made it feel like an even greater achievement.
The gap never really narrowed though. In the popular imagination footie and poofs were not great bedfellows. I remember the incredulity of one fellow student when I turned up at the JCR TV room to watch a match a couple of years later.
Not so long after that, when I first came out at work in 1983, an older male colleague spluttered that I couldn’t be gay because I’d played office five a side (badly). Mind you, he was just as sure it couldn’t be true because I drank beer out of a pint glass. I kid you not.
I shudder to think how it must have felt for Fashanu as a young gay — and black — footballer back in those days. He was just a month older than me.
The fact is that such was the contradiction between male competitive sport and being gay back then that part of my motivation to become a better runner was to create a protective layer. If I were even moderately good at sport, none of the other lads would suspect I might be gay.
I, on the other hand, had more than a suspicion I might be from the age of 12 or 13. It was my secret to keep — for as long as I could. There was no language for it anyway — except, of course, as a term of abuse. Sod’s law that just at the point when I was convinced I had warded off any notion that I might be gay, I realised it was impossible to deny — to myself at least — that I was.
‘Oh, I just thought you were arty,’ one of my school running pals muttered as I told him in my first year at university. He meant no harm — and we’re friends to this day — but his reaction to my revelation was itself revealing. Arty and gay — sure thing. Sporty and gay — surely not.
In fact, as I was to discover the following summer, it wasn’t as simple as that anyway. Coming out to some of my thespian pals at Manchester Youth Theatre in 1980 was far from a smooth ride. Yet small wonder that when I first came out to work colleagues — an all-male team of building surveyors — I did so amidst the safety of a trip to a rugby match I had helped organise.
Like so many of my generation, facing up to my sexuality and coming out as a teenager back in the 70s meant making hard choices. There was more than one reason I stepped away from competitive running for a while. But the sense that being gay was at odds with that world — and sport more generally — was overwhelming.
And running wasn’t the only thing I jettisoned in the cause of my sexuality in my late teens either. I had long been involved in my church but being a practising Christian and a practising homosexual was pretty much unthinkable.
My husband, an accomplished young horserider, eschewed the opportunity to be Hawick’s Common Riding Cornet in the early 1980s because he didn’t have a lass — and because doing so would have meant being untrue to his fellow Teries. He did not get that chance back.
The truth is that for so long — far too long — we thought we had to choose between doing all manner of things and being gay. Some walks of life — and some sports — have called out the absurdity of such choices quicker than others. Of late, even organised religion — or at least parts of it — has been on the march.
Professional football has, shockingly and stubbornly, taken its time. Who knows how many lives have been blighted as a result. It is to the huge credit of indefatigable campaigners — and most of all Daniels — that today has come. Change doesn’t happen by accident.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve said in relation to the cause of LGBT rights that ‘we’re not there yet.’ Speaking to PM this afternoon, Amal Fashanu, Justin’s niece, echoed those words. But thanks to the courage of Jake Daniels, today we took a step closer.
Read every word of his story and cheer. Today was a good day.