Zander Murray has become the first male Scottish professional football player to come out as gay.
The 30-year-old joins the list of people within the British game to have publicly announced their sexuality this year, following the likes of Blackpool teenager Jake Daniels and Scottish referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson.
Murray, who broke Gala Fairydean Rovers’ goalscoring record last season, is the first openly gay player to take to the pitch in Scotland since Justin Fashanu turned out for Hearts in 1994.
He had been coming out to friends and family – but crucially nobody in football – gradually since April 2021, but went public with the news in a Facebook post that was then picked up by newspapers.
It has been a long journey for Murray to get to the point where he is confident speaking out about his sexuality, but appropriately the decisive moment came in Benidorm after attending his first Pride.
“I came out in April 2021 to close friends and family, and from there it has been a slow and steady transition, drip feeding it to more and more people,” he said.
“That’s the way I did it, but I know some people do it differently. I had to do it that way for my own mental health.
“I knew I was a niche, because I play football. I did a lot of research, and I watched the documentary on Justin Fashanu – it’s so moving, I was in tears watching it.
“I researched Robbie Rogers, Josh Cavallo, Andy Brennan, John Amaechi, and then of course closer to home there was Jake Daniels and the referees, Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson, that I’ve been speaking to. I started thinking ‘this is what we need’. The work that everybody is doing is great, things like Football v Homophobia, seeing rainbow armbands around the game, but I think seeing the soldiers on foot – people actually playing the game – will make it a lot easier.
“I decided to do it when I went to my first Pride event. I don’t usually get to go to Pride because I’m playing football at the weekend, but I was in Benidorm of all places and it was absolutely fantastic. My friend took a photo and asked if she could put it on social media, and usually I couldn’t do that. I had come out to everyone apart from football, they were the only people that didn’t know.
“I thought about it, and as we were walking back to the hotel I realised I could die tomorrow living a lie. I would just be a number, because so many people will have lived closeted. I was on the veranda, and I put a post on Facebook and that was it.
“I’m feeling good, very good. There’s zero hiding anymore, just me and my organic self that I should have been a long time ago. I’m not looking back anymore, so I’m very happy to get the word out there and support ending the stigma.”
Joining – not turning away from – social media
While many people talk about the toxicity of social media, Murray decided to go in the opposite direction.
Shortly after news broke of Murray’s sexuality, he launched profiles on Instagram and Twitter, platforms he has never been a big fan of.
Despite the abuse that often goes hand-in-hand with LGBTQIA+ identities in particular, though, he believes there can be plenty of good coming out of using his profiles to spread positive messages.
“I felt the need to get the word out and inspire others, which has happened,” Murray reasoned.
“I’ve had gay sportsmen reaching out to me, but I have to say that women’s football is exemplary. They are what we need to look up to and aspire to be.
“I didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it has. I barely post on my Facebook, but I felt that I needed to get it out there and connect with more people – I’ve accepted the fact that I might need to get back on to social media.
“I just felt the need to expand the reach of my message. I could see it was gathering a lot of traction, so let’s see if it can reach people in the minority.
“So many people have messaged me that play football in Britain, asking me how I got to this point. I’m probably going to meet some of them for a coffee, and that was my number one objective. I like to help people, I’ve done that all my life, that’s what makes me tick. I’m so happy it’s doing that.
“I try and ignore the negative stuff on Twitter. I was getting ‘why is this news?’, and I actually agree with that. Why was I closeted to my friends, family and football team? The majority of people don’t care, but until others come out who are maybe a bit more high profile it goes in the news.
“Eventually, hopefully it will be like women’s football where you don’t have to go public. You don’t have to speak out, I would just like football teammates to be open to their friends and family. I have hidden away from the question ‘what are you doing this weekend?’ for years. I was petrified to answer it, and I know I’m not the only one.
“I hope I can be part of the solution. I know how challenging it can be, it’s so hard. I knew I was different, and I played for professional clubs when people were talking about girls when I knew. I loved the football when I could forget about it for 90 minutes, but everything around that was so difficult and challenging. There were no role models, and I had such a hard time.
“Now going forward I would like young people to see that there are people thriving in this world, and that they can do it. Second to that, I want to help current players, whether that’s indirectly or directly. My mum always says ‘better out than it’, and I want to join or build a platform that gives support and people can use.
“I can see there’s plenty already out there. Initially I was going to build something, but there’s a lot of work already happening, so if anyone wants my services I’m more than happy to help because it’s a real passion of mine.”
Battling through tough times
As is often the case with LGBTQIA+ people, Murray struggled to embrace who he was in his younger years.
The inner conflict affected his well-being, mental and physical, and he believes it has also stopped him from playing football at a higher level.
In the admittedly short time since coming out, though, he has seen nothing but positivity within the sport he is so passionate about after embracing his authentic self.
“My 20s were very challenging – especially the latter years before I came out,” Murray recalled.
“I was in long term relationships with girls, and it was horrible breaking up knowing that I was hurting someone, but I also needed to accept myself. It was so challenging, and it absolutely hammered my mental health. It’s crazy what that then does to your physical health.
“It’s all linked. I’m night and day from what I was at, but after all this calms down I’ll probably still get little bits here or there.
“I was holding all of that in, and that’s why I need to try and help other people. When you hold something like that in, your physical being latches on to that as well. I just don’t want anyone to go through that. I want to be part of the solution.
“Not being able to be myself has held me back in my career. I broke the club’s goalscoring record last year, and I had a fair few clubs interested. Someone wanted to sign me in a closer division, but there were ones above that who wanted me to go on trial.
“My inner self-saboteur got to me. I started wondering what they would think if they found out, what they would think of me – but it’s 2022, and nobody cares. Even people who are really religious who I was scared of finding out to me came up to me. I couldn’t believe it.
“You get some football clubs that are male-dominated, people of an older generation, thinking you should be a ‘man’s man’. It’s a dog-eat-dog atmosphere, but at Gala they have the loveliest people I’ve ever met in my life. They have given me an amazing response for being a wee club down in the borders.
“I’m quite a strong personality in the dressing room, and if people give me any banter they’re getting it right back. I thought people would treat me differently, but it’s so normal. They’re all taking the mickey, saying I’m loving all this attention, and I love that it’s stayed the same and they haven’t changed.”
Freedom on the pitch
Less than 24 hours after going public about his sexuality, Murray was back playing for Gala in the Scottish Cup against Sauchie.
The end result did not go Gala’s way, as they lost 4–1 to Sauchie, but Murray scored his side’s goal to bring up a century of goals for the club.
As a whole the afternoon proved to be emotional for the striker, and he knew how important it was to find the net so soon after such a big moment in his life.
“There was a lot more media attention, so I did notice that,” he admitted.
“When I play, I usually have the blinkers on, but I nearly cried in the warm up because I was so happy. It was the first time I was myself on a football pitch.
“We’ve got huge injuries, so I knew it was going to be a tough game for us. We don’t have a huge budget like some other teams in the league, but when I scored that goal to make it 1–1 it was unbelievable. It released so much for me. It was my first game back, because I was injured and hadn’t trained in about a month. I was thrown in, so to score my 100th career goal, I couldn’t have written it.
“I just wish we had won the game. We got hammered, but it was a good feeling. Being a striker, the pressure might have been on if I hadn’t scored, but getting that goal the day after means I can just go and enjoy my football now.
“I know that if my form drops, there will be a bit more pressure and fans will give me a bit more stick. It might not be homophobic, but they will boo as they do, and that’s fine.
“I love it. Call me what you want, this is a completely different Zander to the Zander of four, five or six months ago. I was out to my family and friends, but I wasn’t completely out like I am now. If I get anything, it’s not even an insult – it’s just telling me who I am. How can I get upset at someone when they’re telling me what I am? I’ve just got to be calm. It’ll be like water off a duck’s back.
“My teammates are asking me loads of questions that they’ve probably never had the chance to ask because they’ve never been in a dressing room with a gay man.
“They’re nice questions, and I’m more than happy to answer those questions and help them out. It’s going to help them speak to their friends – if people are giving any homophobic chat, they will be able to call it out, so it’s important to get that message out there.
“I guarantee if any of those Twitter trolls actually sat down and had a conversation with me face-to-face, they would understand. In that note I put out, I could have put loads of other points but I just wanted to focus on the key ones. Everyone would understand that unless they’re extremely homophobic.”
Murray has spoken about his desire to help the next generation, and he has already been in regular contact with Lloyd Wilson – who had similar ambitions when he came out earlier this year.
He can see a time when a player in the men’s game coming out does not make headlines around the country, and he doesn’t think we are that far away from that moment.
In the meantime, though, he has advice for anyone who may be considering taking the plunge and adding their name to the likes of Josh Cavallo, Jake Daniels and now Zander Murray.
“I’ve been a career advisor for six years, and I’ve always known that helping, inspiring and empowering others is something I love in my job,” he added.
“There was always just that little element missing, and even if I don’t get a career out of LGBT+ in sport outwith playing football I think this is it. I think trying to inspire future generations is going to play a part for the rest of my life.
“I’m not going to shirk away from it. I’ve spoken to Lloyd Wilson plenty of times, and he was my ref when we played against Rangers B – you need those types of strong characters.
“You can’t just put someone who’s gay or bi into any one type of criteria. We’re all different, we all have different interests and likes.
“This has been in the pipeline for a good while. My close friends have always said that I could be someone that’s a true inspiration, a role model. When Jake Daniels came out, I was like ‘wow, what an inspiration’. Hopefully I have continued that.
“I think once somebody in the English Premier League, at the highest level, comes out, that will be it and everyone else will be able to speak without too much media attention. That’s a huge goal for me that I want to achieve.
“A fair few people in football have reached out and Lloyd knows a lot of players as well. I want to help them, directly or indirectly. I will be in touch with them all when I get the chance.
“The most important thing for people to know is that you’re not alone, and then number two is that you have to start the process of accepting yourself. The quicker you accept it and the quicker you’re out there, the better you’re going to play because you’re going to be more relaxed.
“I would recommend doing it as a step-by-step process, drip-feeding it, and not just getting everyone in a room and announcing you’re gay. Speak to charities, speak to the PFA and other bodies, gather as much advice and guidance as you can before coming out, because you will be inspiring so many people that you probably have no idea you will be inspiring.”