An announcement on the website of Gala Fairydean Rovers changed Zander Murray’s life beyond recognition. After three decades of covering up and denying his true sexuality, the striker was now the first openly gay Scottish footballer. The genie was finally out of the bottle.
The interview requests were quick to flood in. Invited to London for his first television grilling from fellow Scot Lorraine Kelly on ITV’s morning network, the 31-year-old was nervous and a little overwhelmed. The underlying feeling was one of liberation.
‘It was mental,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I was having this conversation with my pals just the other day.
‘Nobody can prepare you for the level of attention that came my way. That was tricky at first, I need to be honest about that. I did not expect all of that.’
He never expected the process to be easy either. During lockdown the Lowland League striker binge-watched It’s A Sin, the Channel 4 series written by Russell T Davies, depicting the life of gay men during the AIDS crisis in 1980s Britain.
Deeply affected by what he saw, he ended a heterosexual relationship with a girlfriend shortly after.
By April 2021, he felt ready to divulge who he really was to friends and family. It was the first step in what he now refers to as a ‘drip process’. Small baby steps en route to the final stop.
Zander Murray said nothing could have prepared him for the attention that would be foisted upon him after autumn’s announcement
‘That was the big worry, telling my family,’ he admits. ‘Regardless of my sexuality, I can be quite an alpha male. And I think that can be hard for the older generation to understand. They put gay guys in a pink box with bows on.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I like Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I have my feminine side. But there has been a bit of educating about stereotypes as well.
‘You can be gay and like fitba’. We like fitba’ and that’s how we are.’
The Gala Fairydean Rovers star became the first senior Scottish footballer to reveal he is gay
Stereotypes around homosexuality are only slightly more common than stereotypes around football fans. Regarded as a rough-and-ready, macho, working-class sport, Murray stayed in the closet as long as he did for fear of the likely reaction of supporters and team-mates.
Former Airdrie and Hearts striker Justin Fashanu was the last openly gay player in the Scottish game in the 1990s. The omerta surrounding homosexuality within the national game was finally shattered when Blackpool striker Jake Daniels came out earlier this year.
Scottish referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson followed suit soon after and, at the end of September, Murray had mustered the courage to break the news to the football community with an announcement on the official website of Gala Fairydean Rovers, a club playing in the fifth tier of Scottish football.
At the end of September, Murray mustered the courage to break the news to the football community
‘You know what? This shouldn’t even be news any more,’ says Murray. ‘I did this to try and pave the way for younger players, to be brave and honest.
‘There are gay footballers in Scotland. I know there are.’
Asked to speak at an LGBTIQ+ event by LEAP Sports Scotland last month, the Glaswegian was surprised to be approached by a face he recognised afterwards. The face in question belonged to another player from the Lowland League.
‘He didn’t say too much,’ says Murray. ‘He just shook my hand, told me he was struggling and said: “Zander, you’ve no idea what you’ve done. Thank you so much”.
‘I didn’t expect what I did to have the reach it had or attract the number of messages it did. But I know there are people struggling and I hope I can pave the way to help.’
Murray says that he has got to a point where he does not give a ‘monkey’s’ what people think
A View From The Terrace, the BBC Scotland football show, travelled to Gala to speak to key figures around the club. When the piece appeared, the scale of the support he enjoyed became clear.
‘There was a ripple effect after that,’ explains Murray. ‘Men from the football community messaged me. I want to get to a day where a gay footballer is no longer national news. We have to get to a point where gay players can sit in a dressing room after a game and say: “I’m going out for a few drinks with my boyfriend” and no one bats an eyelid.’
On reflection, Murray wishes he had gone public years ago. Offered opportunities to move to a higher level, trials with clubs in Scotland’s senior leagues, he turned them down for fear of team-mates finding out who he was.
‘For want of a better term, I k***** my pants,’ he admits. ‘I thought: “Oh no, what if they find out I’m gay?”
He says it has been a ‘truly liberating’ experience for him amid concerns prior to announcement that it wouldn’t be so smooth
‘I got an opportunity to play at a higher level and I didn’t do it because I worried about what would happen if they heard.
‘There shouldn’t be this fear building up. None of the issues I’ve struggled with down the years should exist. I keep getting people asking me: “How hard has it been? Has it been tricky?”. In actual fact, it’s been truly liberating.’
Recently appointed a diversity champion for gay rights group Stonewall, Murray is an experienced careers advisor and will use those skills to give talks in schools. He also plans to go into football academies to address young players on LGBTIQ+ issues.
‘Since I went public, I’ve had many older men come up to me and say: “My nephew’s gay. That was brilliant to see, son”.
‘I didn’t expect that,’ he continues. ‘There was a guy who fixed my boiler the other day and he said: “Son, you know what? Good on you, man”.
‘I was delighted to see Keith Watson of Ross County speaking about it. I read what Derek McInnes had to say. David Martindale at Livingston as well.’
He expects to encounter turbulence at some stage. Some young players will giggle and struggle to take what he has to say seriously. The more interviews he does, the more he’ll be recognised on the streets of his native Glasgow and the higher the likelihood there is of homophobia peeking through the curtains. For the first time in his life, however, Murray feels reconciled to who he is and ready to deal with whatever comes his way.
He became the first openly gay player to play in Scotland since Justin Fashanu in the 1990s
‘At some point, I am going to be abused. I know I am,’ he says. ‘I am very open now over how much I struggled and how much time I spent pretending I was someone else. Even when I came out, I was still terrified walking about town.
‘I expected a wee jibe here and there and there has actually been nothing at all. When I was out with gay pals in a restaurant talking about Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I’d be hiding. I’d be thinking: “Who’s in here who knows me?”
‘Now I’m at a point where I don’t give a monkey’s and that’s what I want to convey to others.
‘I have worked on myself to a point where I just don’t care. It’s okay to come out and be yourself. I will do as much as possible to get my voice out there.
‘And if I help just one young player then that’s a life’s mission complete.’