‘I’m tired of being afraid’ – Three gay sportsmen on the joy of coming out
Editor’s Note: Thoughts of self-mutilation are mentioned in this story. Originally published February 1, 2023
On a warm September evening last year in Benidorm, Spain, Zander Murray sat on the balcony of his hotel and contemplated what his life would soon be like. There was no more question in his mind. After years of mental and emotional torment, he was about to announce to the world that he was gay.
The Scottish footballer’s friends and family knew that for many who come out as LGBTQ+, this is the most important part. But not for Murray – the prospect of becoming the third male, openly gay, active professional football player in the world made an already frightening situation even more unnerving.
Looking out into the tumultuous night, he thought about what had happened earlier that day. Celebrating his first pride at the age of 30, he was in awe of the happiness and freedom that comes from those who have embraced their true selves.
He clearly enjoyed it, and when a friend captured the happy moment in a photo, Murray was faced with a mystery. As if it were any other event, the friend was eager to share the snap on social media, but Murray was reticent.
This will reveal everything. What he worked so hard for as he rose through the ranks of professional football will be on the outside.
“Something happened, something just hit me, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?'” Murray, who recently signed with the Bonnyrigg Rose in the SPFL League Two, told Sportzshala.
“I may die tomorrow and I literally just lived a lie.”
And so he opened his personal Facebook account, which had a lot of people from the professional football community, and found the photo that caused so much concern. Laid out and fell asleep.
In doing so, he filled a 28-year gay and male void in Scottish football by continuing the legacy of Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and left Hearts of Midlothian in 1994.
Fashanu committed suicide in 1998, and it wasn’t until Jake Daniels and Murray came out in 2022 that another openly gay footballer appeared in the UK.
It took Murray years of self-acceptance to get to this point, and according to him, pulling out cost him the chance to improve his football career.
“I’ve had opportunities to play higher [in the Scottish divisions], the only reason I didn’t was because I was gay,” he continued. “I thought, ‘You will be in the spotlight a lot more, more people will be watching, what if people see you on the street with your partner? What if they see your friends? How are they going to react?
“But then it got to the point where [I thought]”You know what, I don’t care if anyone sees me with my gay buddies” – and it’s amazing.
“The position I’m in as a professional footballer can be another pillar of society and really strive to make a difference in the world and help inspire and empower others.”
With a heavy chest, Murray added that coming out was “the best thing he’s ever done”, a sentiment echoed by Scottish Football Association referee Lloyd Wilson, who came out as gay in June 2022.
“In fact, people were kinder…”
Being a judge naturally makes one the subject of a flurry of verbal abuse. For every decision you make, one party will feel hurt. Wilson says he doesn’t mind it as long as it’s not personal. However, when discussing coming out, he had something to think about. Was it supposed to lead to the type of “banter” he couldn’t stand?
“As a referee, you almost agree that there will be a bit of abuse about this,” Wilson told Sportzshala.
“I always like to let people know that I don’t mind being insulted as long as it’s not personal. I was shouted at from the terraces a lot about my mother, for example, and [none of them] ever met her in their lives.
“When I made this decision to be true to myself and use various platforms to support others, raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ community, I absolutely thought: “Well, this will be an absolute sign for people who want to [harass] to me.’
“But oddly enough, in fact, people have become better. I’m happy to be gay.”
READ: 17 Athletes From Around The World Discuss Their Coming Out
The traditionally heteronormative football environment seems to be more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially in men’s football. New research released by Stonewall last October It turned out that the proportion of fans who consider homophobic statements in sports acceptable has almost halved, from 25% in 2017 to 14% in 2022.
Making it clear that he never engaged in homophobic slurs, Wilson recalls participating in “homophobic jokes” as a young man.
“It was a departure from me,” he said. “Because I know that if I deviate from myself, I won’t be vulnerable to this ‘banter’.
“I no longer assume the default position that people will oppose me, intimidate or humiliate me.”
What Wilson found refreshing was that he could continue his work as usual. He is just a judge, not a “gay judge”, he still works for everything he earns, and this has not changed his behavior in a professional environment.
“My colleagues really supported me. My refereeing friends, players, officials and club managers have all been a huge support. The number of messages I received was overwhelming,” he added.
“I needed to stop lying to myself”
Daniel Jervis sympathizes with the struggles Murray and Wilson have had to face in the sport. A swimmer who represented Great Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Jervis came out as gay last June – a month before he was due to compete in the 2022 Commonwealth Games (he was unable to do so because he contracted COVID -19).
As the world froze during the pandemic, Jervis realized he could no longer shy away from accepting his truth. Something so all-consuming could not remain in the depths of his mind, especially when, due to isolation, he only had thoughts.
“At this stage, I was 23 and very depressed,” he told Sportzshala. “It was not an easy journey. One day I thought, “No, I don’t [gay]what am I doing”, and the next day I would say: “I am absolutely”.
“And then one day I said, ‘Yes, and I need to stop lying to myself.
Jervis says he has sent messages to gay athletes like diver Tom Daly and soccer player Jake Daniels in the past with gratitude. Thanks for showing up. This helped him understand that he was not “crazy”. He will now receive those same messages, and this has made the whole process and feedback worthwhile for him.
“I’ve seen some people say, ‘Why is he making a big deal out of it?’ and I go to my private messages and see: “here’s why.” That’s why I wanted to be so open with it,” he said.
Murray, too, was struck by messages of gratitude for his fame, saying, “Honestly, people of all ages have been writing to me saying, ‘Thank you so much, you just made it so much easier for me to tell my family.’ ‘, or ask for advice before they tell their family. It’s incredible.”
Referee Wilson says he had a particularly hard time accepting his weirdness and had thoughts of hurting himself, but is now encouraged by reports of how much happier he looks.
“Sometimes life was too hard and sometimes it was easier to think about the prospect of not being here,” he said. “I used to get hungover all the time.
“Looking back, I must have been depressed. I just thought that was life and it was absolutely tiring.
“It was absolutely terrible, I was grouchy, I was harsh on people. Now a lot of people write to me and say, “You look so happy,” and I, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
“Now I can look ahead, while at times I couldn’t see my future, at times I didn’t want to be here. It sounds convincing, but at times life was just too hard, and sometimes the prospect of not being here was easier to think about.”
Jervis, who won a silver medal in the 1500m freestyle at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, wants to help others who have struggled like he once did.
“I wanted people to look at me and if they struggled, I wanted them to say, ‘Dan is on the world stage, but he has so many people looking at him and he is so proud of who he is. He said.
“I want them to see me and just see someone who is not afraid of what people think. I’ve been afraid all my life and I’m tired of being afraid, I’m not afraid anymore.”