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Zander Murray to retire, leaving only five out gay men active in pro men’s soccer worldwide

The Scottish footballer says he is ready to channel his energies into LGBTQ education in the game. He talks to Outsports about his decision to hang up his boots.

Zander Murray says he wasn’t expecting his career path to develop into delivering workshops about LGBTQ inclusion in football.

Zander Murray, the Scottish footballer who last year came out publicly as gay, has announced his intention to retire from playing at the end of the current season.

Murray, who turned 32 last month, says he has been inundated with messages wishing him good luck for the future after revealing his decision in an interview with BBC Scotland.

The story was a top-10 trending article on the BBC News website on Wednesday.

“I’ve had a scan over my messages — there’s a lot to get through,” he tells Outsports. “I think the interest just goes to show there is that need for representation in my sport.”

Murray became the first player to come out while active in Scottish senior men’s football when he worked with his club Gala Fairydean Rovers FC to share the news via its media channels in September 2022.

Since then, the forward has spent eight months playing in a higher division with Bonnyrigg Rose FC before returning to Gala earlier this season, while also helping the Scottish charity TIE to deliver a series of educational workshops to clubs and academies about LGBTQ inclusion.

In a feature interview with Outsports in August, he described life on the other side of the closet as “ridiculously better.”

When Murray hangs up his boots — and if no other male professional player comes out as gay in the meantime — there will be only five out footballers currently left in the men’s pro game anywhere in the world.

Also in the U.K., teenager Jake Daniels is part of Blackpool FC’s development squad; in Italy, Czech international Jakub Jankto has featured in most of Cagliari’s Serie A games so far this season; in Australia, Adelaide United FC’s Josh Cavallo is an A-League player while in the tier below, Andy Brennan is with South Melbourne FC; and in the U.S., Collin Martin has recently signed for North Carolina FC in the USL Championship.

Speaking to the BBC, Murray expressed disappointment that this group is still so small in number and feels online hate is a significant reason.

However, he is convinced that taking part in educational sessions on a face-to-face level, away from the scrutiny of social media, is making a big difference.

“I want to impact current players and then the younger generation,” he tells Outsports. “An out gay male player delivering these sessions, there’s nothing else really like this in football, as far as I can tell.”

One other former athlete doing this in his sport is hockey player Brock McGillis, who is currently on a 100-stop tour in North America talking about his personal life and the impact on him of homophobic language.

Murray adds: “I come away from a talk and there’ll always be someone who’s said ‘thank you’, and sometimes they say they really needed to hear what we have talked about that day.

“Even when it feels like it might have been a tougher session and you think maybe members of that group weren’t as interested, you can get a message to know your visit was appreciated.

“We get data back too, and it often tells us that some of those present have been struggling in some way. Maybe it’s because a family member has been homophobic or maybe there’s another reason.

“We’re going to cover every academy in the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) by the end of the season and I know that this is the right approach to take.”

A recent post by Statista.com claims FIFA has estimated the total number of pro men’s soccer players globally at 123,694, with over 10,000 of them registered in England and Scotland.

Based on that estimate, the representation of gay and bi men in the game on the playing side will be just 0.004% once Murray retires.

He wants to expand the scheme south of the border, not specifically to boost that tiny percentage but to increase levels of understanding and compassion among the teammates of a gay player, and among their coaches too.

There are also plans to work more with the European Football Development Network, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands that works with clubs and leagues across the continent on social responsibility and other projects.

“Part of the ambition is to do more of the workshops but across English football as well as Scottish football,” he says.

“When I came out, I didn’t realize how much this side of things would evolve and develop into a career path.

“But I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, especially when it’s something I’m passionate about.”

Liam Stevenson, the co-founder of TIE, says Murray’s contributions based on his unique lived experience allow for a much stronger connection with attendees.

“Zander’s involvement adds a dimension that means the young people get a real feel of what it’s like being a gay footballer in the men’s game and not having the confidence to be out,” he tells Outsports.

“The players also have their eyes opened to the fact that there may be players who are not heterosexual in their own clubs.

“In the data we collect digitally after sessions, they tell us that this learning means they will be mindful not to use homophobic language moving forward. Players also regularly say they believe that Zander being out will pave the way for future generations of out gay and bi players in the men’s game.”

Stevenson has huge admiration for how Murray has developed on a personal level as well.

“He has absolutely grown into the role of being part of our delivery team,” he adds. “He has very clearly become more confident in the months in which he has been working with us and that has been really good to witness first-hand.”

The capacity to find courage and silence the voice of the “inner saboteur” is within the grasp of every gay athlete, insists Murray.

“I’m someone that has struggled with their sexuality — but look at the opportunities that I’m getting now. I’d say to someone like me, think about the love that you’re going to get from our community.

“It will supersede any hate that you’re worried that you’re going to get. And I can tell you that first hand.”

He is keen to stay in football in a coaching capacity, and has a particular interest in the women’s game, not least because its inclusivity appeals to him.

Before that, he is due to appear in a new TV documentary about attitudes to LGBTQ people in British men’s football early in the new year. Having already fronted his own ‘Disclosure: Out on the Pitch’ film about homophobia in the Scottish game, media work is another avenue he is keen to explore.

After a year in which he has also led Pride parades, seen his Gala shirt added to the Scottish Football Museum, and been an ambassador for the Gay Games, Murray is looking to 2024 with optimism.

First on the list of achievements from the last 12 months that the striker posted on social media was a self-improvement success.

“Finally overcame my internalised homophobia and played back in the Pro leagues,” he wrote.

His future ambitions now lie off-field but he is no less determined to achieve his goals.