It's been a whirlwind of a year for Scottish footballer Zander Murray as the Bonnyrigg Roses striker came out as gay in September 2022, making him the first openly gay footballer playing in Scotland since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
The 32-year-old partially accredits Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, which marked its ten-year anniversary on Wednesday, to being able to come to terms with his sexuality on the pitch. "Seeing the visibility from a young age and knowing that I'm not alone did, in hindsight, have a bit of an impact," he explained, adding: "It wasn't until later years when visibility and acceptance really ramped up that it began to have an impact for me to then go on the journey itself."
Zander also explained how initiatives like Rainbow Laces, which aims to show support to LGBTQ+ sportspeople, helps, saying: "It's not just about putting on the laces, it's showing that visibility, be it through rainbow armbands, corner flags, clubs. These are massive because it's showing that this is a place for you whether you're a player, fan, coach, manager, member of staff; there is support for you.
"I know how amazing that is firsthand to feel that a club is helping and empowering you, especially since you're going to get hate. I've been fairly open that online is an absolute cesspit. That's why I try to limit my posts on X because if I'm feeling great and then I start getting hate, it does have an impact."
Zander and fellow footballer Jake Daniels have a lot of pressure on their shoulders at the moment, as the only out men in British football, but Zander does not shy away from this, seeing it as an opportunity to "empower" the next generation of queer athletes.
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The sports star shared: "People have been watching me and Jake under a microscope and how we've been perceived. The opportunities with our careers and the way football is moving forward, both on and off the pitch. We have a real chance to empower a whole generation, empower young kids, all the groundwork is there, we've put in all the work and all the foundations." And addressing the possibility of a gay or bisexual Premier League player, he added: "If they were ready, they can do it and be a key part of this community to really drive change."
This leads our conversation onto the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics. In 2021, the Tokyo Olympics was the queerest-ever Games, with at least 186 openly LGBTQ+ athletes, who went on to win 33 medals overall.
Musing on this visibility, Zander said: "It inspires a whole new generation of younger queer people to go: 'Oh I can play this sport. There's someone like me in that sport that I love'. People who grow up thinking there's no one like me then give up the sport they love.
"Having these young kids see queer athletes playing at such high level, winning things, I can tell you firsthand how important and integral that will be that especially if they come up against any difficulty with homophobic abuse, they will go: 'No, I'm not giving up because of the Tom Daleys you know like there out me'."
Zander isn't just a force for good and visiblity on the football field, as the athlete has increasingly been making himself visible across all platforms, even landing a BBC documentary, Out on the Pitch, and being an ambassador for the Gay Games in Hong Kong.
Reflecting on his whirlwind year, the star said: "It's incredible to be a voice in here and give power to this small community. The world has only got seven [out] players out of 130,000 in the UK, that is insane. I'm just glad that part of this journey will only empower the next generation. The hope is that in 15 to 20 years this doesn't mean anything, it's normalised, if someone's got a boyfriend in the dressing room, it's not a headline."