'I'm tired of being afraid' - Zander Murray, Lloyd Wilson & Dan Jervis on the joy of coming out

Scottish referee Lloyd Wilson (left), Scottish footballer Zander Murray (centre) and British swimmer Daniel Jervis (right). Illustration by ESPN

Editor's note: This story contains mentions of self-harm ideation. Originally published on Feb. 1, 2023.

On a warm, September evening last year in Benidorm, Spain, Zander Murray sat on his hotel balcony and considered what his life would soon become. There was no longer a question in his mind. After years of mental and emotional torment, he was going to announce -- to the world -- he is gay.

The Scottish footballer's friends and family knew, which for many who come out as LGBTQ+ is the most critical part. But not for Murray -- the prospect of becoming just the third male, openly gay, active professional footballer in the world made an already daunting situation that more nerve-wracking.

As he stared into the bustling night, he thought about what had happened earlier that day. Celebrating his first Pride event, aged 30, he was in awe of the happiness and freedom oozing from those who had embraced their true selves.

He visibly loved it, and as a friend captured a joyful moment in a picture, Murray faced a conundrum. Just as if it were any other event, the friend was eager to share the snap on social media -- but Murray was reticent.

Doing so would reveal everything. What he had worked so hard to contain, as he made his way through the ranks of professional soccer, would be out there.

"Something happened, something just hit me, and I went, 'What am I doing?'" Murray, who recently signed for Bonnyrigg Rose in SPFL League Two, told ESPN.

"I could die tomorrow, and I've literally just lived a lie."

And so he opened up his private Facebook account, containing many people from the professional football community, and retrieved the picture which had caused so much angst. He posted it -- and fell asleep.

How a single photo convinced Zander Murray to come out

Scottish footballer Zander Murray says a photo taken at his first Pride event changed his life.

Just like that, he had filled the 28-year void of gay, male representation in Scottish football -- continuing the legacy of Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and left Hearts of Midlothian in 1994.

Fashanu died by suicide in 1998, and it wasn't until Jake Daniels and Murray came out in 2022 that the UK had another openly gay male footballer.

It took years of self-acceptance for Murray to get to this point, and he says not being out cost him the chance to better his football career.

"I had opportunities to play higher [in the Scottish divisions], the one reason I didn't was because I was gay," he continued. "I thought 'you'll be in the limelight a lot more, more people watching, what if people see you in the street with your partner? What if they see your friends? How are they going to react?'

"But then it got to a point where [I thought], 'you know what, I don't care if anyone sees me with my gay pals' -- and that's amazing.

"The position I'm in as a professional footballer, I could be another pillar of the community and actually strive to make a difference and help inspire and empower others."

With a weight off his chest, Murray added that coming out was 'the best thing' he'd ever done, and that sentiment was echoed by Scottish Football Association referee Lloyd Wilson, who came out as gay in June 2022.

'Football culture is improving its attitude to the LGBTQ+ community'

Scottish referee Lloyd Wilson thinks there would be more people coming out in the football world if more support would be provided within the sport.

'People have been nicer, actually...'

Being a referee naturally makes one a target of barrages of verbal abuse. For every decision you make, one side will feel aggrieved. Wilson says he does not mind that, as long as it is not personal. However, when debating coming out, he had something to consider. Was this going to enable the type of 'banter' he could not tolerate?

"As a referee you almost sign up to accepting there's going to be a bit of abuse about it," Wilson told ESPN.

"I always like to make it known to people I don't mind abuse, as long as it's not personal. There's been a lot shouted at me from the terraces about my mother, for example, and [none of them] ever met her in their life.

"When I made this decision to be true to myself and use the various platforms to support others, increase visibility for the LGBTQ+ community, I absolutely thought, 'Here we go this is going to be an absolute token for people who want to [harass] me.'

"But strangely, people have been nicer, actually. I'm delighted to be gay."

READ: 17 athletes from around the world discuss their coming out experience

The traditionally heteronormative footballing environment seems to be more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially in men's football. New research released by Stonewall in October last year found the proportion of fans who think homophobic remarks in sport are acceptable has almost halved -- dropping from 25% in 2017 to 14% in 2022.

While making it clear he never took part in homophobic abuse, Wilson recalls engaging in 'homophobic banter' in his younger years.

"That was a deflection from me," he said. "Because I know if I deflect from me, I wasn't vulnerable to getting that 'banter'.

"I no longer come from a default position of people are going to be against me, or bully me, or humiliate me."

What Wilson found refreshing was the way he could continue with his job as normal. He is simply a referee, not 'the gay referee,' he still works for everything he earns, and it has not changed the way he functions in the professional environment.

"My colleagues have really supported me. My friends in refereeing, players and club officials and managers, they've all been immensely supportive. The amount of messages I received was overwhelming," he added.

Swimmer Daniel Jervis inspired by Jake Daniels' decision to come out

British swimmer Daniel Jervis talks about what motivated him to come out as gay.

'I needed to stop lying to myself'

Empathising with the struggles Murray and Wilson had to face in sport is Daniel Jervis. A swimmer who represented Great Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Jervis announced he is gay last June -- a month before he was due to compete in the 2022 Commonwealth Games (he was unable to as he'd contracted COVID-19).

As the world came to a standstill during the pandemic, Jervis knew he could not escape accepting his truth any longer. Something so consuming could not stay in the back of his mind, especially when lockdowns left him with only his thoughts.

"At this stage I was 23 years old, and I was really depressed," he told ESPN. "It was not an easy journey. One day I'd be like, 'no I'm not [gay], what am I doing' and the next day I'd be like, 'I absolutely am.'

"And then one day I said, 'I am, and I need to stop lying to myself'."

Jervis says he, in the past, messaged gay athletes like diver Tom Daley and footballer Jake Daniels, saying thank you. Thank you for being visible. It helped him realise he is not 'abnormal'. Now, he will receive those very messages, and it made the whole process, and the backlash, worth it for him.

"I did see some people saying, 'Why is he making a big deal out of it?' and I go onto my private messages and see, 'that's why'. That's why I wanted to be so out there with it," he said.

Murray, too, has been overwhelmed by messages of gratitude for his visibility, saying: "Honestly, people of all ages have messaged me saying, 'thank you so much, you've just made it so much easier for me to tell my family', or ask for advice before they tell their family. It's unbelievable."

Referee Wilson says he had a particularly tough time accepting his queerness, and had thoughts of self-harm, but now he is buoyed by messages saying how much happier he looks.

"At times life was too difficult and sometimes the prospect of not being here was easier to think about," he said. "I used to feel hungover all the time.

"Looking back, I probably was depressed, actually. I just thought that was what life was like, and it was absolutely draining.

"It was utterly awful, I was narky, I was snappy at people. Now lots of people message me and say, 'you look so happy', and I am, I'm the happiest I've ever been.

"I'm able to look ahead now whereas at times I couldn't see my future, at times I didn't want to be here. That sounds strong but at times life was too difficult and sometimes the prospect of not being here was easier to think about."

Jervis, the silver medal winner in the 1500m freestyle at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, wants to help others who struggled in the way he once did.

"I wanted people to look at me, and if they were struggling, I wanted them to say, 'Dan's standing 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's not afraid of what people think. I've been afraid all my life, and I'm tired of being afraid, I'm not anymore."