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The sports world hasn’t been an easy place to come out of the closet, but it might be getting easier.
Last year, the NBA’s Jason Collins did it. College football star and NFL hopeful Michael Sam followed in his footsteps in February.
But before both of those high-profile announcements, retired NFL player Wade Davis told the world he was gay and that he wanted to help create a more accepting environment for LGBTQ youth than the one in which he grew up.
In this extended interview with Al Jazeera America, Davis weighs in on professional sports’ recent evolution on LGBTQ issues and opens up about his own struggles — why he bullied a classmate for being gay in high school, how he used the sport to mask his true self from those closest to him and how he ultimately came to accept his sexuality.
What was it like growing up in the South, for one, and two, in an extremely religious family, having that secret that you had inside?
It was tough. I really didn’t even have an understanding that I was gay until 10th grade. So I really never really thought about the fact that I was raised in the South until I got much older and thought about the idea that in the church I used to hear a lot of comments about gay and lesbian individuals. And then, remembering having someone who was actually in the church, who was pretty openly gay, and people would talk about him very positively in his face, but then kind of behind closed doors, he would be compared to being a pedophile. And I would be told, “Don’t hang around him.” So it was very interesting trying to understand how could I exist in this world as a gay man, really knowing what I was, what I grew up hearing.
What was it that happened that you kind of had that realization?
Funny enough, there was a kid in my high school who I was like, “Wow, he’s really hot.” I remember having that thought and then thinking that was wrong, like “I can’t think that way.”
I remember going home watching kind of Showtime and Cinemax, really trying to convince myself that the feelings that I was having weren’t real.
You’ve talked about just even knowing a kid in high school and kind of how you dealt with those feelings that you had. Tell me a little bit about that.
Yeah, so there was a kid in high school, and we’ll call him, Thomas. And Thomas was really one of the few openly gay kids at my school. So I spent a lot of years bullying Thomas. I bullied him because he actually was the only one who had real courage. He was who he was, you know — 10th, 11th and 12th grade. And, I really was embarrassed in a lot of ways that I didn’t have the same type of courage. And so the only way to kind of rectify my hatred of self and then also my kind of hidden admiration for him was to bully him.
I wanted to fit in. A lot of the other guys on the football team or even guys in school kind of made fun of him as well, so I just kind of joined along. And it was a way that I could feel a part of something. But to be honest, his strength was so blinding that the only thing that I could do was make fun of it.
You’ve talked at length that there were a number of opportunities where you felt like maybe you could say something. Why didn’t you ever maybe open up then?
I dealt with so much self-hatred. The way that I understood gay men to be was more like a woman, and I always thought that was a negative. I didn’t see myself as like that. So I was like, if this is the only way that gay men are perceived, I don’t want to be perceived as that. There was a lot of ignorance that I had back in those days as well … I was like, “I’m Wade. I’m a guy who likes sports, who does — quote, unquote — stereotypical guy things.”
When did football really become an integral part of your life?
I would say around the age of 6 or 7. I had a neighbor’s backyard, and there was no fence in between, but there was a fence that kind of went around it [and my backyard]. And we would play, I’m not kidding you, 20-on-20 games of football.
We played an interesting game, it was called “smear the queer.” At that time, I didn’t know what the term “queer” meant. I just knew that the person who had the ball got smeared. And it’s interesting, though, if I think about the way that that game is, the queer is actually the person with the most courage to pick up the ball and risk being smeared by other people. So I think that name is kind of an oxymoron, that you smear queers, but the queer person is actually the one that’s the most courageous.
But from 7 years old, I used to play the game of football for hours. I would watch the game on television. I would sit in front of the TV set and watch Walter Peyton, watch Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and literally be obsessed with it. So that was really the time I became crazy about it.
Did you use the sport, maybe, as a vice or a tool to kind of let out aggression?
In hindsight, no. Because, when I was 6 or 7, when I started playing it, I had no concept of the idea that I was gay. As I got older though, it did provide kind of a mask for me. No one ever questioned me as being a gay male because I played football. So in a lot of ways, it was kind of a mask.
Did you ever tell anybody or confide in anybody at all when you were younger?
[Laughs.] I did not tell a single soul I was gay — actually saying the words that “I’m gay” — until I was out of the NFL. I was 25 at that point. There was a co-worker friend of mine, and her name is Nicole, and she was the first person I actually said those words [to] — “I’m gay.” And she laughed like crazy because I had been telling her, I was like, “I’m going to tell you this big secret of mine right before I move to New York.” And she was like, “I thought you were going to tell me that you were a murderer or something.” She’s like, “You’re just gay? Who cares?”
How do you cope with being in a testosterone-filled environment, such as the locker room, and everything that goes along with that?
It was the easiest and the safest place for me to be, actually. I never felt bullied or isolated by my teammates. Granted, they didn’t know I was gay, right? But when I was around my teammates or working out or training, it was one of the few times where I didn’t think about the idea that I was gay. So it was really safe for me in a lot of ways, and I fit in there. I remember when I went to my first gay club, I didn’t fit in, so I was like … I’ve always kind of fit in well in football.
The first thing people say is, “You have to go in the showers. It’s going to be in your face nonstop.” How do you combat that?
Well, first of all, most guys look terrible naked, right? [Laughs.] Secondly, those are my brothers. I tell people often, if you put a man in a locker room with women, there’s a chance that he may be excited or aroused. But if those women are his sisters, there is no attraction there.
And so my teammates were my brothers. So, whether they were naked or not didn’t really matter to me.
I think there will come a day when it’s just kind of, ‘OK, you're gay, but can you play?’
Was there ever a moment with the surroundings — whether it be a playing field or a teammate — where you kind of had those lines blurred?
No. It was so easy because it was something that I loved — the game of football — and I respected my teammates so much that I never even thought about it. And there were guys on teams that someone could see them and go, “They’re attractive,” but they were my brothers. You know, they’re someone who we share the same blood and sweat and tears with.
Our ultimate goal was to win, not for me to see if I could hook up with this guy or not.
How are some of the ways that you had to kind of hide those true feelings?
Well, those were interesting. When I was over in NFL Europe, I was in Berlin. And there would be guys in my hotel room, and I would be on the phone with my male partner. But I would give him a female name. So I would call him Stephanie. Or I would go to strip clubs. Or I would kind of wear the triple-XL T-shirts and the oversized clothing and whatnot that I thought that that’s what real men did.
Anything that I could see a guy do that made him stereotypically male, I tried to do.
Did you ever have to have relationships with women as cover?
There were times when I’d go to a club, and all of us would try to hit on a girl, and I would take a girl back to my hotel room, and we would just sit and talk for hours and hours and hours. [Laughs.] And they're like, “You’re the best guy ever! We’ve just been talking! You don’t want anything!” I was like, “Yeah, I really don’t.” So, it was easy in a lot of ways because the women that I would take home with me, there was never really any sexual interaction. Like, maybe I’d make out with them or kiss. I’m a good kisser, so I kind of enjoyed that. [Laughs.]
Was it exhausting, though?
It was real exhausting. You know, the mental power that I used trying to really hide who I was. I can only imagine how much better of an athlete I would've been if I could've dedicated 30 or 40 percent more brainpower on my sport.
You mentioned you had a partner during your playing days. Were you ever close enough with anybody where you could have ever let that be known?
I probably could. I was kind of a funny guy, so I was pretty popular. There were certain times when there would be a teammate, I’d be like, “Man, I think I could probably tell him.” But you just never know, and I think often you make it worse in your head than it actually is. When I did finally come out to everyone, they were amazing. They were like, “Man, you should’ve told me years ago.”
Do you think anything would’ve been different had you come out earlier?
I think that the world wasn’t ready when I was playing. Back in 2000, there were no conversations around homophobia in sports. There was really no one ever talking about it in this way. But probably even more importantly, I didn’t even know what the term LGBTQ meant, right? I didn’t know very many gay people. There was so much self-hatred. I would’ve said some things about gay people that probably would've set the movement back … instead of actually doing something to progress it. So I think that I wasn’t ready. I don’t think the world was ready.
I was the greatest liar ever. I got good at actually remembering the lies that I would tell because in order for you to tell this wonderful story, you have to make sure it’s consistent.
Tell me how football became an escape for you.
When I was home alone, and you’re watching television, and you see an attractive guy on TV, and your mind wanders … or if you’re watching a television show where there’s a gay couple. You wonder what their life is like. Or you wonder what it would be like to actually introduce your teammates to your male partner, or your family. But when I’m playing the actual game of football, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about how do I run faster jump higher and hit harder, all those things.
When you look at your career [progressing], but still you have those feelings, did you kind of find yourself going deeper into the closet?
Oh, my God, yes. I was the greatest liar ever. I got good at actually remembering the lies that I would tell because in order for you to tell this wonderful story, you have to make sure it’s consistent. I would tell the exact same, same story, or I would take a story that someone else told, and say it as mine.
Was there ever a moment where you thought, “Maybe this’ll be the day I come out”?
Not while I was playing. I mean, it was something that I really never even thought about. I thought that it was not possible for someone to be a gay male and play the sport of football. But to be fair, it wasn’t ever football or any of my teammates that made me feel that way. It was something that I kind of was domesticated to believe from the age of 7 on up, that football and being gay just didn’t mix.
Is it possible now?
It’s definitely possible now.
Tell us about coming out and telling the world and telling your family who you really were.
I started working at an organization called the Hetrick-Martin Institute, where I was working with LGBTQ youth. And probably the first year I was there, they didn’t even know that I was an ex-player. Just really having the chance to see real life heroes and sheroes, and to really see strength and courage personified, and see it every single day. A good friend of mine named Cyd Zeigler had been asking me to write a story about me for years and years. And I was like, “No, there’s no real story there.” I had no context to think that me being a bench warmer, a guy that got cut and re-signed, and cut and re-signed, that my story could really affect change. Cyd was like, “Well, what if we talk about your story along with the work that you’re really doing to highlight the young people who you’re working with every day?” And I said, “Now that’s a story that needs to be told,” the story of kids who have to deal with homelessness and poverty and lack of education and lack of access to things that I have. That was really the impetus for me saying, “Yes, let’s do this story.”
How did your family respond? Did you just feel like there was this huge weight off your shoulders?
I first told my sister. And my sister and I have always been very, very close. So I flew to Colorado, and I told her, and she laughed. She was like, “I’m going to be your favorite now!” And her next comment to me was, “You can’t tell Mom ... Mom is not going to be able to handle it because you’re her golden boy.” But I knew at that point I needed to tell my mom. I loved myself enough, and that was key. Living a lie wasn’t really the way I wanted to exist anymore. So my mother and I went for a walk, and I was in the park with her and my little niece, and I told her, “Mom, you know, I like boys” because I still couldn’t say the words, “I’m gay.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “I’m gay.” And her first comment to me was, “That’s an abomination,” and her second comment to me was, “You’re already black.” It was really powerful to see my mother really understand that as a black man, I would already have one strike against me, potentially, but then also adding another layer … was really hurtful.
After I disclosed that I was gay, we walked back to the house, and she actually said, “I need to keep walking, because I need to really process this.” It started to rain. So she came back into the house, and she went down to our computer room, and I peeked around the corner, I was like, “Hey, mom, can we talk?” And she said, “Yes, Wade.” My mother never calls me Wade. She says a lot of crazy things to me, but never Wade. As we were talking, I could see a piece of her dying. That was one of the few times where I felt awful. But she never called me her son. She actually said she had three daughters now. She actually said that everything that I’ve ever done in my life means nothing. Then she said she wished I was dying of cancer [instead of] telling her I was gay. But to be fair to my mother, she’s apologized for all that. When you disclose who you are, your parents go through their own kind of coming out phase as well.
I was always very respectful of her. I expected her to have this type of a reaction, because of our closeness. After that conversation, I was really kind of torn up about it. I flew back to New York City and then I got a call from my sister saying that my mother had gone missing. I was in a panic because I was like, “If my mother has hurt herself or something, it’s my fault. No one can tell me that it’s not because of me.” And then my friends, after about three or four days said, “Wade, we’ve got to get you out of this apartment … You’ve got to live.” So we were at a diner, and the phone rang and said Mom on the front. And I ran out of the restaurant, but I couldn’t hear her, because it was so loud. And I darted across the street, almost got hit by a car. My mother was like, “Hey, Wade. This is your mom. I love you. We’re going to make it through this with God’s help.” So the next three to four years were pretty tumultuous. We went through a lot of highs and lows. But gratefully, about a year ago, my mother met my current partner at that time, and things have been really, really great. I’m very cautious about telling that story because people like to go, “Oh, your mother was so terrible.” But I really understood that it was a point where I ripped off something, like a scab or a Band-Aid, or just a part of her that died — like this dream or this wish that she had for her son died at that day. That was her way of kind of venting and grieving from the death of her son … Gratefully, my mother and I are the best of friends again. We’ve come full circle, and things are going really great.
Your mother obviously needed time to process the information, but how do you process when your own mother says she would rather have you die of cancer?
It sounds crazy, but it was easy for me. I knew that my mother was going to have that type of reaction, hence my sister saying, “You can’t tell Mom.” I knew she needed time to grieve. I had already come to grips with the fact that I was gay, so she needed time too. I tell people often if it took me 15 years to be OK with being gay, can I at least give her half of that?
Yes, she said some really horrible things to me, but I knew through all of that, that she truly loved me. And she only reacted that way because she did love me. My mother was very afraid of what the world would hold for her black, gay son. I didn’t even have understanding of what she meant by “You’re already black” until much, much later.
Tell me about that understanding.
I wrote a piece in Huffington Post, it really kind of talked about that, that my mother was raised in the ’50s in Louisiana and she had four brothers. She saw racism on a very real level at that point. So when you see all that happening to your brothers, and you think about the fact that now I’ve got a son, your really only goal is to teach him how to survive. So my mother, as I was growing up, was giving me tools to survive in the world as a black man. She never gave me the tools to survive as a black, gay man. I think in a lot of ways she was afraid … “My son is set up for a failure.” She was like, “That’s really how I felt, that I can’t protect you anymore. I didn’t give you those actual tools.” But what she didn’t realize was that those tools were already there and that she just had to trust in how she raised me and trust in the man that I’ve become.
How has your father reacted?
My father has taken credit for my football prowess, which I’m fine with. But my father also had a lot of addiction problems. Now, he’s come full circle. He’s clean and really healthy. But I believe firmly that the Bible or religion was really the impetus for him getting clean, and he takes the Bible very literally. Anything that people may interpret to be against homosexuality, he really holds on tight to. So I believe that if he was to accept me as a gay man, then he would kind of let go of those beliefs that have made him whole now — and to be someone who’s not on drugs and alcohol. It was funny, he met my partner at the time. We all went to dinner at a restaurant, had an amazing time. I was like, “Wow, it went really great.” A month later, I get a package in the mail, and it’s from my father. It’s two Bibles engraved with our names on it. And then there’s a DVD of him sitting in a chair like Mr. Rogers saying, “Turn to page 45 of Genesis.” I was just like, “Oh, my God.” And he would say, “Now pause the tape. Read this verse and play it again. And I’m going to tell you why your lifestyle is wrong.” So he and I have yet to really come to kind of an agreement on the fact that this is who I am. You have to love me for everything about me, you know, the greatness of Wade and maybe the badness of the fact that I step on bugs from time to time.
How have your friends and former teammates all reacted?
The funniest thing happened. One of my good friends, when I told him I was gay, his first comment was, “Man, I’m mad at you.” I was like, “For what?” He’s like, “Because you should’ve told me years ago. You should’ve known that I would’ve loved you, regardless of your sexuality. I love Wade for who Wade is. Not that Wade is a womanizer or that Wade is someone who sleeps with men.” He really wanted me to know that it didn’t matter. I have yet to have one negative experience from my high school, college or NFL teammates.
How does being a gay NFL player maybe differentiate from being in other sports?
I think that football is like this sport that we deem as these gladiator superhuman men, right? I think that the way that we view men and masculinity really plays a role in that. So this idea that someone who can be gay and play this hypermasculine sport, people often think that those two things can’t coexist. I think that there is shortsightedness in the way that we look at men and also in the way that we look at sports. I do a lot of work with the NFL, and I do say that football is about toughness and masculinity and combat. But there are also even higher levels of family, of solidarity, of compassion that people don’t talk about when they think about sports. If you watch a game on Sunday now, as soon as the player gets hurt, you’ll see players from both teams come around and start saying a prayer. After a game, win or lose, there are guys who shake hands, they hug. These are gentlemen who exist in a very violent sport, but the love and the passion that they have for the sport and for each other is actually greater than those other aspects of it.
Is it different for men and women when you’re talking about coming out in sports?
It’s very different. Women actually are assumed to be lesbian, which speaks to the way that I think that we, as men, think about women, you know, that we don’t think that a female can be a great athlete unless she’s like a man. I think there’s a lot of issues of sexism and misogyny that really haven’t been talked about, when you talk about homophobia in sports … A lot of females [don’t] even want to be allies, because they really want to distance themselves from this male-centric narrative that all great female athletes are lesbians.
Do you feel it’s more accepted for one gender than the other?
It may be more accepted, but the fact that it is accepted is problematic in a lot of ways. I can’t say it’s more accepted. I would just say that that the challenges are very different and that there needs to be a lot more work done around female sports … There’s a lot of work being done around sports and homophobia.
How many players do you think in the NFL that are active right now are gay and may be hiding it?
I have no clue. I would imagine there’s at least one.
The NFL actually asks potential draft picks when they come in whether they’re gay, or they do it in a roundabout sort of way. Is that fair to players coming in?
I’m not sure if that really happens. That’s all speculation. To be fair to the NFL, it’s a business. So they want to know as much as they can about all of their players. Now, if those questions are asked, they’re 100 percent inappropriate and wrong. So I want to be clear about that. But, if you’re paying someone millions of dollars, it’s reasonable to think that you’d want to know everything. I do believe that the NFL understands that those questions were wrong, and I think that they made changes to make sure that they don’t happen again. I would hope that athletes understand that their personal life is just that.
Did you ever go through a situation where you endured hazing?
The only thing that I experienced was my first year with the Titans. There was a rookie show [laughs], and I sung a song from “Coming to America,” “She’s Your Queen.” I’m a clown, so I actually enjoyed it. And I think, the reason why I think that teammates make other players do things like sing or buy them food or whatnot is, you want to build some commonality with them. For me, it was fun. My teammates never made me feel unsafe or whatever, but I do think that the lines can be blurred between what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Does that just depend upon the leadership of a team?
Definitely. [Head coach] Jeff Fisher with the Titans was really about team and family and to making sure that everyone, from the worst guy on the team — which could’ve been me, right? [laughs] — to the best, felt safe and felt comfortable. And I think that that’s what the NFL’s really about. You’re going to have some outliers there, but for the most part, the NFL takes care of each other.
What is your life like today, post-NFL, and just being yourself?
I would say that I’m living my second dream. You know, who gets to play in the NFL, and then now gets to do work that potentially can save lives, but also have their own life saved? I love the fact that I’m at the precipice now where I get to work with “at-promise” youth. And I use the term “at promise” intentionally because I think that language matters. Like, we often call kids “at risk.” “At risk” is a very defeatist term, and the kids that I’ve had the privilege of working with have a promise.
For you what kind of impact has working with these young kids done for you?
It’s showed me what real courage is, and young people are so resilient that they existed through so many trials and tribulations and survived, right? There’s one particular incident that happened to me. It was like my third or fourth week at Hetrick-Martin and there was a young trans girl that got on the train, and she didn’t see me, and I watched the way people looked at her. They looked at her with such disdain and horror, and I thought to myself, “Wow, her life must be very hard,” and I felt pity for her. And then, about six months later, I saw the same girl on the same train, and I looked at people look at her with the same look, but this time I said, “She’s much stronger than I’m giving her credit for.” This is not her first time on the train, and it really made me start to look at young people differently, look at them as having strength and courage and not from such a deficit all the time.
What kind of advice would you give to a young player who’s in the position that you were in maybe two decades ago?
The first thing I would tell him would be to figure out how you can love yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re not out or you are out. But if you don’t love yourself, then there’s no chance for you to ever find love. The second thing that I would say is find someone in your life — whether it’s a teammate, a coach, a teacher or a good friend — who you can be honest with. It is going to be the biggest exhale moment in your entire life, and your life will start to get better just by the fact that you’ve told that one person.
Do you think there’s ever going to come a day when we don’t have to talk about being gay and being an athlete?
Being gay and being an athlete, yes. I think there will come a day when it’s just kind of, “OK, you’re gay, but can you play?” But I do think that we’ll always have to do work around education for LGBTQ individuals and really helping people to understand that they’re no different from anyone else but their challenges are just different.