Photos Courtesy of Wade Davis
Wade Davis is a former NFL player who played for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and the NFL Europe. Davis joins the growing list of former professional athletes that include David Kopay, Roy Simmons and John Amaechi to come out of the closet. Although Davis’ football career ended 2003 with an injury his new life has only began as an out and proud black gay man. PrideIndex had the pleasure of talking to Davis at length about why he came out, his new career as a mentor to LGBT youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute and his plans for the future.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Why did you wait until Pride Month to come out?
WADE DAVIS (WD): A friend asked to write my story about four or five years ago but I resisted because I did not feel that I was doing any work that was making a change in the community, when he reached out again I felt like I was in a better place and it was just so happen to be around pride month. It was not strategic.
PI: What was it like for you growing up?
WD: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas but I spent most of my adolescence in Shreveport, Louisiana. As a child I was raised in the church. We went to church four to five times per week and it was big time on Mother’s Day (Laughs). I was a grandmother’s boy I spent a lot of time her and my mother. At the age of seven or eight I started playing the game of football but my life revolved around hanging around my grandmother, mother and going to church.
As a young child I used to love playing with bugs and I thought that I might become an entomologist. I had a speech impediment that caused me to stutter but as I got older I grew out of it but my speech impediment played a large role in my life as a loner.
PI: When did you know that you were attracted to the same sex?
WD: I was either in 10th or 11th grade when I had my first attraction to someone of the same sex; I can remember being very afraid even though I did not have the words or the language to say what it meant, I knew inherently it wasn’t right because of what I was taught as a child. I just knew that it wasn’t acceptable. I remember coming home from school and watching heterosexual sex just to prove to myself that what had happened earlier was not real, it was an aberration or something that boys did when they looked at another boy’s body to compare it to their own, not attraction.
PI: Did you have a teenage crush?
WD: Yes, I had teenage several crushes on girls and boys, that’s what added to my confusion. There was a young girl that I was attracted to but there was also my Pre-Calculus teacher. He was a man’s man, he liked sports, he was attractive and he had a body that I was drawn to. I used to get excited about going to his class.
PI: Does that mean that you got straight A’s?
WD: No I did not get straight A’s. (Laughs) It was a ridiculous class. I recall thinking to myself, “why I am in this class.” (Laughs) I liked the class because my teacher made it fun. I did not miss class too often. (Laughs)
PI: Since you came out have you heard from any of your former girlfriends? If so how have they reacted to the revelation that you are gay?
WD: No, I have not heard from any past girlfriends. The one thing that I am proud of is that I was not one of the guys who played the field. When I had the feeling that I was gay I did not want to lead people on. While in high school I probably had four or five girlfriends, and I had two in college; I have always been the kind of guy who dated for the long term. If I were to hear from any former girlfriends I think I would apologize to them not because I lead them on, I would give them an explanation and perhaps tell them how they affected my decision to become the man I am today.
PI: Does that mean that you suppressed your gay feelings?
WD: Yes, it was all suppression. I did the stereotypical things that I thought men did such as dating girls and going to clubs and playing sports. Playing sports was my way of get away from it all; it was kind of my way to silo my thoughts. I put being gay away in the back of my brain. There were times when that part of my brain was activated and I did have those thoughts. I remember my sophomore year in college there was a gentleman in my English class that I perceived as being gay so I strategically placed myself so that I would have to get close to him and become his friend. I would position myself to befriend other people who I thought were gay so that I would learn what their lives were like. While I was playing in the NFL I dated another player who was closeted like me this allowed me to experience what it was going to be like to be gay. Nine months after my football playing days were over I moved to New York because I needed to be free and could not keep on living only inside my head, at that time I came out to close friends and family. I’ve had a partner for the last six years although I had not come out publically.
PI: How did you hide your partner and your lifestyle while you were playing in the NFL?
WD: It was much easier than expected. I think that being a professional athlete and participating in sports gives you more latitude where you are not “deemed as a homosexual.” I had a “friend’ who was actually my partner and we were allowed to do all those things that others would have just thought “nah they are just homeboys.” I could always bring him around, hang out and laugh, joke and play pool and do everything with him as long as we were posturing so that people perceived us as being heterosexuals. I remember being over in Europe playing for the European league and talking to him on the telephone while other players were in the room. I referred to him with female pronouns. I shared stories about our sexual life as if he were a girl with my teammates. It was so much easier than I had thought and in time I became a fantastic, beautiful liar. It made me feel good because it allowed me to be engaged in the personal lives of my teammates.
PI: According to published reports you have not heard back directly from the NFL.
WD: No I have not.
PI: However they (the NFL) have said through “other sources” the league is accepting of your lifestyle. Do you think the NFL is trying to have its cake and eat it too by not issuing a formal statement of support with regards to your coming out?
WD: To be honest I did not expect the NFL to issue a statement of support. I am a person that understands the business of sports. The NFL believes their primary audience is heterosexual males and the last thing that heterosexual males want to think about is the guys they idolize and think of as super human could not possibly be gay. There is one side of the issue where the NFL may be trying to save face and they may not be coming right out and say it but they have put out an article about it on NFL.com or other places like ESPN.com and they bring in diversity committees and players whom they deem appropriate to talk to their teams about tolerance; I think those things are great. I can say that I have never experienced any homophobia while I played, but I do think that all sports leagues need to make it known that although they do not necessarily have to be for homosexuality but they have to be against discrimination against other players based on that player’s sexuality. There needs to be a space where all sport teams are against discrimination and sexism. I am not saying that the NFL should make an endorsement for something they don’t want to but they have to make it clear they’re against discrimination and things that exist in this world that prevent people from being their true selves.
PI: Speaking of the NFL have you heard room any of your former Tennessee Titans team mates?
WD: I’ve heard from former teammates that I was close to especially those that I played with in the NFL Europe. I know that Jevon Kearse has reached out through others to offer his support as well. The funny thing is that many of my former teammates told me they were angry that I did not tell earlier and they would have loved me and accepted my lifestyle regardless. I do believe them. I do know it is so much easier for them to say that now. When you’re on a team, you’re separated by different things such as class, rank and so forth and I could imagine they could have been a veteran on the team who had an issue with me being a homosexual and put the owners in a situation where they had to choose the veteran over me. I want to believe in my heart that my teammates were all good people and would have accepted me but I know that there are other pressures that would have existed that do not exist now.
PI: Do you believe that we will ever live in a world where an openly gay athlete will compete in the NFL, NBA or any other professional league?
WD: Yes. I believe that it will happen in hockey first because there’s a strong Canadian and European influence and those places are just a little bit further ahead in their ideas of masculinity and sexuality. I believe there will be a player that will come out while still playing professionally or there will be an openly gay player drafted to play. As far as football, basketball or baseball goes and being realistic about it, it will probably happen in another seven or maybe ten years. I know that sounds awful but we have not come far enough with regards to the conversation of what is masculine. I believe that we are taking steps forward or strides forward, but we are still a long way away from it.
PI: How did you end up playing for the NFL EUROPE?
WD: The NFL Europe existed for about six to eight years. I referred to it as the minor leagues of the NFL. The way it worked was that if you were on the roster of an NFL team or signed to an NFL contract you could be allocated to the NFL Europe. There were somewhere around eight teams that played in teams in Germany, Spain and the UK. The NFL sent you over there to give you more playing experience to help you to develop as a player. The NFL Europe’s season ended in June so you had maybe a month and a half to recoup before the football season here started.
I played for the Berlin Thunder; it was the highlight of my NFL Europe career. I was over there for approximately thirteen weeks. As a stranger in a new country I got to bond that much more with my teammates. We used to stay up until 3:00AM or 4:ooAM in the hallway of the Marriot hotel talking about our lives, as you do that you realize how much you have in common with your teammates. It was the closest team I’d ever been on; there are guys on that team that I will remember forever. The second time I went to Europe I stayed in Barcelona Spain, when I got there I realized that it was in one of the gayest area of the world. I remember getting over there realizing that the area was entirely gay area. I was closeted at the time and I thought that God was playing a very cruel trick on me. I thought to myself, “Why are you punishing me God?” this was not cool. I felt like I was in very bad dream because I kept on seeing all of those attractive gay men and I had never experienced what it was like to be a free gay man.
I was a popular player on the team so it worked against me because I was never able to go off by myself; there was always someone else that wanted to hang out with me. As far as football life went I was happy and I thought that my gay life and my football would be congruent then in my second year my partner and I were in the process of breaking up, he was not calling me as much but my football playing started to suffer.
PI: Hypothetically speaking let’s say that you never came out and someone who knew you were gay approached you and said that you were not a role model for LGBT youth because you were not being true to yourself. What would you say to that person?
WD: I would agree with that person, I would not be a role model, but only in the sense that I would not be living my life the way that I wanted because I would be allowing the media and others to dictate how I should live. I agree that people should not do that. When I look at the gay youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) and see how they are living their life’s out in the open I think to myself, “These are the true role models and heroes.” These youth wake up every day and live in the world as just as they are and while the rest of world may not accept them they remain true to themselves regardless. That’s something that I am so jealous of even at this age whether. I look at these 13, 14, 15 and 16 year olds and admire them because they are resilient. They take pot shots from the world but they get right back up and continue to their lives, that’s heroic, they’re the true role models.
PI: How did you become involved with HMI?
WD: It was a pure blessing. I started to do some volunteer work with a lot of not for profit organizations and really started to enjoy working with LGBT youth. I started to see myself in them. The one thing I’d wanted most when I found out that I was gay was to have a friend who looked like me, talked like me, and acted like me. I wanted to ask my friend stuff about being gay and when I started to realize that I wanted to make an impact on someone else’s life that’s when I knew that I wanted to work for a not for profit working with LGBT youth. I’d worked with groups like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and GMAD and then I went to HMI.
When I met the Executive Director at HMI I thought that he was brilliant, thoughtful and honest. He told me there was an opportunity for me to work with them, at first I although he was joking because I had not worked with youth before. I had a business background and was concerned about my ability to inspire youth. I recall first time I had the opportunity to teach a class to the youth, I was nervous but hey loved me. It has been wonderful ever since and I have not looked back. Working for HMI is my dream job, it is a job that I look forward to doing every single day. It is job where you can learn so much more from them than they could ever hope to learn from you.
Every day one of the youth does something that inspires me, they are the role models and the ones who could teach and help the next Wade Davis to come out of the closet. My story may be great or amazing as it might seem but it is nowhere near being great when you look at some of the stories of the gay youth at HMI.
PI: Do you plan on having kids of your own?
WD: Yes, I have discussed it with my partner but we have not figured out if we would like to do it the surrogate way or the adoption way. We want to have two kids, in a perfect world it would be a son and a daughter but if it is two sons or two daughters we will be happy. Even before I realized that I was gay I knew that I wanted to be a parent, father and to get married. I have just been blessed to have a partner that has been supportive and that has put up with me. (Laughs) I know I am not the easiest person in the world to put up with.
PI: What do you like to do outside of work?
WD: My new passion is reading, right now I am reading Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow. It has become my second greatest book of all times, it’s historical and thoughtful. And my favorite book is Giovanni’s Room; I’ve become a James Baldwin fanatic. I am also writing a lot, playing football for a gay league, like to shop and watch political shows like Chris Hayes and Mellissa Harris-Perry. I continue to try to give back working with The Black AIDS Institute.
PI: Do you plan on writing a book about yourself?
WD: Yes. A friend of mine, Keith Boykin, has a book called 4 Colored Boys. I am honored that Keith asked me to be a part of that; he is an amazing guy, doing amazing work.
I am working with my friend putting together writings for The Huffington Post which pays homage to black gay writers of the past like Tongues Untied. Watch for that in the near future.
PI: In the future your grandchildren will be having a conversation about you. They will discuss your coming out, career, activism and so on and so forth. What would you like for them to say about you?
WD: I would like for them to say “my grandfather help to teach the world and help to reinforce how important activist and how important it is to help people who were struggling with their sexual identities.” They will say that “my grandfather helped to turn around something negative into positive (his speech impediment) and he will (our grandfather will be remembered not because he played football but because he helped to change the world.”
LGBT youth who need someone to talk to should feel free to email Mr. Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.