Wade Davis has come a long way since the days when he would drop dollars at a strip club, hoping to impress his teammates on the Tennessee Titans. A free agent in the NFL, the cornerback didn’t want to give his football family even the tiniest inkling that he might be a little bit different from them.
It was an act Davis had been playing his whole life: wearing certain clothing, bullying other kids he thought were different or weak, all while hiding who he really was — a gay man. He eventually went on to NFL Europe to play for the Barcelona Dragons and the Berlin Thunder before a knee injury took him out of the game permanently. It wasn’t until 2006, long after his NFL career was over, that Davis became more open about his sexuality. In fact, one of his first big public steps was joining a gay football league in New York City, where he currently resides. Today, Davis is a writer and activist, sharing his experiences as a closeted professional athlete. He’s also the assistant director of job readiness at Hetrick-Martin Institute, a non-profit that serves LGBTQ youth.
Davis will speak at the January meeting of the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), along with Darnell Moore, a writer and LGBTQ activist. The men will be talking about the intersection of sports, manhood, masculinity, the expectations placed on black men, and being gay or queer.
Davis is a gay black man, a gay football player, and a gay man who grew up in the Southern Baptist church. The first designation, however, is the one that has been the most difficult to weather, because of the standards of masculinity and the stereotypes placed on black men. “I felt an enormous amount of internalized pressure to live up to them, but to be clear that pressure was never really vocalized to me,” he says. “But just by living I understood what it meant to be a black man, therefore I knew what attitudes, postures, and poses I was assumed to mimic.”
Davis felt pressure to prove his masculinity, and he did that by copying the things he saw other men do. And even though he’s out and vocal about his experiences, Davis admits that he still feels some of that same compulsion. Fortunately, he says he’s stronger and more confident today with who he is and who he wants to be: a human being. “I’m not trying to place myself in a box or identify with any label besides human,” he says. “I only want to be recognized as Wade.”
At the AFFA meeting, Davis and Moore will also speak about the work they do with LGBTQ youth and how young people of color need these kinds of public voices to speak up. “The lives and futures of youth are at stake, and these conversations need to be happening not only on a local and national level but internationally,” Davis says. He thinks that all LGBTQ youth face similar forms of discrimination and oppression no matter where they live, but in smaller cities like Charleston, the conversations and advocacy work may not be happening on the same scale as it does in metropolises. “I think youth in larger cities may have more outlets and safe spaces, like the Hetrick Martin Institute, to visit to offer them resources to help change their circumstances,” he says. “But in smaller cities, having these conversations may have a broader impact because they may not happen as often, and therefore the message isn’t lost and can receive greater attention.”
Still, a lot has changed for LGBTQ youth, and the face of homosexuality is changing in the NFL as well. Current players like Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe received a lot of positive attention last year for speaking in favor of same-sex marriage (and against some of their detractors). It may not be long before professional football has its first out and active player. “I believe professional sports team and leagues are all turning the corner and understanding the importance of adding their voices to this important movement, and people like Brendon, Chris, [NBA player] Steve Nash, and others are much-needed voices, but we still need more,” Davis says. As he explains, straight allies on sports teams can impact both LGBTQ youth and the straight community. When someone famous and admirable speaks up, they can help change the definitions and perceptions of masculinity and femininity and help identify that the real problem is homophobia, not an individual’s identity.
Charleston isn’t NFL country, but there are plenty of young athletes in the city who may be facing what Davis went through as a teen. He advises finding a person to whom they can talk about what they’re going through. “Keeping all that inside is exhausting, so they need an outlet,” he says. But even though he’s been through the same thing, Davis knows that coming out is an individual experience and all he can do is listen and offer support. “I’ve learned from working with youth to not force or even convey any of my ideas for what another person should do, because I am not the one having the experience,” he says. “But I try to help them explore all options and understand the consequences.”
And he extends some advice for a player’s teammates as well. “I’d tell them she or he is your brother or sister or family member, and you all are a part of a sports fraternity that few have the privilege to experience,” he says. “Don’t let stereotypes and ignorance keep you from enjoying the shot that you have with a family member, because anyone who plays sports understands that you’re not just teammates. You’re family. And your teammates, regardless of their orientation or identity, only want the best for you and would never do anything to make you or anyone else feel like anything less.”
Wade Davis and Darnell Moore will speak at the Alliance for Full Acceptance’s meeting Thurs. Jan. 17 at 5:45 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Visit affa-sc.org to learn more.