The Shutdown Corner Interview: Wade Davis, a year after coming out

Maggie Hendricks

Wade Davis played for three different NFL teams, and retired in 2003. In June of 2012, he came out, joining a small group of professional athletes who are publicly gay. This weekend, Davis attended Nike's LGBT Sports Summit, and talked to Shutdown Corner about the past year, Jason Collins, and helping youth.

Shutdown Corner: In the past year, NBA player Jason Collins and WNBA star Brittney Griner both came out. Other athletes have, too. Do you feel a change in climate in that one year?
Wade Davis: It feels different because there are so many conversations around LGBTQ athletes in sports. There's so many great organizations and people who are really making it their priority to make sure young people have spaces in sports that are accessible to people of all genders and sexualities. Also, there are so many athletes of all races and sexualities that are speaking out to add their voices to make sure that even pro athletes feel safe in sports.

SC: What was behind your decision to come out?
WD: There were two things. One, I was ready. I was in a point in my life where I knew enough about myself. I loved myself. There was so much self-hatred I lived with that I had to unlearn. Two, I was working with LGBTQ youth, and they really inspired me everyday. Just living in their truth and exhibiting so much courage that I was like, ya know, if these people can do this under insurmountable odds, an ex-NFL player who is draped privilege? I can also do it. I can also use the platform that was given to me to really share their stories.

SC: Now that it's been a year, how do you look back and judge the reaction?
WD: I would say 99 percent of the feedback was amazing. From ex-teammates, to college teammates, to high school teammates, they were all truly amazing. What I found kinda funny was that they were all a little bit mad at me. They said, 'Why didn't you tell me before? I would have loved you regardless, and I would have loved the opportunity to prove that to you. That I'd view you no different.'

What I think happens is that we grow up with these ideas of masculinity, and that it's so opposite of being gay that we think your friends will never accept you. I think that's stuff that the media perpetuates, and that we map onto person. It takes so long to unlearn that, that we don't give anyone a chance to show you that you they love you regardless.

SC: Do you think your coming out opened the door a bit for Jason Collins to do the same?
WD: I think I did a little bit of work. I actually called him before the president did, and he knew who I was. That's really cool. He said, 'I've been following your story. I've read a lot of your writings and the work you've been doing.' For him to tell me that my work has impacted him, and it really helped to give him a voice and frame the stuff that he's doing now, just really, it's scary that my story is that far-reaching.

It keeps giving me fuel, that there are athletes who are reaching out to me, as well, who may not be out but we can have those conversations and I can be a source of strength. I can be a person they bounce ideas off of, tell them how the world will receive them, and not judge them. Not tell them that living in the closet is a bad thing. I want people to understand that the idea that someone isn't out says less about them and more about society.

SC: What kind of work are you doing now?
WD: Currently, I work at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which is the founder of the Harvey Milk High School. It caters to people between 12-24, and the majority of them identify as LGBTQ. Also, it works with youth of color, and many of them are marginalized. They're homeless, or lack a quality education.

I've also recently launched the You Belong initiative, and that's where were going to have sports camps that will travel around the country through various sports. We're taking about 50 young people who identify as LGBTQ and straight young people, and have them become better basketball players, but also have workshops on becoming better leaders, civic engagement, health and wellness, anti-bullying, so that they can leave and be not just better athletes, but better people. Feel stronger so they can go back to their communities and do stronger work there.

SC: What is your advice to that 16-year-old football player who wants to come out to his team?
WD: My first advice is to find some people in his life who he can have the initial conversation with, just to get out of his own head for a little while. I know for me, living in my own head was the worst place. Find a person you can talk to, who you can find strength in, that if things happen to go wrong, you can fall back on. Then find people on that team who he knows and who will have his back. If he can get those players to rally around him, those players will have his back and will galvanize him, and the rest of the players and coaches will follow suit.

WD: Do you have advice for the straight kids on how to be better allies?
SC: Just show up. Show up with words and show up with actions. You have to be the person that is the shield. If there is any kind of bullying or any kind of backlash, you can step in-between there and say, 'This is my friend. You're not going to talk to that person that way.' Also, allow the space for that LGBT person to speak up for themselves, to assert their own strength and find their own voice.