Wade Davis is not your typical retired professional football player.
The 40-year-old played in the NFL for three years, first as an undrafted free agent for the Tennessee Titans and later in the NFL’s Europe League. After short stints in training camps for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington, D.C.’s, NFL team, Davis retired in 2003 due to a leg injury.
For his entire professional sports career, Davis carried around a heavy secret: He’s gay.
“It was moments of heaven and then moments of hell, and those moments could flip-flop from one second to the other,” Davis told HuffPost of his time as an NFL player. “I could be out on the football field at practice making a really beautiful play, and then I’d go watch myself on film and think how gay I look. It was tragic.”
It wasn’t until 2012 that he publicly came out, and his world began to change. Now, Davis is an outspoken advocate on LGBTQ issues and women’s rights.
“The amount of privilege that being an NFL player gives you is in-fucking-measurable,” Davis said.
Davis is definitely using that privilege. He’s now the NFL’s first inclusion consultant, dealing with issues like racism, sexism and homophobia in sports. He’s also the Director of Professional Sports Outreach for You Can Play, an organization that promotes equality for LGBTQ athletes. In addition, Davis is a UN Women Champion for Innovation, as part of their Global Innovation Coalition for Change, and regularly advises Google and other Fortune 500 companies to create more inclusive work environments.
To celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month in June, HuffPost spoke with Davis about his journey from closeted gay athlete in America’s most beloved sport to front-and-center social justice activist.
What inspired you to become an activist in the LGBTQ community?
Me being a gay man wasn’t the spark. It was actually working at this LGBTQ youth center, which was my first job in the activist space. I had never met a 14-year-old trans woman who was living in her truth and going through a transition. I was blinded by that type of courage. Also, someone gave me my first feminist book, it was bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. I had to read it multiple times in order to get it. Once I realized that the root of homophobia was sexism, everything else just made perfect sense.
Can you talk to me more about the notion that homophobia is rooted in sexism?
When people think about being LGBT, their first thought is gay white men because of the patriarchy and racism. When you talk to people about LGBTQ equality, what they really start thinking about is the act of sex that we engage in. It’s almost always rooted in sexual acts. When you talk to heterosexual men, especially, that’s all that they can think about. And when they use language like “faggot” or “bitch” or “pussy,” what they’re saying is: “You’re doing things that men don’t do. You’re doing things that women do.”
What they have located is that you may look like a man, but your actions are those that women do. Therefore, you are less than me as a man because you’re acting like a woman.
What was that like being a closeted gay man in the NFL?
It was one of the greatest times in my life and it was also one of the most traumatic. I was doing this thing that I had dreamed about doing my whole life and I was doing it decently well. I was living out a childhood dream. But at the same time I was also intentionally trying to kill and destroy a part of myself. It was like being schizophrenic.
The other aspect of my NFL experience I wish more people understood is that I wasn’t not out because of the NFL. I wasn’t not out because of college, I wasn’t not out because of football. I was not out because of what the world had conditioned me to believe about gay people. I didn’t really even understand like what it meant to be gay. I didn’t understand that I could have a future.
I didn’t have the skill set to deal with being gay when I was in high school, when I was in college, and when I was in the pros. So by that point in my life, I had made a decision that there was no way in hell I was going to risk my dream on something that I really didn’t understand.
What advice would you give to either NFL players or other athletes who are currently closeted?
I have two pieces of advice. One is to develop a practice of self-love. We consistently tell young people they should love themselves, but we never give them the tools to do that. What is a practice that you do every single day to believe that you are worthy of being loved? Find out what your practice is. It could be reading books that tell stories of LGBTQ characters. It could be meditation. Whatever it is, you gotta have that practice that you do every day that counteracts all of the negative narratives that exist about LGBTQ folks. Because, regardless of what anyone says, we still don’t put value on being LGBTQ.
The second thing is to find people or even just one person who you can be more of yourself with. Because there’s nothing more dangerous than living inside of your own head, especially when all of the messaging is telling you that you ain’t shit and you don’t have any value.