It took a long time for Wade Davis to come out as a gay man, but today he jets across the country to share his story with as many people as he can.
Davis, 38, is a former professional football player, LBGT figurehead and advocate, and the executive director of the You Can Play Project, a consortium that works to break the stigmas around being gay and in sports.
He spoke Wednesday evening at Montana State University Billings as part of its Power of One Week, which focuses on a variety of social topics.
Davis spoke candidly about growing up in a conservative family, realizing that he’s gay and moving through the sports world trying to feign masculinity.
The schoolyard game “smear the queer” introduced him to both football and the social perceptions of homosexuality. Later in life, as he played for professional football teams in the United States and Europe, he still tried to convey what he felt was a proper, straight male image.
“I know what I want to become, but I didn’t know how to get there,” he said.
It wasn’t until nine years after he left football that he publicly came out as gay. Davis said that these days, he sees the value in being an educator and a relatable figure. The stories he tells reflect feelings of fear and uncertainty, which can relate to someone with any background.
At the beginning of his speech, he urged everyone to feel as uncomfortable as possible in order to break down some of the social barriers.
Before the speech, Davis spoke with a reporter about some of the issues in the LGBT movement, including non-discrimination measures that have been passed in various forms.
In 2014, the Billings City Council defeated an ordinance aimed at protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The debate was intense on both sides, and the measure fell on a 6-5 vote after a meeting that lasted more than eight hours.
“What I think that’s about, honestly, it’s fear-based,” Davis said about opposition to similar measures. “I really think that, if you look at our history, whenever there has been a shift in progress around any type of social issue, there’s always a pushback, because I think we’re resistant as mankind to change.”
A Billings council member who opposed the ordinance took issue with details like prohibition of discrimination in public services like bathrooms.
Just month before the Billings decision, Bozeman passed its own non-discrimination ordinance. The measure also drew intense debates.
This week, Gov. Steve Bullock announced an executive order to put in place similar protections for various gender identities, military service and pregnancy among state contractors and subcontractors.
Davis said that he sees some progress in the LGBT equality movement, especially with younger generations. He also sees greater levels of acceptance in the sports world, where he felt he had to hide a part of his identity.
“Athletes protect each other,” Davis said. “There are players right now in the NFL who are openly gay to their teammates.”
And while that may be fine in some locker rooms, Davis was quick to point out that there is a spectrum of views in the league, and not everyone is as accepting as others. It’s similar to the greater social world.
Davis said as much to NFL coaches, franchise owners and executives in 2014. Being a gay man and a former professional player, he made a timely ambassador and advocate at a time when Michael Sam, an NFL draft prospect at the time, announced that he was gay.
Davis said on Wednesday that the spotlight has been a humbling position for him. It took him a while to realize the breadth of the LBGT movement and the variety of perspectives that inhabit it.
The feeling hits him most after he’s finished a speaking engagement. People will reach out to him with stories — personal stories — that most times he can’t do anything to help. But Davis said that his role is an educational one, and a source of relatability for people who see homosexuality as something foreign.
“It’s humbling to know that I can have an impact on people,” he said. “But then also humbling to understand your individual limitations, to know that I’m not a savior.”
The Power of One events continue through Jan. 27 at MSU Billings. They are open to the public, and a list of events can be found at the university’s website.