"I started to realize that, you know what, there's an opportunity here for me to really make and effect change, not only within myself but in the world."
So explains Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who came out as gay last year after playing with the Tennessee Titans, and later with the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins, from 2000-2004.
Now, however, the 34-year-old Davis is coming forward about the challenges of being a gay man in the NFL for the first time, via revealing interviews with both SB Nation and Outsports. "I think subconsciously, I understood that being gay...the way I was raised...was wrong, and there was no way that my family, at least in my mind, would accept me," he confesses to SBNation's Amy Nelson. "And also that my football family would [not] accept me, just because of the perception of being gay meant that you're less masculine."
Though the idea of having an openly gay man in the locker room may make other heterosexual players uncomfortable, Davis notes, "At never a point [during] my NFL playing career did I take advantage of the privilege that I had to see a man naked. I never even remotely got aroused in the locker room." He explained his reasoning in further detail to Out Sports: "You just want to be one of the guys, and you don’t want to lose that sense of family. Your biggest fear is that you’ll lose that camaraderie and family."
These days, it's his work off the field that Davis wants to be most remembered for: he's now a staff member at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth in New York City. “It’s the first job since football that I wake up excited for work,” Davis, who also does campaign work for President Obama, told Out Sports' Cyd Zeigler. “For these kids, the question isn’t whether they are shooting a basketball well, it’s whether they have a place to sleep tonight, whether they’ve eaten today."
Still, Davis seems to still have residual hesitation about active football players coming out. When Nelson asks him if it's possible for a reserve player rather than a star quarterback to come out as gay, Davis notes, "I'll be flat-out honest with you...it probably shouldn't be if he wants to keep his job. If he's a free agent who's fighting for his job, maybe he shouldn't...I don't want to tell someone to give up their lifelong dream of playing in the NFL."
But then, a moment later, he adds, "You know what? Yes, it should be. Screw it. I don't want to be in the business of telling anyone they can't live their life authentically."
Take a look at other openly LGBT sports figures below:
The Olympic diver, who took home the gold medal in 2008 in the ten meter platform, revealed his sexuality in an <a href="http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/05/23/1211183107597.html" target="_hplink">exclusive interview</a> with <em>The Sydney Morning Herald</em>. Mitcham, then 20 years old, credited partner Lachlan with helping him battle depression and emotional burnout in the years before his Olympic triumph.
Thomas's decision to <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/19/gay-groups-applaud-gareth-thomas" target="_hplink">confirm his sexuality</a> while still an active rugby player was praised by LGBT rights advocates as a brave move. Though others have since followed suit, Thomas hoped people who eventually consider his sexuality as irrelevant. "What I choose to do when I close the door at home has nothing to do with what I have achieved in rugby," he told <em>The Guardian</em>. "I'd love for it, in 10 years' time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: 'So what?'"
The Prague-born tennis pro, who came out as bisexual in 1981, is credited with having "expanded the dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality in sports,"<a href="http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016378.html" target="_hplink"> according to ESPN</a>. "Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar," Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said. "She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn't have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am."
Known as much for his colorful fashion sense as his slick moves on the ice, Weir faced intense media scrutiny over his sexual orientation before<a href="http://www.afterelton.com/people/2011/01/johnny-weir-finally-really-out" target="_hplink"> finally coming out</a> in his recently published memoirs. "With people killing themselves and being scared into the closet, I hope that even just one person can gain strength from my story," Weir said at the time. "A lot of the gays got downright angry about my silence. But pressure is the last thing that would make me want to 'join' a community."
Billie Jean King
Unfortunately, the tennis pro's<a href="http://lesbianlife.about.com/od/lesbiansinsports/p/BillieJeanKing.htm" target="_hplink"> 1981 outing</a> was not her choice; she was forced out when her former female lover sued her for palimony and nearly lost all of her commercial endorsements as a result. But her career was far from over, and in 2000, she became the first open lesbian ever to coach an Olympic team.
The Australian hockey champ, who retired this year, came out earlier this week in an emotional YouTube video, <em>The Sydney Morning Herald</em> <a href="http://www.smh.com.au/national/playing-it-straight-20111022-1mdj3.html" target="_hplink">is reporting</a>. "I regret immensely that I wasn't strong enough as a leader, that I didn't step up when I was playing and share this about myself,'' he is quoted as saying in the video.
Originally from Quebec, the Canadian hockey champ<a href="http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/othersports/2003817138_goodread02.html" target="_hplink"> decided to stop </a>hiding her sexual orientation while still a freshman at Harvard University. "If they weren't going to accept me on the team," she told <em>The Seattle Times</em>, "I wasn't going to stay."
In 1995, the Olympic diving hero (who <a href="http://www.outsports.com/local/2006/0417louganis.htm" target="_hplink">became the first man</a> in 56 years to win two gold medals in diving when he captured the platform and the springboard events in Los Angeles 11 years earlier) shocked fans when he decided<a href="http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Greg-Louganis-Comes-Out-on-The-Oprah-Show-Video" target="_hplink"> to come out</a> as both gay and HIV-positive on <em>The Oprah Winfrey Show</em>. "People who were close to me -- family and friends -- they knew about my sexuality," he said in 2006. "I just did not discuss my personal life, my sexuality with the media. That was my policy."
Formerly of the San Diego Padres, baseball player Billy Bean came out in 1999, five years after he retired. Now, however, he says he has regrets about ending his baseball career after just six seasons. "If I had only told my parents, I probably would have played two or three more years and understood that I could come out a step at a time, not have to do it in front of a microphone," he<a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2011/09/27/moment-7-major-leaguer-billy-bean-comes-out-still-regrets-retiring/" target="_hplink"> is quoted by</a> Outsports as saying. "And I was completely misguided. I had no mentor. I think that's where the responsibility comes in for people who have lived that experience, and we take for granted that everybody's adjusted and gets it."
The pro-golfer, who won 13 events during her 21 years, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/21/sports/golf/21ROSI.html" target="_hplink">came out in</a> a 2004 <em>New York Times</em> editorial. "You see, my sponsor, Olivia, is one of the world's largest and most respected companies catering to lesbian travelers, and this represents the first time a company like this has sponsored a professional athlete -- a gay professional athlete," Jones wrote. "Inherent in this sponsorship is my coming out. It's a bit of a curiosity, because I've never been in the closet. For more than 25 years, I've been very comfortable with the fact that I'm gay...I have never, until now, felt the need to discuss it in the news media."
The champion rider, who competed in six consecutive Olympics, says he's never had much of a problem with being open about his sexual orientation in the equestrian world. Still, as he he<a href="http://www.outsports.com/olympics/2004/0804robertdover.htm" target="_hplink"> told Outsports</a>, "I did not connect my social life to my work life for many years, and while I never ran away from the issue of my homosexuality, I must admit that I had no real interest in bringing attention to it, especially with the press...what changed everything was a combination of meeting my soul-mate Robert Ross, whom I was so proud to be with that I wanted everyone to know, and the AIDS epidemic which affected so many people dear to me."
The South African-born commissioner of World Team Tennis <a href="http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_445847.html" target="_hplink">has also been</a> the partner of Billie Jean King for more than 20 years. She also credits King with encouraging her to pursue her career. "I had an opportunity to hit tennis balls with Billie Jean King when she was in South Africa when I was 11," <a href="http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/jul/17/17kloss1o1/" target="_hplink">she said</a>. "She encouraged me to pursue my dream, and I did."