Wade Davis Jr. knew he was gay his sophomore year of high school.
But throughout his career as a professional football player, it was a secret to his teammates. After all, 2003—the year he retired—was a different time, as he puts it. A national conversation surrounding gay athletes' place in professional sports was unheard of.
But today, Davis is public about his sexuality. He has been living as an openly gay man since 2006, and he came out to the media last June. One of many former professional athletes to come out after retirement, the advocate and activist will represent LGBT athletes of all stripes June 30 as he leads the Pride parade as its grand marshal.
It's been quite a year for the LGBT sports community, and not just because NBA player Jason Collins came out in April as the first openly gay male athlete still actively playing his sport. The Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame was established in Chicago in May. LGBT-focused marketing firm Target 10 named the city the top in the nation for gay athletes this month. And July marks the 7th anniversary of the city hosting the Gay Games, an international competition held annually in different locations around the world. It all comes fresh off a Supreme Court decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and paved way for gay marriage in California this week.
But gay athletes and activists note the LGBT community still has strides to make before they can achieve equality in professional sports. Before the Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver apologized for saying gays don't belong in his locker room. Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers was fined for using a gay slur in remarks about LeBron James after a game in June.
So Davis as Jr. leads this year's Pride revelers and members of the Retired Professional Football Players of Chicago through Boystown, how do Chicago's gay athletes react to the national spotlight their passion for sport has received?
Many are just happy to see another barrier chipped away.
"Organized sports, that was the last bastion of people who weren't out," said Pride Parade organizer Richard Pfeiffer. "As I grew up, I didn't have many role models like that. It's important for this generation to have role models in many fields."
Pfeiffer said Davis was the natural choice to lead the parade this year, both because of the national conversation concerning athletes coming out and because he will launch an initiative focused on LGBT youth in sports in Chicago later this year.
"We keep our eyes out on what's going on in the national communities to choose grand marshals," he said. Past marshals have included outspoken gay actor George Takei of "Star Trek" fame, transgender actress Alexandra Billings and lesbian country singer Chely Wright
Grete Hornstrom, 32, of Uptown, said she has seen firsthand how vast and inviting Chicago's LGBT athletic community can be. After moving to the city from California about a year and a half ago, she said it was a way for her and her fiance to make friends in a new scene. She's now commissioner of women's basketball for the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association, a 4,000-member LGBT sports organization with 29 leagues in 11 sports.
"For me, playing in a sports league, it was a way to be able to develop friendships where I didn't have to hide where I was," she said. "For me, in a different league in a different time in my life, I would have been hiding that."
She said she is happy to see athletes such as Collins and Brittney Griner of the WNBA playing openly, but true equality in sports for the gay athlete looks different.
"For me, it's when people are able to be who they are without having to worry about it," she said. "When someone comes out, it's not a news story."
Michael Erwin, 41, of Lincoln Square and a board member with the CMSA, agrees.
"2013 could be the year we stop looking at someone as a gay athlete and just start looking at them as an athlete," he said. "At least I hope so."
Former Chicago Bear Brendon Ayanbadejo has spent much of his retirement from the NFL in 2012 trying to make that a reality, through public speaking and his work with Athlete Ally, a group that works to fight homophobia in sports. Ayanbadejo says he is contact with several current NFL players and other professional athletes, in hopes of organizing a way for them to come out together publicly. A straight man, Ayanbadejo first began advocating for same-sex marriage during his career in 2009.
"Eventually we'll have every athlete out, and not have to worry about how people are going to treat them or lose their jobs," he said, adding that the athletes he is in contact with will only come out when they are comfortable enough. "It could be one, it could be two, it could be three or four."
He likens homophobia among athletes and fans to the racism Jackie Robinson faced in the '40s when he broke the color line in Major League Baseball.