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Former NFL player to speak at Sewickley Academy on obstacles gays face

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Two Sewickley Academy events over the next six days will use silence and a former NFL player to help spread a message of equality and LGBT awareness, students and staff say.

On Wednesday, former NFL player Wade Davis will be a guest speaker at an event open to the public, where he will discuss how people identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender feel silenced in everyday life.

Hearing from Davis — who is one of few openly gay men to have played professional sports — is important, senior Ellen Harris said.

“There's always that sense that athletes are the absolute in masculinity,” said Harris, who is a member of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance — which also focuses on awareness about people who identify as queer, intersex and asexual.

Davis' sexuality is one piece of who he is, Harris said.

“And he's also a (former) football player. And that's someone people should have as a role model,” Harris said.

Davis last year was named executive director of You Can Play — an organization working to end homophobia among sports programs from the youth level to professional.

The organization has partnered with teams and sports leagues in an effort to educate executives, players and coaches on providing equality, safety and respect for gay athletes.

“He'll be able to talk to students about being silenced for so long in a very public position,” Sewickley Academy spokeswoman Mandi Semple said.

School leaders considered Davis as a speaker after students said the school needed to do more to educate peers about equality, the school's Diversity Director Jeremiah Jackson said.

“(Diversity is) probably the most important thing we should be focused on as a school,” he said. “The most important thing in any school environment are the people. So when we're talking about inclusion and identity, we're not just talking about sexual orientation and identity or race, we're talking about the real identities of people. And if our true mission is to help students cultivate their individual potential, they have to be able to see themselves, explore themselves and take risks in a safe space and a positive way.”

Before Davis visits Sewickley Academy, more than 30 students and staff are expected to participate on Friday in the private school's annual Day of Silence demonstration — a student-led, national event against LGBT harassment in schools. The event is organized nationally by GLSEN — the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Based in New York, the organization has a chapter in Pittsburgh.

Day of Silence is an opportunity “to think about what it means to not be able to express who you are, that you have to be kept in silence on matters of yourself and who you love,” Harris said.

Participants will be silent for most or all of the day in an effort to show peers the struggles LGBT youth face, students said.

Junior and secretary of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, Ariel Richter said she likes participating in the Day of Silence because it is a “good cause that I feel very proud to stand for — giving awareness to (LGBT) teens.”

The school has participated in the national Day of Silence for 13 years, Semple said.

Students at Quaker Valley High School won't be participating in the event because “many will be on (a) Cuba trip, and with the half day, they just didn't think it was worth it,” Quaker Valley spokeswoman Tina Vojtko said.

“At least one person wants to do it just on her own, but it won't be a (Gay-Straight Alliance)-sponsored event.

“They may observe another Day of Silence later in the year, but there are no active plans at this point.”

Participating in the Day of Silence at Sewickley Academy is important, Richter said.

“Learning about different communities helps us be more aware and helps us spread awareness of these communities,” she said. “The more we know about them, the better it is.”

Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rcherry@tribweb.com.

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