Early one morning in April, the players at Bath rugby club received a message on their phones which, to use a term from the sport itself, blindsided them.
It came from Levi Davis, the Premiership club’s charismatic 22-year-old winger. After pressing send, he closed his eyes and sank back in his chair feeling panicked.
Had he done the right thing? What on earth would his team-mates, including England stars Sam Underhill and Anthony Watson, make of his hastily written bombshell?
‘Hi guys. I just want to tell you something that’s been eating away at me for four years now,’ he had written. ‘I want to be open and honest with you boys, as friends and team-mates. I’m bisexual. It’s something I have known since I was 18.’
Ending the message in playful fashion, he assured them that, owing to their appearance, ‘none of you lot are on my radar… so it’s OK’.
Levi Davis, the former Bath rugby club’s charismatic 22-year-old winger texted his team-mates in April to tell them he was bisexual. ‘Hi guys. I just want to tell you something that’s been eating away at me for four years now,’ he had written. ‘I want to be open and honest with you boys, as friends and team-mates. I’m bisexual. It’s something I have known since I was 18.’
Levi was worried about this last flourish – the idea that his team-mates might think he had been eyeing them up in the dressing room or would do so in the future.
It should come as no surprise – though it is heartening nonetheless – that the Bath players were wholly supportive and understanding, despite their initial shock. Mitigating Levi’s fears, their responses were instant and upbeat.
‘Mate, we support you.’ ‘You’re really brave.’ ‘This changes nothing.’ ‘Fair play to you.’
Levi recalls: ‘And then they began taking the p*** in a good-natured way, which I was relieved about. If they had been too tender-hearted, I would have been worried. I’m still a rugby player, after all!’
Few in the Bath squad exemplify rugby’s macho, laddish stereotype quite like Levi who, when he wasn’t thundering past opponents towards the tryline, was at the heart of dressing-room banter and the instigator of nights out: Levi the life of the party, Levi the lothario.
‘I had hidden it well but I couldn’t keep it secret any longer. I had to tell them, all of them, not just a few. I didn’t want it to turn into Chinese whispers,’ he says. ‘So, on the spur of the moment, I put it on our WhatsApp group.’
The former England Under-18 and Under-19 player has now decided to go public about his sexuality in an interview with The Mail on Sunday. He believes that ‘it is important for people to be themselves within rugby’.
In the months leading up to it [his revelation] his behaviour and mental health deteriorated. Beset by ‘a sense of shame, because I felt, and still do, as though I’m not normal’ he had begun drinking heavily. Pictured: Levi Davis playing for Bath Rugby in September 2019
He adds: ‘Thankfully we can now discuss mental health more openly. And in the same way, I want people to feel that they can be who they are and that it is OK to be who they are.
‘Hiding who you are can kill you – and has killed people.
‘I don’t know yet where I am going, but by talking today I can walk hand-in-hand with whoever I want and it won’t matter any more because it’s out there.
‘I realise, though, that I am a bit niche and difficult to categorise: a black, bisexual, privately educated rugby professional. Even black people who hear me on the phone sometimes say, “You don’t sound black, you sound white.” ’
Levi places great faith in his sport – and indeed Britain, too – and foresees a positive response to his admission.
He doesn’t expect to be ribbed too much by rival fans – ‘I’ll laugh if they try it’ – and if opponents try to needle him, he will rise above it. ‘I would feel more sorry for them than for me,’ he says.
There will, of course, be the inevitable nastiness on social media, but, as Levi says: ‘Who gives a f*** about Twitter?
‘On the whole, the country is far more tolerant and less homophobic than it was a decade ago.’
If people can find the courage to be honest about who they are, he adds, the vast majority will support them.
‘We are much kinder now but I also feel that people can be over-sensitive. Sure, if someone is made to feel uncomfortable because of racism then hellfire should rain down on the perpetrator.
‘However, feigning outrage is wrong. I’ve had racist slights from team-mates over the years but in the context of dressing-room banter it’s different and it doesn’t bother me. If I was uncomfortable with it, I’d say. That said, if someone I didn’t know made the remarks, then I wouldn’t be happy. It’s the same with homophobia. In the dressing room, someone might say, “That’s gay” as a dig, but it’s just done in a jokey, childish way and doesn’t mean anything.’
Music is his other love. With fellow rugby stars Thom Evans and Ben Foden, he formed the muscle-bound boy band Try Star for a shot at Celebrity X Factor. Pictures: Levi Davis (second right) with Try Star band mates
Founded in 1865 and crowned Premiership champions six times, Bath are one of the world’s most famous rugby clubs and their players, management and coaches ‘responded amazingly’ to Levi’s admission.
And in the months leading up to it, when, tormented by his secret, his behaviour and mental health deteriorated, they were also there to catch him.
Beset by ‘a sense of shame, because I felt, and still do, as though I’m not normal’ he had begun drinking heavily. He says he was in denial.
Instead of discarding him, the club helped him deal with his depression and anxiety issues. Taken into foster care as a child, Levi endured some ‘tough, tough times’ growing up and the club assumed his problems stemmed from his past.
When the truth finally emerged, the support remained, though the form of the keen musician dipped, an issue not helped by a stint on Celebrity X Factor which took him away from Bath for two months.
To rebuild his career and himself, he dropped down a league, joining Ealing Trailfinders in West London last month on a two-year deal, which he has described as an ‘amazing opportunity.’
With Ealing, whose management has been equally supportive, he intends to return to the top flight and, he hopes, to one day fulfil his potential and win a full cap for England.
If that happens, he doubts whether it would eclipse the unalloyed delight he felt when he first pulled on the famous white jersey as he represented his country at Under-18 level, just as his turmoil over his sexual orientation was beginning.
‘Imitating the England stars who I was seeing at my club was the best feeling ever,’ he says.
It has been 11 years since former Wales captain Gareth Thomas revealed that he was gay. By then, he had retired from the international game and at the time said: ‘I’d love for it, in ten years’ time, not to even be an issue in sport.’
But in the ensuing decade, only one other player has come out – and only as his career was coming to an end.
Levi is the first professional rugby union player to make a similar declaration with his playing career still ahead of him – and the first to reveal he is bisexual. Neither his close friends, ‘save perhaps one or two’, nor his family had any inkling.
Levi was fostered at the age of seven because his mother – though ‘awesome and loving’ – could not cope ‘because of various issues’. A confused, upset and angry little boy, rugby became Levi’s salvation – along with a loving foster family who lived in the countryside
‘They are all worried about me, of course, and I can understand why,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I feel it would be easier if I was gay and nothing else. Then I could identify myself and it would be easier to explain. As it is, I’m in a kind of vacuum. My family have reservations about me going public, but they love me and they support me, and for me that’s all that matters. I love them.’
Even within the LGBT community, bisexuals are often misunderstood. As Levi acknowledges, some even claim that bisexuality doesn’t exist, a view often expressed by those who believe bisexuals are simply on their way to being gay.
Since first realising at the age of 18 that he is attracted to both men and women, Levi has had one or two girlfriends – he likes athletic girls but not athletic men – and some sexual encounters, or ‘interactions’ as he prefers to describe them, with men.
The latter left him upset and, in order to ‘suppress how I felt’, he ‘over-compensated’ by sleeping with a succession of women. ‘I felt I needed to be this macho man, which I still am, but it felt like I needed to reinforce this more.’
His mind was a whirl of confusion. ‘I feel that if I were to be in a relationship with a woman then people would say, “Oh, he is not really bisexual,” ’ he says. ‘At the same time, the woman might think that, as I’m bisexual, my focus is not going to be on her.
‘And if I were in a relationship with a man, people would think, “He’s not bi, he is gay.” Yet none of this is true. I think I’m attracted to the person not the gender.’
What he still holds close is the notion that perhaps one day he will fall in love with a woman and have children. Whether that actually happens, he accepts, is another matter.
‘She would have to be understanding. Yet just because I’m bisexual does not make me any less of a man,’ he says. ‘I still want a wife and kids. That much has been true since I was in foster care. And that’s because I didn’t have a dad.
‘I want to provide that stability. For me it doesn’t change anything. If I’m in a relationship, I’m faithful to that person. It would be like any other relationship. If I found the right one, I wouldn’t stray.’
Could he ever envisage a full-time relationship with a man?
‘It’s impossible to say. Who knows what the future holds?’
Having never known his birth father, Levi was fostered at the age of seven because his mother – though ‘awesome and loving’ – could not cope ‘because of various issues’.
A confused, upset and angry little boy, rugby became Levi’s salvation – along with a loving foster family who lived in the countryside. Without both, he is certain that drugs, gang violence and eventually prison would have claimed him, just as it did so many others in the area of Birmingham where he was born.
‘Just because I’m bisexual does not make me any less of a man,’ he says. ‘I still want a wife and kids. That much has been true since I was in foster care. And that’s because I didn’t have a dad.’
Instead, at the age of 12, his sporting prowess was noticed and he won a rugby scholarship to Denstone College, an independent boarding school near Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, which boasts outstanding sports facilities including an indoor swimming pool and nine-hole golf course.
The school has become a production line for elite sportsmen and women, and Levi flourished, academically and athletically. Rugby was his passion and, to a degree, his sanctuary, and he quickly caught the eye of scouts at local clubs.
Emotionally adrift, he recalls being drawn as much to the sense of belonging that the sport engendered as the game itself.
In rugby, he found a form of family stability. From his amateur club he moved first to Leicester Tigers and then Bath.
Music is his other love. With fellow rugby stars Thom Evans and Ben Foden, he formed the muscle-bound boy band Try Star for a shot at Celebrity X Factor.
They were eliminated in the semi-finals, but Thom, says Levi, ‘ended up a winner’ because he found love with judge Nicole Scherzinger.
That was last year. Now Levi is preparing to meet his Ealing team-mates for the first time since going public about his sexuality. ‘I will be nervous the first time I see them again at the club, but after the first day that will disappear,’ he predicts.
What is perhaps surprising about Levi is that, despite his anxieties, he is possessed with sunny optimism, an unshakeable belief that he will get there in the end. And he is eternally grateful to those who have helped him along the way.
‘Even in the deepest darkest depths, I’ve always thought I was destined for good things – and that I’d somehow make it,’ he says. ‘This could have ended up killing me, but it hasn’t.
‘To anyone else in a similar position who is on the verge of telling people, I say, “Just pull off the plaster and do it.”
‘There are definitely others out there in rugby. At this moment in time, I feel so free. I am really, really happy that this is coming out and I can be myself.’