Davis on James Baldwin, Feminism, Loneliness, and Supporting the LGBTQ Community
Wade Davis is a man who gives a damn about being a better man. He lives his talk. A former NFL cornerback, Davis was the executive director of YouCanPlay.org from 2013-2016. You Can Play, founded by professionals in athletics in 2012, is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Today, he serves as their director of professional sports outreach. He also serves as the NFL’s first LGBTQ inclusion consultant. Davis is on twitter @Wade_Davis28 and you can learn more about him at WadeADavis.com.
If you’re going to change the world, you need to be an outlier. In a white, patriarchal, heterosexual society, it’s not straight, rich, white guys who shake things up. Wade Davis is an outlier. He is a Black, gay, feminist man who ran a 4.5 forty yard dash and played professional football.
“The NFL gives me privilege,” said Wade Davis right up front. “I know that. I appreciate it. But in some groups, the NFL thing also excludes me, too. I’m the first NFL LGBTQ inclusion consultant. I’m heard by them. That’s important. But like I said, the NFL, in some quarters where my people live, is not a consideration. Outside of LGBTQ athletes, my people, most of them, are elsewhere. My people are on the margins.”
As an athlete, Wade Davis was on the margin in the best way possible. 1.1 million boys and 1,500 girls play high school football annually. About 70,000 men move on and play college football. Only 1.5% of those NCAA athletes will play professional football at any level. Wade was one of those. A career cut short by injury, Wade knows that his brief time spent as a defensive back in the NFL and NFL Europe gives him influence far beyond the reach of NFL statistics.
“People sit up and listen when they hear I played pro ball. It gets my phone calls returned, emails answered. If I didn’t have substance at that point, I’d get no further than anyone else, but all of us: NFL, NBA, MLB, we have access that is stronger than most.
“But it’s not the NFL that gave me my power as a gay man. It was an LGBTQ group that I became affiliated with. I was there to help them. But it turned out that they sparked my path. Those kids, with their acceptance, their love of who they were, they taught me to love myself. They were the ones who shepherded and nurtured my journey. They did far more for me than I was capable of doing for them. It took a long time. I wasn’t able to come out until 2012 when I was 35. Some of those kids have never been in. That’s power. That’s humanity.”
I’ve talked to a lot of gay and lesbian athletes since, and we all did the same thing, we used our athletic skills, our privilege, to create a safe way to gay.
Born in 1977, Wade Davis is very much a millennial, aware of the dynamics of the media. However, he is also a student of history, both his own as a gay, Black man and of those who came before him. Keen to hear his reactions to his predecessors, I tossed out a number of iconic names at him.
Harvey Milk. “He was a revolutionary. He saw this future, and he figured out a way to create it. But still, he was a white male. While he was marginalized for his sexuality, he still had access to power. (note – Milk was murdered sixteen months before Davis was born.)
The Stonewall Riots-1969. “Stonewall was the birth of the gay movement. It was the first time we stood up. We decided that enough was enough. That came at a cost, though, too. We erased trans people. We didn’t include women of color. We (the LGBTQ community) don’t share power very well yet. That’s part of my mission. To show how we can share the microphone. That said, I don’t know where we’d be without the Stonewall uprising.”
John Amaechi (Amaechi was the first NBA player to speak of his sexuality, coming out in 2007). “John is brilliant. He is intersectional. He sees the world through so many eyes. Part of that might be his background – his UK background, his travels, all his academic success, but part of that is his brilliance – not many can see the connectivity of an issue and bring that to bear on a solution. Brilliant, that’s the best word for John.”
Dave Kopay (A running back, in 1975 Kopay was the first male, major sport athlete to come out). “Beautiful, courageous, and gentle. Dave’s sexuality was an open secret, and it cost him. No doubt, teams did not want him because he was gay. Yet, he made the choice anyway. And to come out publicly, only 5-6 years after Stonewall? In the NFL? Courage beyond measure. Beyond measure.”
Michael Sam (the first out player to be drafted into the NFL, 2014). “In a way, Michael is a tragic story, at the least, a sad story. Michael was misrepresented. He was misunderstood. I fear he won’t be remembered, and that’s truly sad. Michael needed people around him who loved him, who understood his issues, not by the fans that latched onto him. Michael was, really, all by himself. And I think that contributed to his downfall in the League. When I think of Michael, I think of that Biggie Smalls lyric, I got lawyers watching lawyers. Michael’s story makes me so sad.”
Castor Semenya. “I love Castor’s story. One of the great stories in sport, from so many perspectives. That her country chose her to carry the flag in the London 2012 Summer Games, that quote of hers, ‘God made me the way I am, and I accept myself,’ the way she always carries herself with grace, she never takes the bait from the media, Castor is it.”
Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird (When Wade and I spoke, the ESPN, the Magazine body issue had just hit the stands. The soccer star and the basketball star have been dating for two years. They are the first openly gay/lesbian couple to pose for the magazine). “Those are brave women. They are trailblazers. It’s never easy to be publicly gay, but it might be a little easier for them. They’re both such good-looking women. We need to wrestle with notions of body and beauty, throughout the LGBTQ community. You should read Roxane Gay on this. She’ll open your eyes. But yeah, absolutely, I love what Megan and Sue, and ESPN, too, did here. Amazing stuff.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “MLK was the visionary. It started with him. Others came before and laid the foundations, but Martin put it together into a coherent whole. Martin was, in economic terms, capable of, responsible for, many more deposits than he ever got back. Martin was just 39 when he was assassinated. 39. I’m 41 this summer. Always makes me think – it drives me on – he did so much in his time.
I do wish I had known one person I could have trusted to share my “gay.” Just one…. Keeping that in, it just crushes you. To know some comfort, some acceptance. That would’ve made all the difference. Saved me a lot of pain.
“Wade,” I said, “You’ve been a lot of things over forty years. You were a Black athlete, then you were a Black, gay athlete, now you’re a Black, gay, feminist athlete and advocate. Can you rank order all this? Give me a sense of importance to your life, your mission?”
“When I was a kid, it was 100% Black athlete. I kept the gay down. Way down. From about 33 and younger, I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t a faggot, right? I used my athletic skills, my privilege, to distance myself from ‘faggot.’ All those negative connotations, I wasn’t going to let myself be that.
“I was in tenth grade when I realized I was gay, but still, I used my athletic privilege to keep the ‘faggot’ away. I’ve talked to a lot of gay and lesbian athletes since, and we all did the same thing, we used our athletic skills, our privilege, to create a safe way to gay.
“You know, I’m not always gay. I mean, I am, but I don’t choose to invite everyone into that part of my life. So, yeah, I hide the gay on occasion. We all have plenty of identities. You do, right? But you don’t show them all off at once, do you? Neither do I. Where it gets difficult is sexuality. It’s the core of who we are, and with straight folks, it’s never an issue. Straight is the default. We need to overcome that.
“I know that my identity as an athlete is the one I now care the least about. It’s a part of me, always, but it’s not core to who I am moving forward. I’d put feminist at the top of the list. It’s the one where I can affect the most positive change. My challenge there is to not dominate the conversation. I catch myself using my male privilege too much. I’m an advocate. That’s what I do. It’s a balancing act; being a guy to create awareness vs. being a guy who uses patriarchy to say, “look at me, I’m wonderful, I’m a feminist.”
I listened to Wade’s TEDx talk (The Mask of Masculinity). In it, he references the film Roll Red Roll. This 2018 film tells the 2012 story of the two members of the Steubenville (Ohio) high school football team members who raped a drunken girl, and the way the town closed ranks to protect the young men. It’s a staggering, terrifying portrait of rape culture. In it, one sees everything wrong with masculinity as it surrounds football, male privilege, and the criminally ridiculous obsession many towns have towards their high school football “heroes.”
“It’s a tragic film, isn’t it? Horrific. Right there, for 80 minutes, everything that is wrong with sports and men and culture is there. How could people, in the face of overwhelming evidence, defend those young men? But they did. Parents need to understand that your ‘good kid’ can be a bad kid. A horrible kid. A criminal. A felon. This whole scenario is ugly beyond words. Why don’t we talk about the ugliness? The parallels are pretty clear, aren’t they, between Roll Red Roll and the current political climate?
“The hate directed at that young woman could have been directed at an LGBTQ person, too, right? Or a person of color. Homophobia is everywhere. But I think as we move towards a more feminist society, we’ll see less homophobia. Not that women aren’t capable of hate. I think that a lot of their hate stems from our (male) behaviors. If we’re able to work out the issues of our toxic masculinity, I hope that the female hate fades, too. ”
“Talk to me, Wade, about the Supreme Court. With Justice Kennedy resigning, there could be big changes in store.”
“It’s scary. Really scary. The question is ‘Where do justices see the country headed?’ We need moderates on the Court, but I don’t think we have moderates anymore. It’s not allowed. We’re Left vs. Right. It’s clear that this president’s choice will be all about reinforcing power and privilege for a very small group of men. Their silo is very narrow, and they don’t care. In fact, that’s their preference.
I want to get heterosexual men and LGBTQ folks together, so they can share what it’s like to suffer in silence, to taste each other’s pain.
“Think about Sarah Sanders for a moment. I disagree with her. Strongly. But she represents that silo. There’s no interest in answering a question outside of that silo. In her mind, it’s not lying, it’s not disinformation. It’s the worldview of that group of people.
“Look, I don’t know much about farming. And I don’t think farmers know much about my experience. But if I was in government, I’d make certain to learn about farming before I made laws about it. Sarah Sanders, people like her, they don’t think like that.”
“You brought up government, Wade. Is there any interest about running for office?”
“Oh, my. No. Not a chance. Never. I’m too honest and what little influence I have would get squashed in a legislature. I’m an advocate for the most marginalized of the marginalized. That platform would evaporate in an instant if I had to represent all the people.
“Wade, if you could talk to your younger self, what would that sound like?”
“A letter to my younger self? Yeah. Hmm. First off, I’d tell myself to read more. My youth, my experience, was not singular. Hardly anyone’s is, but we all think it is. When I first read James Baldwin, it was a light bulb exploding in my brain. Giovanni’s Room was the book that changed everything. I became obsessed with Baldwin. He explained my experience.
“I’d tell myself to think about my possibilities more. A wisher, not a dreamer. Life doesn’t just happen. You can make it happen, but I didn’t get that. I wish I had known that the story of the white men who created this country was not my story. I wish I had known that I had more choices than I did. But the few choices I did make, well, they turned out okay.
“I do wish I had known one person I could have trusted to share my ‘gay.’ Just one. I was so much in my head for so long. If I could have shared that with one person, even before I was officially ‘out,’ that would’ve made an incredible difference. To get out of your head at least once. Keeping that in, it just crushes you. To know some comfort, some acceptance. That would’ve made all the difference. Saved me a lot of pain.
“There’s a Baldwin quote I love, ‘Silence is not just criminal, but suicidal.’ I know you write about men and suicide. Isn’t so much of that linked to loneliness? Overwhelming, crushing loneliness. Everyone in the LGBTQ community who is in the closet fights that demon, that exact demon…we suffer in silence. ‘Silence is not just criminal, but suicidal.’ It explains a lot.”
“If I could do one thing with my life, I want to get heterosexual men and LGBTQ folks together, so they can share what it’s like to suffer in silence, to taste each other’s pain. I do that, I’ve done something with my life. We need to break that cycle.”
In closing, I asked Wade for guidance – “What one thing can the everyday guy do to stand with women?”
“The everyday guy can interrogate the ways that he allows his friends and the people around him to talk disparagingly about women and girls. He can commit himself to speaking up when that happens. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t assume you have no power. That’s what the everyday guy can do.”