2014 has been a pretty significant year when it comes to LGBT rights and sports. Starting with the Sochi Olympics and continuing to Michael Sam’s draft as the first openly gay NFL player, this year demonstrates a continued shift in how sport communities become more inclusive of LGBT folks. Obviously though, there is still an incredible ways to go in making professional, college, and community athletics much less homophobic.
Luckily, there are fantastic advocates out there bringing together sports and LGBT advocacy — and have been doing so for years. Wade Davis is a brilliant example of such a leader. After retiring from the NFL and moving to New York, Wade Davis came out as gay in 2012 where he was working at the Hetrick Martin Institute for LGBT youth. Today, Wade Davis continues to help LGBT youth and athletes through his work as the Executive Director of the You Can Play Project, which seeks to empower LGBT athletes and end homophobia within the environment. We were so honored to speak with Wade this past week!
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Wade Davis!
Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. You are the Executive Director of the You Can Play Project and a former NFL football player. Could you share with us some highlights on your journey to your current role?
Wade Davis: I’m a Southern boy: I was raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then I moved to Colorado when I was going into the eight grade, so I’m kind of a Mountain West slash Southern mutt. Going from the south to the Mountain West was a cultural shock. I grew up in a very rural area and I was pretty poor. My mother married a man and we jumped classes which is not very typical for this day and age.
I was an athlete for most of my life and I was very, very religious. At an early age I started to question religion. I was very curious about the dichotomy that I would learn in church — that God was love, but then there are certain people that you don’t really love, that you pray for, that type of dynamic. But football and sports were a safe haven for me because it was in high school when I realized that I was same-sex attracted. It was so blinding because I grew up knowing that gay was wrong; there was such a strong association with pedophilia and those sort of things, and so I became a bully. I incessantly bullied kids in high school because at that time I couldn’t reconcile those feelings about what it meant to be gay. I also didn’t understand the courage and the strength it took to live your own truth, especially at that age of being in high school.
I went to college in Utah which was, in a lot of ways, a safe haven for me because I didn’t have to worry about a lot of different things. I could just focus on football. I played for three different teams in the NFL, the Titans, the Redskins, and the Seahawks. I also played in two different teams in NFL Europe, one team in Berlin and one in Barcelona. When I retired, I moved to New York City because where else could you be gay, but in New York. In 2012, I allowed someone to write a story on me because they were asking me about being an ex-NFL player and being gay. Up until that point, I really didn’t think it was important. But at that time I took a job at what was called the Hetrick-Martin Institute where I had met so many amazing young heroes and they really livened me and gave me the strength to start to live more authentically. I told the reporter that if he allowed me to tell the story of the young people, in the context of my own coming to love myself, then I would do the story. I started being more of an advocate, starting to look through the lens of others, starting to interrogate my own privileges. I was then offered the job at You Can Play Project and ever since then, I’ve tried to use what I have learned from young people at Hetrick-Martin.
SB: Speaking of your work with young people, I’ve learned that you spoke with Michael Sam prior to his coming out earlier this year. How did the conversations you had with him compare with those you’ve had with other young people across the country?
WD: Michael Sam was very different from any other athlete that I had interacted with because he was so self-possessed. He knew exactly who he was and so he wasn’t really looking for advice — he was really looking for a friend. One of the things that I have been learning through this work is that athletes who come out, whether they are male or female, are really looking for a sports family. That could be someone who identifies as straight, but it’s particularly someone who is LGBT because there is a common bond that we all share. For Michael, he really wanted a friend because we were from the South, we could share stories that he hadn’t had a chance to experience with anyone else.
What I’m learning about athletes who are very different from Michael Sam is that they also are looking for a community, a safe space to be able to be themselves. When I first worked with Derrick Gordon, who the first Division I Gay NCAA basketball player to come out, really that was what Derrick wanted — to just hang out. He was like, “I need friends. I need someone who has had a similar lived experience who I can bounce ideas off of, share my stories, share my fears, my triumphs.”
The biggest thing that I have been learning are from the straight athletes who have a LGBT teammate who are asking, how do you manage that interaction. They want to be very accepting but they don’t know how. My advice to them is to treat them as if you didn’t know what their sexuality was. The fact that you shouldn’t use homophobic or sexist language shouldn’t be dictated by whether you know their sexuality, or their gender identity which is what I’m trying to impact on youth and adults in sports.
SB: Professional sports, particularly the NFL, often have a complicated relationship with masculinity. As we have seen especially how the NFL has treated the news of Ray Rice’s domestic violence, I was wondering how you think we can create a more inclusive and accepting sports community? What might a feminist NFL look like?
WD: When I look at the Ray Rice situation, one of the things that scares me is that it is looked at in a very heteronormative way, as if Ray Rice had hit one of his male friends, that would have been okay because ‘boys will be boys’ type thing. One of things that I would like to talk about is about violence in general — how to engage men especially on how not to engage in violence against another male as an answer. We all know that the historical ways that women of color have been seen as lacking femininity, so I think that the real work is how do we reframe how to react violence as not only the last option, but the non-option. How do we start to have conversations around masculinity that have nothing to do with power or performance.
One of the things that I always say is that my work isn’t complete if sports is a safe space for only Jason Collins or Michael Sam who exhibit a specific ‘acceptable form of masculinity.’ But how can we do the work so that men of any gender performance are accepted in sport? How can we start to have these conversations around sexism, which I really believe is the problem in a lot of our country? Homophobia does not live in isolation. You rarely ever meet someone who is homophobic but not sexist. How do we start to have those conversations that there is no masculinity, there are masculinities? How can we show men that they can show up in multiple ways and that doesn’t dictate how they are viewed as a man.
SB: On a more personal note — I’m a huge basketball fan, but I find it hard for me as a feminist, to feel comfortable to watching games in a public setting with a very loud ‘sports vibe,’ since it tends to be pretty homophobic and sexist. Do you have suggestions on how to call out such behavior while we’re out in our own communities?
WD: The one big thing that I think is problematic that is embedded in sports is how everyone talks about sports. We get caught up in ‘Ooos’ and the ‘Ahhhs’ of big hits, the physicality or the trash talk, but what is lost in all that is the essence of sports — which is family, sisterhood, and brotherhood. The reason why most athletes will play through pain, the reason why I stayed in Utah when no one was there, was because of my teammates. I wanted to show up in my best shape; I wanted to be the best teammate possible. That speaks to the structure of family that under girths sports. I think if we start talking about in a more family, brotherhood, sisterhood way, then we’ll start to reimagine what sports is really about. If you ask any athlete worth their weight, they will talk about their teammates, the bond that they have. I think as long as the violence of sports is the vocal point, it will be impossible for us to think about sports in any other way.
SB: It was recently your birthday last Monday (happy belated!) so I would love to hear what we can expect from you in the coming year?
WD: It was the ninth anniversary of my 28th year! So a couple things that we are doing this year! Last year we piloted this initiative called “High Five.” It’s a term that was created by Glenn Burke who was one of the first openly gay players ever. He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because of the volatility and decisiveness of his story since he contracted HIV / AIDS. We coined the term “High Five” to take professional players back to LGBT serving organizations as a way to for not just LGBT youth to interact with professional athlete but for athletes to start seeing humanity in LGBT young people. Not to focus on their sexuality or gender identity, but them to see them beautiful and amazing young people. To destroy these invisible barriers and to debunk these myths that when they don’t have consist or any interaction with LGBT folks.
I’m also doing a lot more work on workshops and trainings around sexism. I don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t always show up as such but I do say that I advocate for feminism. I say that because I grew up in America and I think that sexism and misogyny is one of the most pervasive things in this country but I am not always perfect in my advocacy. So that’s why I say that. I’ve been starting to do more trainings with young people and corporations to get them to change the conversation from just homophobia to sexism.
The most prominent LGBT people in the sports world are people of color. But the common narrative is that we are a homophobic group so I have started to work with a lot of celebrity athletes and entertainers that creates access points for youth of color to celebrity LGBT people and their allies. So if there is a young trans woman who wants to have access to Lavrene Cox, how do you have that access? Same if there is a young lesbian girl is a big Brittney Griner fan, you’ll be able to ask Brittney Griner questions. We are working with different organizations so if not late 2014, then early 2015.
SB: You are stranded on a dessert island, you get to take with you one food, one drink, one feminist.
WD: It’s too hard to choose between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin so I’ll bring them both. The food I’m going to take is meatless lasagna, and the drink is going to be an A&W Cream Soda.
Suzanna Bobadilla would like to thank Tami Taylor for providing inspiration for this interview.