I love me some TED talks. I’m all about loading up a random playlist, and letting progressive geniuses speak their message into my living room as I assemble a complicated piece of Ikea furniture bearing a Swedish name i won’t even pretend to pronounce.
Last week I heard some words that made me spin my computer around, and hit full screen.
They were spoken by a man named Wade Davis, Jr.. He’s a former NFL player, and an LGBTQ activist. I had a chance to discuss his TEDxUF talk with him, and was delighted to hear his spit and vigor, not just for his work with LGBTQ youth, but how quick he is to point to gender inequality as the root of most bullshit in the world.
So, I saw your TEDx talk and I dug it so very much. I know you’ve been a public speaker for a few years now, but TED is like Carnegie Hall. Was it a goal?
WD: To be honest, TEDxUF reached out to me. I had seen numerous TED Talks, and it had always been a dream of mine. But it was just that — a dream. When they reached out, I was excited, but there was another part of me that was extremely nervous, because when something that was always a dream becomes real, the pressure starts to mount. I spent the first month, before I even started writing, watching many talks.
Do you have any favorite Ted talks?
WD: There’s one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of the Single Story” that I watched about ten times. She says, “If you think about an individual one way, and don’t see their fullness as a person, then you’ll only get a very limited glimpse of who they are.” I thought she did an amazing job in storytelling, and it lent itself to an incredible TED talk. I studied others, as well, until I felt I had a formula to giving a great talk.
Your story as an former NFL player is one that is an anomaly. But you could have easily kept it there and only talked about what people already know about you. But, you ended on a note, stating that the root of homophobia is sexism, and I almost dropped my drink.
WD: I am the most passionate about women’s rights. I don’t really have the language to articulate why this is. Part of my life, I watched my mother, before she got remarried, do the work of ten people. Maybe it’s because I was so close to my grandmother or my aunt, or maybe it was because I have three sisters, or maybe it’s just who I am, but I truly believe the world would be a different place if we thought of women differently, and as our equal.
I was just giving a keynote in Utah, and I asked the audience, “How different do you think the world would be if we imagined God as a woman? What type of shift would happen within ourselves as individuals, or in our society, if we imagined God not as a father, but as a mother.” We don’t actually know what the gender of God is, but it is assumed that the most powerful being is, and all of these things start from, a man. I like to challenge that. I don’t truly believe that.
And my stance that “the root of homophobia is sexism” — I believe that’s true. The real issue is, most individuals, who have a problem with someone who is gay, frame us as being “feminine”, as being “weak”, as being “less than a man” — which is the language of how we talk about women.
I’m a person who likes to likes to get to the root. I don’t think people have a problem with someone being gay, and I am the perfect embodiment of that. Right? Because, whenever someone meets me, and they find I’m a former NFL player, and my gender expression, for lack of a better term, is “masculine”, people are fine to accept me. I can go anywhere, any time, any day, and people will say “well Wade is gay, but he’s not a faggot.”
That speaks to this idea that I show up as a stereotypical, heterosexual man, and that makes me acceptable. But if I showed up — and I hate this word — “effeminate”, that would suddenly invalidate me as a person. A lot of our disdain and disgust who are people who are LGBTQ is rooted in this thought that women are “less than”. I believe, in our society, that we have a deep undercurrent of hatred for women that is what is the bane of our existence, and if we can start to change that, the world will be a very different place.
(Singing) I agreeeee. When you were building your very official TEDx talk was it a hard choice to include that point?
WD: Oh no, it wasn’t a choice, because that’s who I am. I wanted to put it in the TEDx talk, but I also didn’t want to just include it as a point that didn’t fit. I’ve been saying it for a long time, and when I hear other people saying it, now, I say, “Good!”
I also didn’t want to explain it. I wanted people to sit and think about it, and go, “Huh!” Because women get it instantly. When women hear me say that, they go, “Yeah!”
The men go, “What is he talking about?” And it’s because they have yet to ever think about it. Men do not spend any time thinking about how sexism, how misogyny, how a patriarchy works, because they don’t have to.
I just did a week long conversation with men of color, talking about feminism. The point was to have them start thinking about how we can show up in the world as advocates for women. How do we do that? What are we doing?
Most men will tell you, “I don’t want to identify as a feminist”. One, because it starts with “femme”, which is another form of hatred of women. What is the problem with someone identifying as feminine? Why is that so bad? The only reason that it can be so bad, is because it must be bad to be feminine.
I think I have a responsibility as someone who tries to interrogate the sexism inside of me, because I am no better than anyone else. I own that, and do the work to unpack it. I have that responsibility because I consider myself an advocate, as opposed to an ally, because I hate that word.
You hate the word ally?
WD: Yah, I don’t like the word ally.
Ok, we’ll get to that in a second. Continue.
WD: I think it’s my responsibility to constantly push the conversation with men, to have them think about our role in this world. As long as I have a platform, that’s what I’m going to do.
I love you for that. Ok, back to your disdain for the word ally.
WD: I think, in the beginning, the word was fine. It’s taken on a life of its own. Now you have “LGBTQAs”. You’re taking people who are already in a space of privilege, and attaching them to a movement, or a moment, when they don’t need to be attached to it. The point of being an ally is for you to be as invisible as possible.
The point is to provide a space for people to be shown as their full selves, to take some bullets for people, and then get out of the damn way. The fact that you need to have an ally group, and that there’s an ally movement — it’s like you’re taking up parking, you’re taking up space from a marginalized group, and it means you actually don’t know what your role is, you, as Bell Hooks would say, have to recenter yourself.
I’ll give you an example, and I’m guilty of this, too:
I used to always say — I even said it in the TEDx Talk, it’s problematic, but at least I’m trying to interrogate it — “Until women are free, men can never be free.” In a way, I’ve recentered men. So, if I’m going to be an advocate for gender justice, I need to make sure I’m not recentering men, because we are already in a position of privilege.
What the ally movement has done is that they have recentered themselves. There are so many allies that are getting interviewed, and there are so many ally affinity groups, and there’s ally this, and ally that, and I’m like, “No! Allies are supposed to be invisible!” You’re supposed to do the work, and get out of the way, and never expect any of the recognition for it. You don’t need recognition for doing the right thing.
If someone says, “I want to recognize you for your work,” that’s fine. It would be like me wanting to create another word, and saying “Don’t call me a feminist, I need a new word.” There was no such thing as an ally, you were just doing the work. But this word has recentered itself into a conversation and space that it shouldn’t. Men who identify as feminists — we’re not taking up another word. As identifying as one, I don’t think I’m recentering myself, and if I am, I want someone to tell me, and critique the hell out of me for that.
[The word “ally”] is only associated with the LGBTQ movement, for the most part. If you’re an advocate for racial justice, you’re not an ally. So why is it only in this specific world?
You had the William Lloyd Garrison‘s of the world who were abolitionists, who we used to praise and say, “we need these types of people”, but no one really uses that language any more. That was just doing racial justice work. Why can’t people just being doing gender justice or sexual orientation work. You don’t need your own term.
You’re saying somehow at the center of it, it’s also homophobic. They’re saying “Oh no no, I’m not gay…”
WD: Yes, why do you have to also publicly state that you’re straight? You don’t own the fact that there’s a level of social capital in that. That’s also problematic.
Let’s talk about the evolution of your activism. The internet tells me that you came out in 2012. When did you decide you wanted to become an activist?
WD: I took a job at a youth serving organization called the Hetrick-Martin Institute in 2010. It was there that I met individuals like, my supervisor at the time, Lillian Rivera, and my current business partner and close friend Darnell Moore. I met such amazing people who were doing work at the local level, whether it was around LGBTQ issues, or racial justice, or gender justice, and it felt very natural. It felt like, “Wow this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m supposed to be fighting for rights. I’m supposed to be educating others about the deficiencies that exist within our country.
Then, someone gave me my very first bell hooks book — Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center — and as I read it, I found all the questions bell was asking were questions I had been asking for a long time.
I remember as a seven year old kid, in Shreveport Louisiana, I was in church, and I asked my mom, “Why are there no women in the pulpit? Why are there no women pastors?” I also remember her telling me to shut up. But from a very young age, I’ve been very curious about why the world worked in ways that didn’t seem right, or correct.
So, I think that my desire to be an activist as been there from the beginning. But I think working at that youth serving organization, and being around so many individuals who had been doing the work of educating themselves and others was the impetus for me wanting to come out, publicly. Seeing these young 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids, who were living in their truth when they had everything to lose — whereas I was a former NFL player, I had a partner, I had a good job. I had all of the things that looked like I should be happy. But deep down inside, I hadn’t developed the type of courage that these young kids had.
So the start of your activism was focused locally? Because now you’ve taken your message so much farther.
WD: To be frank, I didn’t have a focus, and I didn’t have an agenda. When I came out publicly, people wanted to interview me, and ask questions, and I think I had a specific point of view that was different than most. That point of view was framed by working with those young people. We hear about the celebrities who come out, but that’s not your typical story. I wanted to shine a light on that. I wanted to push the conversation away from individuals of privilege. I just really wanted to use my newfound platform to educate people about the life experience of the LGBTQ youth who comes out.
Also, around that time, the fervor around same-sex marriage had just really started, but very few people were talking about youth homelessness, lack of quality education, and youth poverty, and that was where my heart was.
Granted, same sex marriage was important, but I was always worried that the moment LGBTQ people were allowed to marry, the money [funding these conversations] would dry up, and we would never do the real work that impacts the people who sit in the margin. And it ended up being true.
There have been so many local youth serving national organizations that no longer have funding because the money that was being pumped [to support legislation change] for same sex marriage has dried up. It’s something that’s frustrating to me, when you see that individuals who have given money to places like HRC and GLAAD have stopped giving money because they have everything that they need.
That was a real fear of mine, and it’s sad that the fear became truth.
My activism started locally, but because of the platform I was given, it became much more broad. I also think most people hadn’t see former NFL players with the kind of knowledge, education, and articulation of those problems in the way that I did. There had been other athletes who had come out, but they didn’t use their platform in the same way that I did.
Why do you have these tools within yourself? Did someone give them to you?
WD: I think growing up in Louisiana and growing up poor, you do have a different understanding of the world. I think my experience as a kid is similar to most individuals who grew up African American and LGBTQ, and individuals who grow up poor and play sports. So I think I can articulate an experience that is tangible to a lot of people.
I also think my message isn’t one of combativeness, but one of compassion. I’m always interested in having a conversation with individuals instead of talking at people and telling them how or why they should believe things in a certain way. The root of it is love and compassion, and I think people lean into that.
The other piece is that I think I’m speaking to those individuals that have never had anyone speak for them. It’s in a way — and this is going to sound really really awful — what Donald Trump is attempting to do. He’s not doing it effectively, he’s just full of crap, but what Donald Trump is actually trying to do is speak to poor white people who don’t have anyone they believe is articulating their voice. I believe that I am articulating the voice of a young black kid who’s LGBTQ, and a kid who grew up as an athlete who was going through all of these types of tensions and trying to survive in the world. I think people have liked my TEDx talk because it’s honest, and very raw, but it’s also relatable to the experience of so many others because I took the risk to discuss what it’s like to live in fear that you won’t be accepted. Not because you’re actually gay, but because of your performance of this masculinity that you’ve been taught.
You can watch Davis’ full TEDx talk here: