When you hear “former pro football player,” LGBT and feminist activist isn’t necessarily what comes to mind. But that’s exactly who Wade Davis is — an openly-gay, former NFL player, who is fighting homophobia and sexism, one conversation at a time.
“Often, we as men don’t hold other men accountable,” Davis told The Huffington Post. “I think it’s on men to do the work to talk to other men, to meet them where they’re at on this journey and then hopefully make the language [of feminism] accessible.”
As the Executive Director of You Can Play (an organization that promotes equality for LGBT athletes) and a HeForShe ambassador, Davis is using his privilege as a male athlete to speak out against misogyny and the damaging impact of traditional masculinity.
I realized the root of homophobia was sexism. If I didn’t join women in fighting to end sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny — we would never ever end homophobia.
In 2000, Davis signed to the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent. He was cut after training camp and sent to play in the NFL’s European league where he started as left cornerback for two years. After a few short stints in training camps for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, Davis retired in 2003 due to a leg injury.
For his entire professional football career, Davis was in the closet. It wasn’t until 2012 that he publicly came out and became an outspoken activist for LGBT issues and women’s rights.
“I really started to connect the fact that even though I was fighting to end homophobia, I realized the root of homophobia was sexism,” Davis told HuffPost. “If I didn’t join women in fighting to end sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny — we would never ever end homophobia.”
Davis wants everyone — but especially men — to understand that sexism is not simply a women’s issue.
“Right now feminism, gender equality, closing the wage gap — all of these things are thought to be a woman’s job,” he said. “We need to turn to men and say, ‘This is our job. We’re all in this together.’”
HuffPost spoke to Davis about sexism, homophobia and what he’s doing to fight both.
What inspired you to become a feminist activist?
I think I’ve been a feminist for a long time and just didn’t know it. I remember when I was 7 years old, I used to go to a Southern Baptist church and there were no women in the pulpit. I remember asking my mom, “Why are there no women up there?” And she was like “Boy, shut up!” I think I’ve been very curious about the way the world works, but I think something that’s been even more recent is I’ve been reading a lot of feminist books since probably 2010.
I really started to connect the fact that even though I was fighting to end homophobia, I realized the root of homophobia was sexism. If I didn’t join women in fighting to end sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny — we would never ever end homophobia. The more reading I do, the more I realize that I actually think the root of all our evil is the hatred of women.
I try to push people, male or female, to start just reimagining how the world would look different if we thought of God as a woman. How different would our world be? Just by reading a lot of feminist books, whether it’s by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem and even books like Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, which has some problematic stuff in it, but I don’t walk in the shoes of a woman. So to be able to look at the world [from these women’s perspectives] has really helped shape the way that I think about our world and how women — if they were actually free — it’d be so much different.
Why do you think it’s so important for men to engage in feminist conversations? And is there a specific need for this kind of dialogue in sports?
It’s so important for men to engage in feminist conversation, because often men don’t listen to women. I’ve gone to so many panels and workshops, and there’s usually a woman who is speaking very honestly and with so much passion about why it’s important that we do this work and there’s only women in the room.
Often men are so sexist that we will only listen to other men. And that creates a scary dynamic, because often we don’t hold other men accountable when we’re having these male-only conversations. Men need to listen to women, and we also need to educate ourselves so we’re not adding more labor on women to further educate us about what the world is like for women. It’s on men to do the work to talk to other men, to meet them where they’re at on this journey and then hopefully make the language accessible.
It’s on men to do the work to talk to other men, to meet them where they’re at on this journey and then hopefully make the language accessible.
You wrote an article in Ebony about why more black men should identify as feminists — why do you think it’s so important to speak to black men specifically about these issues?
Often black men are thought of through a very narrow trope — they start from a space of hyper-masculinity, which is the very opposite of what we imagine feminism or feminists to be. But I think there are a lot of men of color who are ready and want to engage in this conversation, and to debunk this myth that black men are too hyper-masculine to ever enter into these types of conversations.
My favorite quote is: “Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero.” Part of my job is to share other narratives so people can start to not think of black men in one, very narrow, monolithic way. So many black men have reached out to me and said, “I may not identify publicly as a feminist, but I actually believe in what feminism is about.” I think that it was really really powerful for black men, for black women and for people in general to see black men engaging in this conversation.
I saw on your Twitter bio that you’re a HeForShe ambassador. What does that entail?
What we’re trying to do is to get men to think about [gender equality] in their everyday lives, and to think about their daily interactions with women. When it’s only men in spaces and they’re using really problematic language, how do we get one of them to have the courage to say that’s not OK? How do we start to create a dynamic where men can hold other men accountable? That’s what HeForShe is all about. HeForShe is also all about visibility so that other men can see that there are a lot of guys having this conversation because the visibility of it matters. Right now feminism, gender equality, closing the wage gap — all of these things are thought to be a woman’s job. We need do turn to men and say “This is our job. We’re all in this together.”
The other piece for me is how do I reach gay men, who whether subconsciously or consciously often think they’re gender advocates but don’t actually do anything. It’s not enough to say, “Well I’m gay so clearly I can’t be sexist.” No, we’re all sexist. We have to first own that. My friend Mychal Denzel Smith wrote this beautiful piece and he talked about how men have to give up the idea that they’re “good” first. If we could just say, you know what, I am sexist — it’s impossible for me not to be.
We were born into this. We’ve all been conditioned.
Exactly. Sexism, they say, is the first form of oppression you learn, because you learn it in the home. It’s the gender roles you watch, either with your parents or someone in your life or on television. So if we could just start from that space like, “Hey I’m not a good brother, I’m not a good man.” We need to start from zero and say, “I have work to do every day to unlearn what I have been taught my entire life.” That doesn’t mean that you’re bad, but it won’t work if you think you can’t be sexist. I’m just really inspired to engage men in this conversation in ways that my privilege of being a former NFL player allows me to.
Another thing that drives me crazy, is that I have what people would call “masculine privilege.” I can enter and exist spaces and people don’t often assume that I’m gay. What often happens is that guys will say homophobic things — or they’ll say, “Well, Wade is gay but he ain’t no faggot” — and I’m like, no, that’s just as problematic. In that moment, I have the responsibility to speak up, because that person’s gender performance, which is thought of to be like a woman, is really what they find problematic, it’s not that this guy is gay. How do I make sure that in all spaces, at all times, in all moments I’m holding myself accountable so I’m not just using my privilege to exist?
Right now feminism, gender equality, closing the wage gap — all of these things are thought to be a woman’s job. We need to turn to men and say, ‘This is our job. We’re all in this together.’
As a feminist woman and a huge football fan, I always struggle with the NFL’s complicated relationship with masculinity — whether it’s issues such as domestic violence or the organization’s attitude towards LGBT players. What steps do you think the NFL could take to create a more inclusive community?
The first thing the NFL should do is be proactive instead of being so reactive. I’m an NFL LGBT consultant, so I go around to teams doing trainings, and I’ve always made sure that I’ve intersected gender into my LGBT conversations. One of the things I also try to do is use vignettes to put players in the shoes of someone else. You have to be able to empathize with what that person is going through for you to be able to step out of your own shoes and say, “OK if I was this person I can imagine how that would feel.” We all know what shame feels like or fear feels like. The challenge is, how do you get someone to step out of their own privilege?
The other thing the NFL and I are doing is we’re partnering with local LGBT organizations and taking players to visit youth-serving LGBT organizations so they can put a face to the issue. I’m also asking pro sports teams that when a player or coach uses homophobic language, that person should have to go visit a local youth-serving LGBT organization so they’re no longer making these faceless apologies. It’s very different if you have to look into the face of a 12-year-old lesbian and go, “Hey, you know what, I’ve been using homophobic language and I apologize.” It makes it much more real.
Humanizing the issue, no matter what issue it may be, is always powerful.
Exactly. And if we did fine these players, how powerful would that money be if it went to a women’s shelter or an LGBT youth-serving organization? Then people could say that their mistake is actually benefitting someone. So we’re trying to get the NFL — and all the sports leagues — to be more strategic.
For the Ray Rice incident, what I found most tragic, is that we didn’t want to think about what that could be like until we saw it. But how are all of us at fault because we know what domestic violence looks like. We don’t have to see it in order to do some work on it. I think we all like to distance ourselves from trauma or negative issues because we don’t want to feel — and I think now people are really starting to feel. And that’s so important.
In your TEDx Talk, you talk about the “mask of masculinity” and how damaging that can be to not only young, closeted gay men, but also to heterosexual men. What would you say to young men today who are wearing that exhausting “mask of masculinity” and don’t know how to take it off?
I would say two things. First, I would tell them: Figure out how you’re going to love yourself. Figure out how you’re going to show yourself love every day. The most powerful thing that has happened in my life is meditation and self-affirmation. Every day I wake up, I look in the mirror, I look myself right in the eyes and I say, “Hey I love you today.” It seems very weird, but it really helps. Because if you don’t love yourself, it’s going to be an uphill battle every single day. The other thing I would tell young men today is surround yourself with people who truly allow you to be yourself. That means that you may have to give up some people who have been in your life for a very, very long time.
When I gave that TED Talk about masculinity, I was thinking about women too. What men don’t think about is that gay men who are out are hyper-vigilant, women are always hyper-vigilant too, because you have to be for your safety. So when — correct me if I’m wrong — you’re walking down the street and someone’s walking towards you, no matter what size or what race that person is you do a scan for your safety — I don’t do that, ever. So what’s the cost to women that this is something that you have to do every second of every day of your life? Imagine if we removed that cost — how much more headspace would women have to do other things?
This interview has been edited and condensed.