The other morning I started my day with the usual cup of coffee, and also a phone call from none other than Wade Davis, former NFL player, and LGBT and AIDS activist. Yes, that Wade Davis, whose activism work has been featured in Ebony Magazine, The Washington Post, CNN, and NPR. A member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network sport-advisory board, Wade Davis is also the executive director of You Can Play Project, an organization that fights homophobia in professional sports. This morning, he took time to speak candidly and passionately about causes he supports, such as fighting, and most importantly finding solutions to, the South’s AIDS epidemic.
One doesn’t need to be a football fan or know anything about football for that matter, to appreciate the work Wade Davis has done on and off the playing field. What I found most exciting about chatting with him is that he’s a kind of celebrity very much connected to the real world. He’s also inspiring and engaging, a role model to follow every step of the way.
This July, Davis joins the cast and “[his] good friend,” director and producer of Blackbird, Patrik-Ian Polk [A&U, October 2014], at the launch of PrEP Up Alabama, a two-day kick-off of the initiative organized by AIDS Alabama, whose mission is to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS statewide. PrEP Up Alabama will reach out to Black and Latino gay, bisexual, pansexual, or non-identifying males via social and digital media, as well as outdoor billboard and articles, to educate about accessing health and wellness options, such as PrEP as an HIV prevention tool.
On July 25, the second day of PrEP Up Alabama launch, there will be a screening of Blackbird, a movie which tells the coming-of-age story of a young black gay man, followed by a Q&A session with the cast, and moderated by Davis.
Another reason behind his decision to take on the fight against AIDS, in particular, AIDS in the South, is that Wade Davis is himself from the region. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, he spent most of his childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. Over the years he has done a lot of work with African-American members of the LGBT community. “Part of my goal is to start a conversation to educate people to the fact that we are all living with HIV,” Wade Davis says. “Not that we are all HIV-positive, but there are people in our lives [that] we love and care about, [and who] are probably impacted by [the virus]. So, therefore, we all should [make it our] goal to be part of [ending] this epidemic.”
outhern states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas are disproportionally impacted by the epidemic for several reasons. They have higher levels of poverty than other regions, and also less access to healthcare and affordable transportation to and from places that could provide HIV/AIDS treatment.
Poverty, stigma, shame, and related silence intersect to create a setting for the epidemic, especially in the South. “That’s kind of the perfect storm to have an epidemic,” Davis says.
He believes that one way to find a solution to the AIDS epidemic in the South, in particular, is to start a candid and educated conversation about it. It’s what he’s trying to do. “Because,” he says, “so many individuals who are HIV-positive are living in fear, and silence. And silence is a loud killer. We need to destigmatize what it means to be HIV-positive, what it means to be LGBT, but also to have a conversation [explaining] that HIV is not [specific] to the LGBT community. There are [straight] women [and also] straight men who are impacted by it.”
It is also imperative to have this conversation in churches and schools, and educate people to the dangers of HIV, to how to protect themselves, for example, by taking PrEP. And while PrEP may not be for everybody, people need to know about it, and also have access to it.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, represents a new HIV prevention method. In 2012, the FDA approved the antiretroviral drug, Truvada, as the first (and, so far, the only) drug individuals can take in order to prevent HIV infection. But not everyone knows about it, or can access it readily. While some health insurances cover the use of Truvada as PrEP, healthcare providers have the final say on who is more suitable to receive PrEP. While using Truvada as PrEP is still a novelty, data regarding favoring certain patients over others, based on ethnicity or race, is yet to fully emerge. To be able to foretell possible disparities among individuals categorized by ethnicity and race in offering PrEP as HIV prevention, for now, one can only glance at available HIV treatment data, to get an idea. And at least one study has shown that many young gay and bisexual men of African descent are the least connected to care, compared to other gay men of different ethnicities.
While it’s important that individuals educate themselves about HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention options, it is also important for them to trust their educators. But, historically, there is often distrust between the African-American community and the medical establishment. Hence, AIDS Alabama has asked Wade Davis to speak at PrEP Up Alabama, because the choice of educator can make a difference. The messenger is as important as the message.
“I have been doing work in the community of color my entire life,” Davis says. “I’m a person who deeply cares about this subject, so, hopefully, by bringing
someone like myself, a former athlete, a Southerner, we can get people to understand that times are changing. We are not there yet, but, at the very least, there are individuals in the community who can start a conversation about how to protect yourself. Because education is power.” Having that conversation, and education can help break down the shame, stigma and silence surrounding HIV/AIDS, and, as Davis puts it, “lift the veil off this awful disease.”
But starting the conversation is only the first step. The next step involves ending poverty. “I think the root of this epidemic is poverty,” Davis says. “So, how do we start to end poverty, because, whether we’re talking about heart disease or obesity, those things are prevalent in the South, and poverty is at the root of [these medical conditions,] too.” He suggests having a conversation about jobs—access to work goes hand in hand with access to better health outcomes.
Another way to fight HIV/AIDS is to address the related stigma, and also the visibility that comes with opening up about being HIV-positive, and the safety factors that come with that decision. “We have to be very mindful. Being visible could also be a huge risk,” Davis says. That risk could be addressed by engaging others in the HIV/AIDS conversation, people who are not HIV-positive, and those who do not identify as LGBT. After all, HIV/AIDS might still be perceived as a white, gay male disease, but it is not a gay disease. It can affect anybody, in particular the African-American community, in particular those living in the South.
Truth is that many young LGBT African-American individuals don’t find acceptance in their own community. “When you are a gay man, especially a black gay man, your dating pool is smaller, because of racism, stigma…and the exposure to HIV is higher,” Davis comments. When young people are not accepted in their own community, it’s only natural for them to try to find acceptance somewhere else, often in all the wrong places. Sometimes, people as young as fourteen or eighteen years of age are forced to survive on their own, on the street, to use their bodies to pay the bills. “We need to take the stigma off of that, too,” Davis says.
Wade Davis may symbolize the American dream come true for many young individuals, especially young men who dream of playing in the NFL. For too many of these young men that kind of dream remains only an impossible dream, because of poverty, stigma, bullying, discrimination or other factors. That may not be the case, if they listen to what Wade Davis has to tell them.
“The first thing I’d tell them,” he says, “is to never give up their dreams. Know that, beyond being an NFL athlete, I’m someone who is educated. I took my education very seriously. Working hard to be the best athlete is only part of it. But being [educated] makes your role of being a professional athlete that much easier. Being a great athlete is just…one of those things that you should have in your toolkit, but there are other things, as well, like being a good person, exhibiting courage in the face of all kinds of odds. So, whether standing up for a teammate or classmate who may be bullied, exhibiting courage in moments when you may not be sure how to respond…I think that having courage is a main part of it as well. And also, putting [yourself] consistently in uncomfortable situations, because that helps make you better. As an athlete, they put you in a space where you’re uncomfortable, because they try to get the best out of you. Individuals should practice this off the playing field as well.”
Wade Davis mentions a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In the end we will remember not the words of the enemies, but the silence of our friends.” He explains that we can start fight the epidemic by seeing others as our mirror images, because, after all, we are not that different. “Everybody understands what it’s like to be alone or afraid. These are the exact emotions that people who are HIV-positive experience,” he points out. “I may not be HIV-positive, but HIV impacts me, because it does impact people who look like me, and people who I care about. We are in this together.”