Abernathy Man is a series that spotlights remarkable black men and the work they’re doing.
You were among the few professional football players to come out as gay once retiring from the NFL. Tell us about how ideas of masculinity affected your experience as a black gay athlete and how it affects us as a community.
Wade Davis: My mother grew up in the South in the 50s and 60s, with four brothers. You had to go from the highway to a road to a dirt road to no road to get to our house. So, I grew up in a relatively traditional Southern environment.
The very first sport I played was called “Smear the Queer.” The “queer” tries to pick up the ball and score and everyone tries to come at him. But the “queer,” he’s the most courageous one. So football was never the reason I wasn’t out as gay. When I started, I was only a 10th grader, but I knew I wasn’t going to be out in high school, college, or the NFL. I already knew that I wouldn’t be accepted in the outside world.
It’s all about performing hypermasculinity. No one told me I had to, but I knew it. No one tells you you can’t be gay, you just know it. This is how black men act who people seem to respect. It’s never anything feminine. Once you know all that, you’ll never come out, regardless of whether you’re a football player, a lawyer, or a teacher.
But the he idea of the closet creates another layer of shame. When you’re not out, you have to invite the world in. See my humanity, don’t see me as this proverbial closet of shame. I realize now that I can be strong, but I can also be weak at times and can hurt. But, when you’re growing up: “Be a strong, vulnerable black man?” No one’s ever going to say that.
I do hurt. I am human. That’s one of the dynamics that I think about—and we as a community perpetuate that, too. There is value in being strong, but there is beauty in being vulnerable. We have to learn how to say “I love you, brother, but you hurt me.”
Recently, I got the chance to see my barber direct an interesting conversation. We’ve had the most intellectual conversations you could have in barber shops. He knew about my sexuality and would lead the conversation. And one would say, “You’re gay, but you’re not a faggot.” Then they’d bring up Michael Sam, Jason Collins as other examples. But that raises the question: how do you add misogyny to the homophobia conversation? That’s what homophobia is, after all—misogyny.
My biggest passion is women’s rights. Every gay man should be a feminist because people hate gay men because they’re supposed to be like women. If we end sexism, there would be freedom for men to be any way they want to be. We are so afraid that we won’t be seen as masculine if we recognize beauty in another man, for example. There is no space for us to own that. When we pretend that we don’t see another attractive guy, you can see his shoes, but you can’t see his bone structure?
In sports, everyone on the team knows who’s got the largest dick, the smallest dick. Guys don’t want to admit it, but they all look: “Nah, I don’t look.” I think we all want to be fooled. We’re all lying about something in our lives—dick size, fidelity. When it comes to being in the closet, I can’t call you out on your lie because you might call me out on mine.
There is value in being strong, but there is beauty in being vulnerable. We have to learn how to say “I love you, brother, but you hurt me.”
How do you think your education informs your understanding of the world and how you interact with the young people you mentor?
Wade Davis: I went to an all-black school and was the only freshman taking geometry. The teacher asked my mom to come to school. I was wondering why he wanted to see her when I had a B-plus in the class. She wondered why, too. He said, “You’ve got to get your son out of here. He has a future.” They moved me to a white school then, but I didn’t get any black history. And for a long time, I felt inadequate as a black person, but I couldn’t really have that conversations.
Finally, somebody gave me an Audre Lorde book, then a bell hooks book and I thought, what’s wrong with me? I can FOIL til I’m blue in the face, but what does that do for me now? It drives me crazy that I have to spend my 30s studying history. I learn from the kids I work with more than they learn from me.
I realize I don’t know a gotdam thing about being young in America. I live on the Upper East Side. Where I live, the cops aren’t around there. But I’m telling this girl at the center for at-promise LGBT teens where I worked to pull her pants up. So in my mind, I’m telling her that’s why they’re fucking with her. I’m telling her to perform whiteness. She said, “I’ve been pulling me pants up all week and they still stopped me. Now what?” I didn’t have an answer for that. I had to step out and look at myself in the mirror.
One kid asked me, “Why are you here? You keep telling us to put on a condom as if it’s that simple.” How could I demonize this 14-year-old kid for using his body to survive?
You have to figure out how to close the gap between reality and your dreams. And for those of us who are making it, there has to be a middle ground between success and social responsibility. The greatest gift of Obama is his visibility, regardless of his policies. We need to start having more conversations with the young brothers, challenging them, asking them to say more. We need to recognize what intelligence looks like.
How do we get black men to be critical thinkers? To ask why? To say more?