Sports, Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation: Lessons From a Gay ex-NFL Player

Jennifer Brown | |


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Wade Davis, ex-NFL player, speaker and author, shares his journey of being a a gay man in the NFL and subsequently becoming the NFL’s first LGBT inclusion consultant. Wade reveals why it can sometimes be easier to have challenging conversations in the sports world than in a corporate environment, and discusses what senior leadership can do to make positive changes in their organizations. He also examines the struggle for gender equality, how to use fear in a constructive manner, and the importance of taking risks in order to grow and change.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Wade’s diversity story of being a gay African American man in the NFL (8:30)
  • Why it can be easier to have difficult conversations in the sports world than in corporate spaces (11:00)
  • The importance of transparency by senior leadership (13:00)
  • Why we should focus on growth rather than on “fixing” or “changing” things (18:00)
  • Why some men are struggling to understand the #MeToo movement (24:00)
  • The connection between homophobia and sexism (28:00)
  • Why we need to be transparent about our identities (32:00)
  • How making people uncomfortable can be a good thing (37:00)
  • How to channel fear into positive action (40:30)
  • How men can take ownership for their words and actions (46:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Wade Davis, welcome to The Will to Change.

WADE DAVIS: Well, thank you so much for having me on. Actually, The Will to Change as a title is a book that I love to read by Bell Hooks, this is really exciting.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my God! My “sister from another mister.” (Laughter.)

WADE DAVIS: Yes. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: In many ways. Oh, yes. And we’ll talk about her because she’s a very significant author for you.

WADE DAVIS: I’m actually looking at the book right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: Very cool.

WADE DAVIS: The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, by Bell Hooks. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And what is the date on that book?

WADE DAVIS: The date on this book? When did this book come out? I don’t know, but I’ll get to it before we’re done.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a classic.

WADE DAVIS: 2004 is the copyright.

JENNIFER BROWN: 2004. Wow. What an evergreen title and topic.

WADE DAVIS: True.

JENNIFER BROWN: She’s ahead of her time, as you are, my friend and colleague, Wade.

I remember when I first saw you speak. I believe you were at Prudential giving a keynote. I felt what you were talking about really deeply resonated with me as an audience member. I loved your diversity story and all the pieces of it.

We always start with that question on The Will to Change: Share a little bit more about your diversity story. And you can take that wherever you want. I will leave it to you.

WADE DAVIS: That’s a good question. That’s a good question.

I would say my diversity story starts probably in tenth grade when it was the first time I realized I was attracted to other boys and men. Right? And it was the first time that I actually started to question my space in the world, as Baldwin would say, how I would, “carve the world down” into a way that I can navigate it.

I would say that my diversity story started there, you know, being black, being an athlete, trying to perform certain notions of really narrow ideas of masculinity and manhood and not really knowing how to show up in the world. You know?

I had never really had any engagement or interaction with folks who identified as LGBT. And I really didn’t know how to be, you know? There were a lack of stories told, there were a lack of images, a lack of models. I was literally just saying, “Well, I can’t be gay. I know what it looks like to perform heterosexuality, so I’ll just continue to do that.” So I did that up until I was 26 was the first time I really started to think and own the fact that I was a gay man.

And then I did what every self-respecting, non-out gay man does: I moved to New York City. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Of course you did. Yay!

WADE DAVIS: Exactly, right? I wanted to kiss boys. So I moved to New York. And then you’re in a space—New York City is this melting pot of different people. It feels segregated in its own way, but you do get the chance to experience white, black, Latino, Asian-American, gay, straight, trans—all of these things. That’s how my diversity story blossomed.

I started working at this LGBT youth-serving organization called the Hetrick-Martin Institute. And it was where I met homeless LGBT kids, kids who had high rates of HIV and AIDS. They started to challenge the way I thought about people, potential, opportunity, and promise.

I had folks like Lillian Rivera, Darnell Moore, Tiq Milan, Janet Mock—we were literally young folks who were learning about the world, and now all of us are doing such great work in our own spaces. But that was where I learned how to be an advocate, how to be an activist, how to do training.

Yes, I would say that those are the two real dominant diversity stories for me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Let me pause on Hetrick-Martin Institute, because our audience may not know what that organization exists to do. Can you tell us? Share some statistics with us about homeless youth. I think it would be shocking to people.

WADE DAVIS: Yes. Hetrick-Martin Institute is the oldest and I believe largest LGBTQ organization in New York City. It is also the home of the Harvey Milk High School, and it caters its services to young people between the ages of 14 and 24. Most of their young people are kids of color.

We use the language of “at promise” and not “at risk,” to really start to be mindful of how we talk about young people.

I would say 40 percent of the young people are homeless or marginally housed. Out of that 40 percent, probably 60 percent are at high risk of HIV and AIDS. 1 percent of all philanthropic dollars go to LGBT youth centers. You can imagine the desperate need for services and funding for this type of organization. These are the people who are living it and learning it.

Oftentimes, these folks who work in these spaces are the ones who give us the language of intersectionality, like Kimberly Crenshaw, and the word “cis” and all of these ideas that we as a corporate work get later on. They’re the ones who work with kids who help us to understand how to be truly inclusive.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Many of those kids identify as LGBTQ, correct?

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: The number of homeless kids who identify as LGBTQ is something like 40 percent.

WADE DAVIS: It’s 40 percent. Yes. So, 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s a beautiful organization.

You went through the whole football system. Tell us, were you closeted during those years? And when you think back to it, I’m sure it was so incredibly difficult, this hyper-masculine world. How do you think back about that time in your life and how it shaped you?

And then fast forward into the future about the world of sports. There have been some really powerful political statements made in that world, and I think we’re all watching that world. It has this reputation for being hyper masculine, but there has also been a lot of courage shown in that world in more recent days. What was it like for you back then? What has shifted and changed since then?

WADE DAVIS: Yes. So when I was playing, so whether it was high school, college, or the pros, I knew that I would never tell anyone that I was gay. It was a space where being thought of as different from the norm, you were vulnerable, right? You were unsafe. And you learned these notions as a little boy, and you take them on into these other spaces.

So the NFL was tragic, but it was also the heightened excitement of my life. You know, it was the pinnacle of everything that I had dreamed of. As you asked the question, I always struggle with trying to articulate what the NFL meant. Imagine living your dream and your nightmare at the exact same time. That is the only way that I can really articulate what it felt like to stand on an NFL field, to get your pinkie broken by a Hall-of-Famer like Brett Favre, but then to also be watching film of yourself thinking how gay you look, right?

So it was a gift and a curse. And I’m so grateful now that as an LGBT and gender trainer and consultant for the league, I’m able to have the types of conversations, with coaches, with owners, with players, that would have made the NFL a more welcoming space for someone like me.

That’s not to say that they haven’t always existed—players in the NFL who identified as gay, but what we didn’t feel is that the culture would have accepted it and embraced us. Part of my work now is to give coaches the language to talk about these things, to give players a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a closeted player in the NFL, to give them the language and understanding about how you create that environment. How do you get them to understand the difference between things like intent versus impact? Right? And then how do you get men to start to redefine ideas of manhood and masculinity, and do that in ways that are individual, right?

So what I tell me, oftentimes, is, “You have to define what it means to be a man for yourself.” It is an individual definition that there is no universal definition of what that means. And to really help people understand that these men are actually interested in having these conversations. They’re not running away from them.

Different from the corporate space, I actually find my training in the sports world a little easier than in the corporate world because these athletes are used to having these very charged, political, contentious conversations. The locker room doesn’t have a filter, right? You don’t have the hierarchy of your SVP in the same room as a middle manager, right? So a player who is a second-year player doesn’t feel uncomfortable having an opinion in front of a ten-year vet, right? That type of a hierarchy doesn’t exist.

You will have players having a full-on debate around issues of gender, race, sexual orientation—where you can never have that in the corporate space. So, in some ways it’s a little easier, and in some ways it’s not.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so interesting. So the corporate space, how do you handle things differently? I would imagine what you’re implying is there are a lot more what we call “stripes” in the room, right? People are very conscious of hierarchy. (Laughter.) I loved that. It always stuck with me. Everyone’s watching what the leader does first to take the cue of the tone of the leader and what they’re comfortable with and how open they are to learning.

I remember when you and I were preparing, you said one of the first things you do in working with men is to give up being right as that first step.

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then agreeing that we’re going to take a journey together. And if neither side wants to be right or needs to be right, but we can agree on being interested in growth, then we can take a journey together. And I thought that was beautiful. Does that work in corporate? What do you have to shift in corporate to do this?

WADE DAVIS: Oh, yes. Well, in the corporate world, what I try to do is to start—as I’m sure you do as well—with the seniormost leaders. If you can get senior leaders to come up with ways that they can be accountable, ways that they can be much more transparent, where they can be the most vocal person to speak to diversity and inclusion, the impact of it, the reason for it—all of those things in ways that feel like it’s a part of their person, and not just some talking points that they were given. That cascades down through the organization.

So what I try to do is to get senior leaders to educate themselves beyond these tick-the-box things, where so many folks say, “Yes, I believe in diversity an inclusion.” No, no, tell me what about diversity and inclusion do you believe in? How do you believe that it’ll impact your organization? How will you, as a leader, be accountable? How will you, as a leader, put your stamp on this organization? How will you be much more transparent and say, “These are the commitments that I as an SVP or CEO am going to make, and I’m going to put these things out in the open for the world to actually see and judge me against.”

Those are ways that folks down the line say, “Wow, my senior leader actually believes this because he or she is actually going to put some stake in it by actually being visible about it.” Accountability is one of the main things that people are lower levels, specifically women, folks of color, folks who are LGBT are looking for their leaders to do. Anybody can say, “I believe in diversity and inclusion,” but what consequences do you as a senior leader have if this doesn’t happen?

Part of my work is to get specifically male leaders to be educated on how diversity and inclusion impacts men, too, in positive ways. And how do you get them to understand that it’s not a zero-sum game and that as women grow, as folks of color grow, as folks who are differently abled grow in their organization, that we can start to create a new pot and not think that, “Oh, well, if there’s less men, then there’s less of me.” No.

I tell folks often that if we can create the Internet, if we can put a man on the moon, if we can do all of these really thoughtful things, we can be just as creative to make sure that we expand and grow the pie to make sure that as diversity and inclusion start to become part and parcel to your organization, that everyone wins. And that it’s not that this new group of people, who aren’t qualified, or who don’t have great ability are winning also.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. That’s such a stereotype that bothers me so much. We talk a lot on The Will to Change about the “myth of meritocracy.” I know you know what I mean. That there’s such an assumption that, “Well, I need to treat everybody equal, and if everybody works hard, their work will speak for itself.”

I actually find women and people of color—women, in particular, I can speak to—the whole “keep your head down, your work will speak for itself, and you will be taken care of.” I know that there’s a trust in that on the part of male leaders. They think we’re further along with gender than we are. They think we’re further along with race because they’re well intended.

And then on the flip side, you’ve got women and others who are very outnumbered in a real statistical way being afraid, I think, to shine or to advocate for themselves, to negotiate, or to point something out that’s not being handled well, to speak for themselves and others. So we have this double whammy of well-intended leaders that think we don’t have a problem, and then we’ve got the other side, which is feeling so much of the pain of covering their identities or minimizing who they are, not telling their stories, et cetera. It feels a little bit like a deadlock sometimes to me.

WADE DAVIS: I would say that it’s definitely a deadlock. One of the other roles that I do in my training is, “Can you be disinterested in being right?” And the second one is, “Can you be disinterested in thinking of yourself as a good person.” Right? If we all see ourselves as good people, then who are the ones who are supposed to have the bias? Who are the ones who are doing all of these actions that have made the corporate space non-inclusive? If we’re all good people, then who’s the issue here, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes. Yes.

WADE DAVIS: Exactly. Right? And can we all just be human? Knowing that human beings are not flawless, that we all have our biases, we all have our blind spots. And if we can sit in that, then I can say, “You know what? There are some ways that I have been an inclusive leader. There are some ways that I have indirectly not been as good as I should be, therefore, now there’s chance for us to grow.”

And I’m intentional to talk about the work of growth instead of the language of “fixing and changing,” right? No one needs to be fixed. We’re all broken in some ways, but we’re all still growing. Can you use the language of growth and opportunity towards people so that they can start to invest in the actual work?

A lot of times, we’ll see an organization, and you’ll go to a happy hour or a town hall or an offsite that your organization is doing and you’ll see women, you’ll see folks of color, right? But what you don’t understand is that there’s a power dynamic that exists. At the top of organizations, you don’t have women, you don’t have folks of color, you definitely don’t have women of color. So just because you may see these faces, and people typically oftentimes say, “Well, because I see the diversity, then our organization is diverse.” It may be diverse, but it’s not inclusive. And it’s definitely not inclusive when it comes to systems of power.

And the other part, as you mentioned in the work of Kenji Yoshino around covering, that there is a time where we all like to minimize ourselves because we say, “Okay, I’ve made it to be a VP, if I don’t speak up and don’t say anything, maybe I will make it.” But what we’re doing is we’re normalizing a behavior, we’re normalizing a culture that only lets one or two up, but the rest of us actually don’t have these same types of opportunity and access.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It’s a finite pie that we all have to split into ever-smaller slices.

WADE DAVIS: 100 percent, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. It shouldn’t be, but that is how we’ve been trained to think about it. We can be our own worst enemies. This is the root of the thing which I wish I didn’t hear so often, which is that women don’t support other women.

I have so much compassion for women who blazed the trail through organizations against all odds, hanging in there. And then when you say, “Oh, by the way, you need to turn around and have an abundance mentality. You need to share what you have that you sacrificed so much for.” To me, it feels really unfair. When you think about the world that they had to be successful in, it was so limiting, and it was such a straightjacket in so many ways. There were so many sacrifices and broken things that happened along the way to become a woman in the C suite.

WADE DAVIS: Oh, yes!

JENNIFER BROWN: Right?

WADE DAVIS: I actually feel like the folks who say that women can be worse to other women are just those, specifically men who say that—

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

WADE DAVIS:—who are looking to deflect and not be accountable for their own actions, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: That is right.

WADE DAVIS: Everything that I’ve said on our call so far that someone may think is smart, it’s because I read it in a book that was written by another woman. All of the labor, and most of the gains that we’ve gotten to this point is because women have labored, it’s because women have supported each other, and women have done the work to educate the entire world on what’s happening in corporate spaces. So this idea that women don’t support each other is false and it’s a way that we change the conversation to not focus on what I believe is the larger issue about how we as men don’t understand the actions that we need to take to remove the barriers in the corporate space that allow folks of color and women of all kinds to move up in the organization.

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. A note for our listeners: Anytime you hear someone say, particularly of the male persuasion, “Well, women don’t support other women, why should I?” That’s what I hear.

WADE DAVIS: And the question is: How the hell does he know? He doesn’t know a damn thing. He hasn’t spent any time—if he was busier actually supporting women, finding out tangible actions he can take, he wouldn’t have any time to hear these ghost stories of women who don’t support other women.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you very much. I’m so tired of that one. That’s on the top five, I have to say.

When we were preparing, Wade, you said most men truly have no clue about what Me Too is about. It’s startling. It is startling to hear that, but I think you’re right. Channel your inner man and your clients and really, why are they so mystified about what is happening with Me Too?

WADE DAVIS: There are a couple things that I believe. I have talked to thousands of men. There are a couple things that you realize when you talk to men. Men, historically, have been the ones who got to name what was appropriate and inappropriate, right? So if I’m out with you and something happens, I’m the one that says, “Actually, no, what just happened is okay, you’re overreacting.”

Women have now taken that power back and said, “Oh, hell no. I know what’s happening here, and it’s not okay. I’m not just going to tell you about it, I’m going to tell the world about it.”

There’s a shift, and men are feeling groundless because that’s not the world that we’ve ever existed in. We have been the ones who have been able to say what is or isn’t okay.

The other piece is that men are actually being honest when they say, “I had no clue all these things were happening.” Some of them are being honest, some of them were the actual perpetrators themselves, so they’re lying, but the men who aren’t, when they say, “I didn’t know this was happening,” through being honest. And I know that because men don’t read. Men do not read books written by women and about women.

One of the things that I do in my training, and I trick them, right? I won’t lie to you. Toward the end of the ice-breaker, they’re already in some groups and they’re doing some other things and they’re bonding with each other and they’re laughing and they’re joking.

The last thing that I do is I say, “All right, gentlemen, in your groups, I want you to find out who, over the last two to three years, has read the most books.” And then everyone will go around and then I’ll say, “Okay, group one?” And then group one will have a guy who read 50, group two will have a great who read 13, group four—et cetera, right? And then I grab those guys. I say, “Come to the center.” And then these guys are actually excited because they feel really proud of themselves for having read more books than the other guys in that group.

And then I say, “Great, how many of those books that you’ve read were written by women?” And then they’ll say, “Well, I’m not sure.” But they’re that it’s not the majority. And then I say, “Okay, how many of those books that you read were written by women and were about women?” And then you have about 1 percent of those books.

What does that tell you? We actually have not been reading to find out what’s happening in your lives. The other thing that you can guarantee is that in high school and in middle school, the lessons that we were learning about who built this country, who created this country, who have done anything positive in this country were not women. So we actually don’t know, we really don’t.

Part of the learning and growth that men have to realize is that the world that we’ve existed in, that we’ve created for ourselves, that has benefited us has not benefited women, and we didn’t even know about it. And if we did know about it, it wasn’t a big enough deal for us to do anything about it. We were just, like, “Yeah.”

JENNIFER BROWN: “Oh, well.”

WADE DAVIS: I can guarantee, if you ask any of your kids or any man you know, “Who are the women you learned about in high school and middle school?” They’ll say Betsy Ross, maybe they’ll say Susan B. Anthony, maybe they’ll say the “Notorious R.B.G,” they’ll say Rosa Parks, and they’ll probably say Harriet Tubman. That’s it. That’s it. But this was me, too. I’m not excused for this, but this is how the country creates our educational system, that women have always been either anonymous or absent from anything that was great in this world. And I think that has a great impact on how we view women as being capable.

JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t know what to say. That is so important. I wish I could frame it.

Wade, you decided you were going to start to read—and read a lot in a really intentional way. I love what you said. I remember the journey you walked around being LGBT, finding yourself in a certain community, asking how you could wrestle with the sexism that’s at the heart of all these things, including being LGBT, sadly, and how you’re treated in this world. And you went back to basics, the foundational writers. Describe where you went and why, who you started reading, and who you read now exclusively.

WADE DAVIS: Yes. I’ll tell you how this happened. Literally, I was at Hetrick-Martin. I was in charge for the day. I had given one of the other women a directive. She didn’t agree with the directive, and she and I had a back-and-forth. Because I was in change, I was like, “What I say goes, so listen, sweetie.” And I called her “sweetie.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, no!

WADE DAVIS: And she looked at me and she said, “Don’t ever call me sweetie.” Now, in my little narrow, stupid mind, when you’re talking to a woman, “sweetie” is a term of endearment, and it’s also me trying to deescalate you.

After that, my supervisor at the time and some friends of mine said, “You need to read something.” So the first book that they gave me, I’m looking for it right now, was Bell Hooks Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. I read it once, and I didn’t get it. They told me to read it again. I read it a second time. I got it a little bit more of it, and they made me read it again. So I read it three times before I got it.

What I pulled from that was the root of homophobia was sexism. And that if I was doing work in LGBT sports spaces or in any LGBTQ space and I wanted to get to the root, I needed to start with sexism. What Bell Hooks teaches you is that you have to start with those who are the most marginalized, right? So if you’re talking about women, it’s black women. If you’re talking about cis women, sorry. If you’re talking about just women at large, it’s trans women of color. So you have to always start with those who sit at the lowest level. And then if you work your way up, you get everybody.

I just started reading as much as I could. So I’m looking at my bookshelf now. I just finished Hunger by Roxane Gay, which changed my whole perspective about how I look at folks who have different body types.

My favorite book to read is probably The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I read it three times, the first time I missed it. I read it again and I said, “Wow, this book is just unbelievable.” I’ve read the A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings about Ida B. Wells. I read so much Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m a huge Alice Walker fan. I’ve just finished reading Gloria Steinem’s book about her journey home.

One of the other books I think was important for me to read was a book called Pushout by Monique Morris. What it talked about was the criminalization of black girls in schools. We talk so much about black boys in schools, but we don’t realize what black girls are facing in school. And it was really just, again, much deeper. And if you start with young, black girls, you will get black boys, too. But if you just start with black boys, you’re going to miss black girls because their experience is different. The challenges that they face are intersectional. So they’re at the intersection of race and gender, they’re not just from a racial standpoint.

I’ve been intentional over the last five years that 90 percent of the books that I read are by women and are about lives of women. Yes, I’ll grab my Ta-Nehisi Coates book from time to time or my Marc Lamont Hill, but I am really deeply invested in understanding my own privilege, understanding the power that I have, and you can only really see that if you’re looking at those who have a different form of marginalization and you can see yourself in that work.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love the reading list. We will definitely link to all of those. You also mentioned Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage as another favorite book.

WADE DAVIS: Oh, my God! Brittney Cooper was the—sorry, Dr. Brittney Cooper—I listened to a talk that she gave. She talked about emotional labor. It was so impactful for me as a man to think about how afraid I am and men are to think about our emotional states. Right? We love to call women emotional because we don’t think that our acts of violence are emotional outpourings, but they are.

So she has helped me really think about what it looks like to do emotional labor. What does it look like to be much more vulnerable, more sensitive, to understand why I act the way that I do? And to also talk about that publicly with other folks, which actually works almost like an elixir to cleanse myself and my soul so that I can start to unpack the toxic ways that I could or did show up in the world.

JENNIFER BROWN: This may be hard or easy, can you define emotional labor and why it’s such a lightning rod right now? I see it talked about a lot amongst communities of women, for example—white women and women of color trying to learn together. There are a lot of clashes happening in social media in this community of women because we’re having to go through and cleanse and recognize that we aren’t all having the same experience. That was first very apparent at the Women’s March a year and a half ago where women of color didn’t really want to participate. Unpacking that as a white woman thinking, “Well, why wouldn’t they want to participate? What do you mean?” That was a huge news flash for people.

Can you define emotional labor and why it’s such a topic that brings consternation to people who’ve been burying it and teaching and having to teach for a long time? Help our audience understand why it’s sensitive.

WADE DAVIS: Yes. Probably the best way to look at an example is the women’s suffrage movement. Right after the Civil War, you had black men who wanted the right to vote, you had white women who wanted the right to vote, and then you had black women.

What happened was that these three groups saw their struggle as different. Each didn’t really see themselves in the struggle of another. So the emotional labor is managing the expectations or the fulfillment of the emotional requirements that come along with being human or doing an actual job or being a friend.

If I truly believe that gender equality is something that impacts me, I have to figure out what happens to the world once women have equal pay, have shared power in the workspace, have access to all these spaces. How does that impact me? And can I be honest with the way that that idea can scare me?

But I have to go deep to the root and say, “What about women having power really scares me?” How can I make sure that I’m thinking about the other as I’m looking to advocate for any forms of equality, right? And I can’t say this for sure, but what I hear is that when you’re fighting for gender equality, people hear you’re only fighting for white women. How can we be more intentional with our language and say we’re fighting for women of all kinds? And “women of all kinds” means that now you’re starting to make people think, “Okay, I need to be intentional to think about black women, Latino women, immigrant women, trans women.” When you just say “women” and most of the dominant voices in the gender equality space are white women, and those are the dominant people who you see, you’re thinking that these are the people who I have to fight for. But if white women are actually speaking about the issue of gender equality with a very racialized lens, then they ensure that other folks aren’t taken out of the conversation, and that they’re actually opening up doors and opening up spaces. So when they have panels and keynotes and all of these things, they’re saying, “Hey, there’s a different experience out there, and you need to hear about it, and I’m going to use my power and privilege, even though I’m still marginalized, too, to make sure that folks who are even more marginalized have a seat at the table and can make the decisions, right?”

What I say often, it’s not just about having a seat at the table, it’s also having power to make the decisions about who needs to be at the table. What decisions, what policies come out of that table? If you’re just there and no one values what you’re saying, then you’re just there as a token.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. We notice that we do have the able to shift and hold accountable people who are creating public spaces and who is on a stage. Some of us do have the power to recommend new voices to elevate the stories that aren’t being heard.

I feel like the whole purpose of this podcast is utilizing whatever asset we all have, because we all have assets to use.

WADE DAVIS: Oh, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: They may not look the same person to person. When you walk in, you have an asset in terms of being an ex-NFL player. Right? When you walk into a room full of men, I don’t know if they know who you are when you do that, but there’s an assumption of a commonality with you.

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a level of privilege. You and I both feel like we’re a little bit of a Trojan horse because you bring us into the room, and then, “Surprise! There’s more to me than meets the eye.”

WADE DAVIS: But that’s the truth, right? One of the privileges that I do have going into all-male spaces is that when I’m in the corporate world, all of the men want to hang out with the former NFL player.

JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.

WADE DAVIS: So I have to use that privilege to have a different type of conversation. We can bond over our love for sports, but there’s an “and,” there’s an “other,” there’s another way that I can use that access and privilege that I have to talk about an issue that doesn’t directly impact me.

When I go into sports spaces and I’m talking about, let’s say LGBT equality, I can also say, “Hey, you see me as this stereotypical, masculine-presenting guy, but I am no better than someone whose gender performance doesn’t match mine.” So how do I complicate the conversation so that they don’t privilege a gay man whose gender performance matches mine, but they also say, “Wow, I need to really think about how I can say that Wade is gay, but he’s not a faggot.” Right? And get them to understand that there’s no distance between this guy that they would label as a faggot and this guy that they would just label as gay, but they privileged me over this person. How do you get them to unpack that? How do you get them to think a little bit more deeply about that? How do you get them to realize that this faggot, this gay guy, and this heterosexual man, actually have ten times more in common than they do differently? Can we see people as human beings?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, my friend, Carmelyn Malalis, runs the human rights office for the mayor of New York City. She’s LGBT, woman of color, mom, and she says, “I don’t want the passing privilege.” When she walks into a room, it doesn’t occur to most people that she might be a member of the LGBTQ community.

When I go out on stage, I try to do the same thing. I talk about it. I say, “I walked on this stage, and I don’t know if you knew who I was, but you probably misidentified my sexual orientation,” for example. And there are a lot of other things you might misidentify. But the fact that some of us can pass into these worlds is needed, I think, for change to occur. We have a role to play in change, which is that you can get into the room for whatever reason.

For me, it might be my gender presentation, it might be the way I speak—I don’t know, the assumptions that people make about my background. There is a lot about me that doesn’t challenge people on the face of it.

WADE DAVIS: Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’ve noticed that, too, when you walk in.

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: But then I loved the word you used. I think you said, “I want to complicate the moment.”

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you want to make people just uncomfortable enough to challenge, “Who did you think I was, and how are you reconciling it in your mind and your heart that on one hand you really admire me and you want to hang out with me, and then I’m telling you that I’m also this person or this archetype that you feel uncomfortable with?” Those are those moments of cognitive dissonance—creative abrasion.

WADE DAVIS: That’s beautiful language.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I rely on that a lot when I keynote. If I can get people there in an unexpected way and use my story to do that, it’s beautiful thing to see. That’s my role in change. If I can get in those rooms, I’m going to use that moment as best I can. Others can follow behind me and next to me. We all have these moments.

It doesn’t make it easy, Wade. Do you ever feel the fear anymore when you walk in and you know that you’re “other” in several ways?

WADE DAVIS: I’m always afraid. If my belly doesn’t have that little kind of nervousness in it, then that’s time for me to move on, honestly. That would mean that the work has become too turnkey and I’m not still nervous that someone is not going to accept me, that someone’s not going to embrace, that there’s someone in the audience or in the room that I don’t need to connect with, or I think that I’ve gotten to this level where I can just show up, lay hands on someone, and they’re changed. I want to always be nervous.

One of the reasons I intentionally name myself as a feminist, and if you go on any of my social media spaces, it says “feminist” first. I do that with intention because I want people to hold me accountable. If I’m not showing up in ways that they believe are emblematic of what a feminist should show up as, call me out on it, or call me “in” on it, right?

I think it’s important that those of us who are in this space of doing advocacy, we have to be able to be called in and held accountable when we’re not showing up in the world as our talking points or whatever we’ve learned says. I think it’s really important that people can do that.

I remember I was speaking at this college. I’m a southerner, right? I use the language of “ma’am” often. As we were doing the closing Q&A, I referred this young person, I said, “Ma’am.” The person asked the question, but the person who asked the next question said, “Just so you know, you gendered that person, and you don’t know what gender they may go as.”

Inside of me I was thinking, “Ugh!” But on the outside, I said, “Thank you.” When I give my talks, I tell the audience, “Hey, as I’m talking here, you may not agree with me. Feel confident enough to challenge me on things that I say.” I’m not the end-all, be-all. I’ve been given this platform and this microphone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have space to learn and grow as well.

When I show up on stages, I want people to call me in, I want people to make me think a little bit differently about the things I do because I’m going to say some crazy stuff from time to time.

I remember the first time that I said I didn’t believe in the language of safe space. The audience got quiet, you could hear a pin drop. They were like, “Safe spaces, I believe in it.” But once I helped them understand what I meant by that, everybody thought, “That’s interesting.” But that’s the work that we all have to be okay challenging where we are so we can keep moving and growing as people.

I wasn’t there to fix or change anyone, but we were there to have an engaging conversation around diversity and inclusion. And the language of safe space, I think, is inaccurate.

I tell folks often, if you’re in a room of 100 people, everyone in that room has a different definition of what safety looks like. So how can I as a facilitator make the room feel safe for everybody? It’s just not possible, right? What’s safe for a trans woman of color is not what’s safe for Wade Davis. But what I tell folks is that I’m here to create the conditions to folks to take the risk to bring more of themselves to bear. That’s what I’m interested in doing.

If you can take the risk—if I’m doing a training for a sports space and one of the guys says, “Hey, Wade, love what you’re talking about, but I really don’t believe in homosexuality.” Good. Good. You’re being honest, you brought more of yourself to the space. Now we can have a conversation. And we’re not always going to agree, right? But the goal is not to always have “Kum-ba-yah,” but to wrestle with all of our beliefs, our ideas, and do the work that creates the conditions for all of us to have the opportunity to succeed.

How do we do that? Safe is an illusion. This whole idea of safe space, I really think that we have to come to reckon that different folks have different definitions of safety. If you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and you’re worth $30 million, your safety definition is different from an immigrant trans woman who is worried about staying in the country. Your definitions are completely different, and I can’t promise to create that safety for you. Cannot.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, we cannot. Certainly not in our roles. But if you can move people just slightly and create that discomfort, that’s already so much more progress than we’ve seen in the past.

We’re almost out of time, but I want to ask you: What is the art of the apology? When you do something wrong, you had a couple key points for an authentic apology. We’re going to make mistakes, so what would you advise?

WADE DAVIS: The number-one thing I tell folks when I’m coaching senior leaders, specifically male leaders, is you have to own what you did without offering a qualification for why it happened. You have to just say, “X happened, I’m responsible for that, and I am looking to grow and learn as a person what I can do differently in the future.”

The second thing that you have to be able to do as part of an apology is lay out the specific steps that you’re going to take as an individual to help you learn how to never do that again, how to see other individuals as your equal, as human beings who are deserving of respect, value, and appreciation. And then you also have to be able to talk about the tangible steps and actions that you’re going to take to do your best to remedy what you’ve done.

If you sexually assaulted or abused someone, you can’t fix what you’ve done to that person. But what you can really talk about is, “Here are some things that I am going to do based on what I’ve learned that I can do going forward to help to prevent this from happening again.”

What you find is most people just say, “I’m sorry, but here’s why I did it.” And that’s it. That’s not a real apology. You have to have a reckoning. You have to figure out what you’re going to do next and the journey that you’re going to go on. You need to be able to articulate that journey.

The best example I can give you is that I push a lot of sports leagues. When a player uses homophobic language and says the word “faggot” or whatever, I tell teams, “Instead of actually fining this player, what if you actually had that player go back and do some community service inside of an LGBT youth center?” This player will get a chance to come face to face with the young people who are impacted by the exact words that he used. Sit down, talk, and actually be able to look into the eyes of the individuals who that word is going to impact on a day-to-day basis. That’s the way that I think people make the issue personal.

When we’re trying to change corporate cultures and create growth in individuals, you have to make these issues personal. Fining someone, firing someone—those aren’t the only answers that we can come up with to, hopefully, shift consciousness and create an inclusive culture.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We’re seeing, in Me Too, he behavior change and the systemic change that we need to see, hopefully is happening in parallel to the firings and the public action that’s being taken. It’s all important. Your point is well taken, we can’t assume the work is done after the punishment is given.

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Really, punishment, yes, but what is the learning opportunity to change it for future generations? We have a tendency to punish and move on and not really address the systemic issues.

WADE DAVIS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wade, this has been incredible. I encourage all of our listeners to keep up with Wade wherever he’s speaking next.

Do you have any place you’d like to alert us to that you’re giving a TED Talk or what’s going on with you?

WADE DAVIS: Yes. Folks can go to my website, it’s wadeadavis.com, you can look for me on Twitter, it’s wade_davis28, same on IG.

The next place that I can name that I’m speaking is at Out Color. I’m going to be speaking at Out Color. I just got off the phone with them today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay!

WADE DAVIS: So that’s going to be great. I’m actually in talks to speak at the Cannes Advertising Festival in the south of France, and then I’m going to be in Copenhagen talking also. Those are some big ones coming up. There are some smaller ones. I’m speaking at UN Women’s Silicon Valley group, they’re have something June 5th out in San Francisco. Please join there. But everything is on my website.

And, Jennifer, I just want to say thank you. You are truly one of my “sheroes.” You’re an individual who is doing the work, you’re creating space, you’re using your power, your privilege, your access to bring other voices to it. So I just want to say thank you for being a friend and a mentor and a “shero.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Wade, thank you! That means so much coming from you. Thank you.

It’s a mission. It’s a deep, deep passion. I learned so much from you. Thank you for your feminism and putting it out there. We need to see a lot more of that. So, I’m hoping people are paying a special attention to that, and thinking about what do you want to claim in terms of what you stand for in the world in the way that you have? It’s tremendous.

May we find more like you, and thanks for coming on the podcast.

WADE DAVIS: No problem, have a great day.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Wade.

USEFUL LINKS

Wade Davis’ Website