Many of you have probably heard that Wade Davis is this year’s AIDS Walk Austin Honorary Chair. What you may not know is where Wade’s passion for HIV awareness and advocacy comes from, especially when it comes to LGBTQ youth. When Wade learned about ASA’s Mpowerment Project, The Q Austin, he immediately expressed interest in the group’s mission, which works with young gay, bi, trans, and questioning men to reduce raising HIV contraction rates while raising awareness and fighting stigma through community mobilization. The Q’s Core Group of volunteers, who meet every Wednesday, came up with a few questions to help us get to know Wade a little more. The Q’s Mpowerment Coordinator, Marcus Sanchez, had the pleasure of talking to Wade in preparation for AIDS Walk Austin on November 8th!

MS: Hi Wade, thanks so much for your time today. The first question our Core Group has for you is, What was it like to be closeted in the NFL?

WD: The best way to describe that would be living a double life. On the outside you are this very hyper-masculine male who talks about girls. Someone who re-tells stories he’s heard other men tell as his own. On the inside there was this scared little boy, for lack of a better phrase.  Even though I was in my 20’s I still wasn’t able to be myself. I was this scared little boy who really just wanted to play football. I was blessed with a really beautiful gift to be able to run fast and had a really intuitive understanding of the game of football but I never truly believed that being gay and being a professional athlete could ever co-exist peacefully. The other thing I would say is I was really hyper-vigilant. I was always checking, double checking, and triple checking everything I was doing. As I was talking it was actually a script to make sure what I was saying was appropriate for that space and also doing a scan of everyone’s expressions and body language to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that would call me out as being gay. It was exhausting as hell but after you do it for so many years it becomes a way of life.

MS: Thanks Wade. That must have been really hard to do for so long. I know you are probably still heavily involved with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and you speak a lot about HIV prevention, particularly in youth. Where does this passion come from?

WD: I took a job 4 years ago with an organization in New York City called the Hetrick-Martin Institute which is actually the home of the Harvey Milk High School and it was the first time I had a really honest experience with LGBT youth. These young people are between the ages of 14 and 24. They are marginally housed, they are homeless, and many are already HIV positive or at “high-risk” of contracting the virus. It was my first experience with young people who identify as trans* and they changed my life. There are rare times when you are exposed to people who are honest and real without a filter because they had to be that as a way to survive. Witnessing that type of bold courage changed my perspective on everything. I used to stick to the idea that protecting yourself from HIV was as simple as putting on a condom. I didn’t really have any understanding of the intersection of ways like poverty and shame, and homelessness, and all of these things can create an environment where you put yourself at risk to doing certain things because you’re trying to work through all these other issues at the exact same time. I was blinded by my own privilege that I didn’t take the time to actually listen to the stories the young people were telling before I took this job. Once I worked there and you have a young person look at you in the face and say “Why are you even here when you’re not even listening?” It took a few years of seeing myself in them that really helped me realize that it wasn’t my responsibility to save these young people, it was my responsibility to use my access and privilege to allow them to chose what the best life for themselves was and to help give them access to opportunities. To help them understand that they had an agency, and people to care about them, and to empathize but not offer pity.  It was that experience that lit a fire in me to use my status to create a platform to share their story.  Their stories were often the ones that didn’t see the light of day, and not just those of sadness but also those of great triumph. These stories are the ones that need to be heard. I don’t like referring to these young people as “at-risk.” I believe language is very powerful and I like to say these young people are “at-promise” and teach these young people that they do have promise. It’s my responsibility to help them see that and to also help other people who may have come in with the same misconceptions I once had to see that promise in these young people too. 

Wade Davis Headshot

MS:  Wow, that sounds like a really powerful experience. You mentioned a lot of these young people were already positive and you were working with these young people first hand in New York. That sounds like a lot of responsibility. What was it like coming from where you were before to now working with young HIV positive and “at-risk” people?

WD: I came from the corporate world and in a lot of ways was not qualified for this job. I was fortunate enough that the Executive Director at the time saw something in me. He was willing to give me the opportunity to work at this wonderful organization. It was humbling, it was scary… meaning I had to look at myself. Before working there I never had to confront my own internal shame and homophobia. That part of it was scary and there were times when I felt helpless because when you work with young people and you see their promise, and you have the mindset that you are there to save them then you feel helpless. You have to shift that mindset from savior to helper and when you realize that you are there to help it becomes less of a burden and you do become a container for these young people. A lot of them are homeless with stories of living on the streets and dealing with the police, and other violence so you want to protect them. You end up picking up and leaving with the stuff they are going through and I needed to practice self-care more than I ever had to in my entire life. Once you are there long enough, and my supervisor told me this when I first started and I didn’t realize what she meant until months later, she said “Their successes are your successes and their failures are your failures.” I didn’t get it at first and it took me a long time to realize what she meant. These young people are going to make mistakes and also have successes. They are no different from when you were a kid and hopefully had parents who let you make mistakes and have successes. You have to create the same experience for these young people even though their circumstances may be very different.

MS: The guys here at the Q are interested to know more about the #ThisisLuv hashtag?

WD: So the “This is Love” campaign was developed by myself and my business partner and very great friend Darnell Moore and another good friend Tiq Milan. Right around the show “Empire” came out with the premiere of season one, it sparked a lot of interesting dialogue around the ways the black community specifically was homophobic and it painted a myth the black community was more homophobic than other communities. What we wanted to do was create a campaign that spoke to that narrative with beautiful stories of men women, gay, straight, bisexual, and trans individuals who identified with LGBT who were loved and affirmed by their black family. We wanted to make sure we told every different type of story so that people of color, especially young people, could see that there were spaces and stories of these people who are loved and affirmed. We wanted to have a week long period where we had different people, celebrities and non-celebrities, share their stories and we finished the week off with a panel discussion at HRC in DC where we had people like Jason Collins and a bunch of other wonderful people who came and talked about being loved by their African-American family members.

MS: That’s a great concept! I myself am Latino so I know it’s out there and I definitely get how the stigma and homophobia in communities of color are depicted in the media.

WD: Right, and that’s the only story that’s being told. Just having the chance to work with so many young people who identify as LGBT and people of color I’ve noticed that they’ve bought into this depiction of homophobia in our communities. One of the experiences I had was with a young girl who I taught who said she couldn’t come out to her mother because she would never accept her because she was from the Islands and wouldn’t understand. Her mother was one of the few parents I spoke to on the phone and I was pretty sure that her mother knew that her daughter was a lesbian. We don’t divulge any personal information, but as I am talking to her mother I’m thinking, “Her mother knows.” I would ask my student to engage her mother in conversation about lesbian and gay people in general just to see how she responds but she thought “no, she’ll never accept me.” She later ran away from home and I saw probably 4 or 5 months later. She was smiling… so I asked her how everything was going with her mother. She said “Oh I already moved back home. My mother already knew!” Just the idea that she bought into the myth that her mother would never accept her… she didn’t even giver her mother a chance. Those types of experiences have really sparked the interest of myself, Tiq, and Darnell, and make us think, “What can we do with our public platforms to really make more powerful and positive experiences and sharing of love?”

MS: That’s a really great idea and I think it’s great you guys are taking that on. I know those ideas can be damaging to young people and can keep them in the closet longer than they have to be. The amount of personal distress that puts on these young people is horrible. Thank you for sharing that, that’s really amazing!

WD: We plan on doing this next year as well so if any of your young people, or you yourself, at your organization would like to get involved… we partner with Ebony Magazine and a bunch of other organizations as well and we are trying to expand and make it better with more experiences and stories.

MS: Great, yeah! I will definitely pass that along to the guys. I’m sure they would love to represent Austin in that capacity. That’s awesome! I look forward to watching this campaign grow! So our next question and you’ve probably gotten this one a lot. What was it like to be one of the first NFL players to come out as gay?

WD: This might sound crazy but I honestly thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal. I thought it would be a story for a day or two. I’d do a few interviews and it would be over. The next thing I knew I was the most Googled person on earth for 2 days. It was scary at first because I didn’t know what I was going to say. I had my story but, because of my naiveté, I didn’t think about how much of an impact it would have on others. What was so beautiful about it was that because of the work I’ve done with the Institute I was able to be put in the place that I was. The training I received and being a thought leader had prepared me to be someone who could speak publicly about sexual orientation and gender identity.

MS: What advice would you give young gay, bi, trans*, or questioning men who sleep with other men, like the ones we work with at The Q, who may sometimes feel pressured to participate in “at-risk” behavior they may not feel comfortable with? How would you empower them to be an advocate for their own sexual health?

WD: That’s a really wonderful question! One of the number one things I’ve done for myself is look at my past experiences that I may not be proud of, but I look back and think “Why did I do that? Why did I participate in something quote/unquote risky behavior?” Often times it was because I wanted to feel loved or desired or have someone else created something in me that hadn’t already existed. My number one advice to young people is to do the work within themselves to truly love themselves. That sounds so cliché but it’s important to truly love ourselves but we don’t always have the tools to do that so my advice is to find ways to practice skills of self love that will lessen the chance of looking for that in someone else. Part of the work in that is giving young people those skills. For myself I say daily self affirmations. There are days that I do not feel attractive so I wake up and look in the mirror and tell myself “You really look beautiful today.” I’ll say it again and again and then I meditate. I’ve had to find ways to center myself and feel comfortable with myself which is not always easy to do but I’m trying to find ways to do the internal excavation work to get rid of all the shame and self loathing so that’s my advice. Find a practice that you can do every day to learn to love yourself more and more every day.

MS: That’s really great advice and that’s all the questions we have but before we go, you are the Honorary Chair of Austin AIDS Walk this year, and we are really excited about that! Is there anything Austin should know before we get to meet Wade Davis in person?

WD: Austin should know that my on huge weakness is shoes. I have a weakness for sneakers. It’s something I’m trying to rid myself of but I really love shoes. Oh, there’s another thing. Austin cannot talk trash about Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Janet Jackson… OFF LIMITS!

MS: OH MY GOD YES! That will not be a problem and you will totally fit in here at The Q for sure! All 3 rotate quite frequently in our play lists.

WD: Anyone else but Michael and Whitney it is too soon. It will always be too soon to talk about Whitney or Michael.

MS: I get that and totally agree! I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that here. That’s good to know. I’m glad I got that before we end here. This is totally cliché too but What about cowboy boots? Do you have any cowboy boots?

WD: Oooo I don’t like cowboy boots and I grew up in Louisiana. I’m a Southern boy but we called them sh*t kickers.

MS: Haha yes, I feel weird for even asking so you have to forgive me for my cliché moment. It was the natural from shoes to boots Texas question.

WD: No no no it’s ok but I won’t be caught dead in some cowboys but if I do whip my a**!

MS: Hahaha that’s great! Well thanks for your time we Wade we cannot wait to have you here for Austin AIDS Walk on November 8!