On the red carpet, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told Variety that the Wades were selected specifically for the way they’ve privately and publicly supported their daughter Zaya Wade, who came out as transgender in 2020.
“I love the way they stood up and are standing up for their child,” Johnson explained. “We have five kids — for me it’s very significant for a father to stand strong, a mother to stand strong in support of their child.“
The special honor came just one day after the 15-year-old was granted the right to legally change her name and gender. She is now legally known as Zaya Malachi Airamis Wade.
For his portion of the speech, Wade used the opportunity to speak directly to Zaya, thanking his daughter for opening his eyes to how to be a better advocate.
“As your father, all I’ve wanted to do was get it right,” he began. “I’ve sat back and watch how gracefully you’ve taken on a public public scrutiny. And even though it’s not easy, I watched you walk out of that house every morning. As yourself. I admire how you’ve handled the ignorance in our world. I admire that you face every day. To say that your village is proud of you is an understatement.”
As the camera zoomed in closer, Wade continued, thanking his daughter for showing him how to better communicate.
“As your father, my job isn’t to create a version of myself or direct your future,” he added. “My role is to be a facilitator to your hopes, your wishes and your dreams. Zaya, you’ve made me a better human just simply by being who you were born to be — a baby girl, Zaya Wade. So baby, thank you for showing the world what courage looks like. I’m proud that I was chosen to stand in place as your father and thank you so much NAACP for this incredible honor.”
When Union-Wade took the microphone, she first spoke to the NAACP’s work to advance the lives of Black people, paying respect to “an organization that has led us through over a century of relentless challenge, pain, triumph, and change. And now stands with us again, at the foot of a very new era of activism, a new era that demands our collective answer to one simple question.”
That question: “Will we fight for some, or will we fight for all of our people?”
“Let’s just name a couple hard truths,” Union-Wade continued, as the crowd settled down their applause. “First, the intersection of Black rights and the rights of the LGBTQIA trans and gender non conforming people continues to be rough — that’s a huge understatement. Even as we demand equality at the top of our lungs, we consistently failed to extend our advocacy to protect some of our most vulnerable among us.”
Second, she said, “Black trans people are being targeted, terrorized and hunted in this country. Every day everywhere. And there’s rarely a whisper about it.”
The couple’s work supporting the LGBTQIA community, she said, is less about them being “activists” or “leaders” as much as it is about being “parents who love our children and will do whatever the hell we can to keep them seen and secure and safe.”
She explained: “This is a conversation worth having in ways that can actually build bridges. That don’t fan the flames of hatred or division. That don’t enable lawmakers or justice systems to look the other way when Black trans people are under attack. That don’t drive more young people to hate themselves or harm themselves. That don’t cost people their lives.”
Union-Wade concluded her speech with a focus toward the future, saying that they’re, “hopeful that we may witness a real shift in the fight for justice, the moment the movement makes room for everyone. Everyone.”
Following their impassioned onstage remarks, the couple spoke to reporters backstage, opening up about their process of writing the speech.
“There’s lot of people who speak on my daughter’s name, and I never — I speak on things. I’ve never spoken to her publicly in front of everyone,” Wade told Variety. “So I just wanted her to know how proud we were, but also we’re standing up here because of her. She’s taught us how to lead. She’s taught us how to live. And your kids can make you better people. I mean, it’s an amazing thing, so just proud of her.
Wade added that they had considered the timing of the award presentation — becoming the 30th individuals to receive the President’s Award on the heels of Zaya’s legal win on Friday.
“Yesterday was a big day for Zaya Wade,” he said. “And we wanted to make sure that the person who kickstarted us to even have an opportunity to be on this stage, heard directly from us.”
Union-Wade almost skipped the awards ceremony after learning that her father Sylvester E. Union is ill, sharing she woke up Saturday morning to news that he was “fighting for his life against unspeakable odds in the hospital.”
“I was tempted to just be like, ‘You got this… I don’t think I can keep it together,’” she said, turning to her husband. “And when [Wade] said the word ‘father,’ talking about what kind of father he is, my dad raised three daughters, and raised us all to be warriors. He had a saying, ‘Don’t start, none. Won’t be none. But if they start it, you damn well better be the person finishing it.’ And knowing that we didn’t start racism, we didn’t start sexism, misogyny, anti-trans rhetoric and violence, but we damn well are going to be part of the army working to dismantle it. That’s what it had to be about.”
Union-Wade then spoke to her passion onstage, saying people often question her, asking “Why are you so angry all the time? All the time Gab? Aren’t you ever happy?” Her response: “Yeah, but it’s easy to celebrate the easy stuff. It’s hard to be the person that says the hard thing, the truthful thing and leads with radical transparency.’ And it can be alienating. It can cost people opportunities, but no opportunity that would be willing to walk away from us, for me, from him, from Zaya, from anybody that actually uses their platform for good, that’s not an opportunity you want.”
As the mass of reporters and photographers nodded in agreement, she concluded her answer: “So we stand 10 toes down, day-in and day-out. And we’re just trying to encourage as many other people to get real comfortable standing 10 toes down for all Black people.”