Considerable as Dwyane Wade’s athletic achievements are – three NBA titles, an Olympic gold medal, too many scoring records to mention – they pale in comparison to what he did with just a few simple words.
In letting the world know that he and wife Gabrielle Union love, and more importantly, unconditionally support their 12-year-old daughter Zaya, who is transgender, the NBA superstar will make the lives of other kids like her more bearable. He’ll likely even save some of their lives.
This is not hyperbole, or giving an athlete extra credit for something small. While acceptance of homosexuality has grown at almost lightning speed in the past five years, the transgender community, its kids in particular, remains extremely vulnerable.
In the 2015 Transgender Survey, 40% of respondents said they had attempted suicide during their lifetime. That’s nearly nine times the rate of the general U.S. population. A 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that more than half of transgender male teenagers had attempted suicide, while almost 30% of transgender female teenagers had.
The Transgender Survey also found that 77% of respondents suffered abuse when they were in school.
And according to Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, there is a direct correlation between those horrible statistics and family acceptance.
Children who have been rejected by their families are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, David said, and almost six times more likely to report high levels of depression.
“There hasn’t been sufficient education and outreach,” David told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.
“Transgender people have been ostracized for a long time, and communities have not been accepting. It’s taking a lot longer.”
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Which is why Wade and his family’s public embrace of Zaya is so powerful.
Wade and Union had previously hinted at Zaya’s gender identity, posting a photo at Thanksgiving in which the child sported long, painted fingernails. But on Tuesday morning, Wade posted an interview with Ellen DeGeneres in which he confirmed that his 12-year-old identifies as a girl and now goes by Zaya.
Shortly after, Union posted a video of Wade and Zaya riding in a golf cart while they talk about her coming out.
“What’s the point of being on this earth if you’re going to try to be someone you’re not? It’s like you’re not even living as yourself,” Zaya says. “Which is, like, the dumbest concept to me.”
In the last shot, Wade gives the camera a look that manages to convey both his pride in his daughter and his refusal to hear any bigoted nonsense about her.
Both statements were much-needed validation for transgender kids who fear that society won’t accept them. Who lose another piece of their self-esteem whenever an ignorant person refuses to use their proper name and pronouns. Who fear for their safety every time a small-minded politician brays about locking them out of bathrooms.
“What Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are doing here is game-changing,” David said. “Dwyane Wade is saying it is OK to be transgendered. Gabrielle Union is saying it is OK to be transgendered.”
But it’s also a warning shot to all those parents who are letting their own fears and prejudices prevent them from accepting their children.
In telling the world he loves and supports his daughter, to see him express his pride in her, Wade is also telling other parents it’s OK to do the same. That they must do the same.
“They’re not tolerating their child. They’re embracing and loving their child for being who their child is,” David said.
“All parents, at some level, should be able to understand and appreciate that.”
Sports has always been the prism through which we view society, our views shaped by what we see on our playing fields and in our athletes. When Wade looks at and talks about his daughter, a transgender child, what we see is love.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.