In the last few years, Gabrielle Union and her husband, basketball player Dwyane Wade, have used their platforms to raise awareness around causes they care about, especially when it comes to the topic of raising a queer child.
When Wade’s daughter Zaya came out as transgender last year, both Union and Wade used it as an opportunity to advocate for trans issues while also educating families and teachers on how to create safer spaces for children like Zaya.
In a recent interview with Glennon Doyle on her podcast We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle, Union opens up about how she coached Wade before Zaya came out to him as gay (then, later, trans) as well as the experience of taking on the role of “stepmom” to Zaya and her siblings Xavier, 7, and Zaire, 19 — though she admits she hates the term. (She is also mom to Kaavia James, 2, whom she shares with Wade.)
“The stepparent label was put on me by the kids’ school because you have to describe yourself: Who are you if you’re not their mother? It’s very annoying,” she explained. “It’s not a word that I use.”
Union herself was “an adult child of divorce,” she said. Her parents divorced when she was in college, after 30 years of marriage. And when her father married another woman, it taught her the importance of setting clear boundaries. “To this day, I refer to her as my dad’s wife and her name. I don’t use the phrase stepmom.”
That experience, she said, helped her build a relationship with Wade’s kids in a more thoughtful way.
“When I first started dating Dwayne, obviously I knew he had children,” she said. “To this day, I’m kinda like, this is wild. You’re a single NBA player who got full custody of small children. It’s not common. So all of a sudden, it was Monday and we were just this carefree couple. I’d gotten divorced a few years prior and I was enjoying my life. We were fully enjoying all the things. And then on Tuesday, the kids arrived on a dime. The ruling came down and here are these kids. They need guidance and they need parenting. And we weren’t married at that point so I was just the additional adult in their life.”
“I wanted to make sure I was consistent in their lives,” she explained of the kids. “Whatever personality I was trying on that day, or whoever I was, I just needed to be consistent so they can get used to me. They’ve already gone through so much upheaval, moving states away, not knowing anyone, having gone through a divorce. I knew I needed to be consistent. I just didn’t know what my role was.”
Her efforts proved to be worthwhile. Even when Wade proposed to her, it was incredibly symbolic, given that it wasn’t just him proposing to her, but to the whole family, including all the kids. “I knew that when I married him, I was married to them," she said.
“What I realized very quickly is you will never, ever, I don’t care if the other parent is dead, you will never be able to replace the other parent,” she explained of her relationship with the kids. “Don’t try to replace the other parent. That is not your job. Your job is to be consistent. If you’re a disciplinarian in your own life, continue to be that. Just be consistent so they know who you are … and kids adapt.”
When Zaya, then 12, decided to come out as gay — and soon after, trans — Union's lifelong allyship to the queer community stepped in full swing.
“My mom took us to our first Gay pride parade in 1982 when we moved to San Francisco," Union explained. "She brought us these stickers that said, ‘Straight but not narrow-minded… Her thinking was, I always wanted to raise my girls with a global perspective, not a town perspective,” which was a stark difference from how Wade was raised.
“On the south side of Chicago,” she explained of his upbringing. “His mom is a pastor. In sport, there is a lot of bigotry, a lot of fear, a lot of hatred, a lot of ignorance. People say a lot of stupid crap. When we first got together, I have a gaggle of friends in the LGBTQIA community, I was like, ‘Oh, everyday you’re going to be in the community so I need you to be comfortable.'"
That wound up building a bridge for Zaya to be comfortable enough to come out in the third grade, after a school project led her to fully realize who she was. “Her teacher was a lesbian and she was like, 'OK this is amazing but I don’t know if this information is safe with the other parents because this event was going to be presented to other parents,” Union explained, adding that out of concern for Zaya’s privacy, the teacher disclosed the information to Union, which led her to breaking the ice with Wade.
“When I knew Zaya was coming home to share her truth with us, I also knew D’s listening face. He listens like he’s listening to a coach,” she said. “I was like, ‘So when Zaya tells you, I need an open face. Eyebrows up. Smile.’ And he was like, OK.”
“Zaya comes home and she is shaking. She has no idea what our reaction was going to be,” she continued. “And she’s turning into me just balling, and I was like what it is baby? And she was like, ‘I’m gay.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is wonderful! We’re going to celebrate! This is so awesome! I’m so happy you told us. This is so great.’ I was like, ‘Do you think you can tell dad?’ She was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I think dad might surprise you.’”
“She told D and he was like, ‘This is so wonderful. I’m so happy for you. I’m so proud of you,’” Union said. “Then she was like, hm, maybe I can tell others...”
At the time, Zaya had what she called a “never-ever” list of people she never wanted to tell about her identity — and most of the names were people who lived in the house. Turns out, the support from her parents ended up empowering her so much that she decided to come out to all of them.
“Fifteen minutes later, the older kids came home and [Zaya] goes up stairs. She flies back down and is like, ‘I told them!’” explained Union. “She was so surprised that she was being embraced with love and understanding and joy. And by the end of the week, people who were on the never-ever list, they’d flown off the list and she was able to live free.”
The experience taught Union many lessons she still carries today. One above the rest, she said, is to always recognize the importance of family, love, support and building a safe space for everyone to be themselves — even if that means standing your ground with people of opposing views.
“We made it clear that our home and anything we touch is a sanctuary, and if you can’t get right with how we’re living and embracing all of our family members, you are not welcome here,” she said. “I’m gonna love you from a cross the street. But this home is a sanctuary.”