Terry Gross asks Abby Wambach a totally offensive question on “Fresh Air”

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Abby Wambach has been asked all kinds of personal questions this week with the release of her new revealing memoir Forward, but surely she was prepared to answer most. But while a lot of them focus on her discussions on prescription drug abuse, alcohol abuse and her divorce from Sarah Huffman, some have been about her sexual identity and how she came to terms with it as a teen.

In her interview with NPR’s award-winning Fresh Air, host Terry Gross asks the former pro soccer player about any Catholic guilt she might have had; any idea that she was “sinning” when she had her first girlfriend. Abby answered respectfully as such:

“I think that who I felt like I was at the time, I think was very much wrapped into who my parents felt like I was, right? So I’m 15, 16, 17 trying to figure myself out, figure out what I wanted. I had a boyfriend in high school and towards the end of my high school years, I met my first girlfriend and I think that was the first time in my life I started to think for myself, right? And so yeah, I do feel like, at the time, being an indoctrinated Catholic, I did feel like that was a sin and so I kind of turned my back away from the church and did steadily until not necessarily the church, but my faith, until recently. 

… 

God bless [my mom’s] soul, literally, she’s a wonderful woman, and brought me so much joy and so much love throughout my life, but this was a hard thing for her to understand, because of her faith, and I get it.

I want so much for her to accept me. I pleaded in so many different ways with her, but because of her faith it has taken her a long time to understand this whole process, this whole idea — that ‘this is not a choice, this is who I am’ conversation. I think over the years she understands it more, but over the years I’ve also accepted her and her faith more.”

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But then Terry asked something that was cringe-inducing; something that was almost hard to believe she thought was a question that anyone could or should be asked:

“I want to ask you more about comprehending your sexuality, your sexual orientation. You’d had a boyfriend in high school; you went to the prom together. You were considered like the jock couple of Rochester, New York. Was it helpful in the long run to have had a boyfriend, to have had sex with a boy so that you could know with more certainty, ‘No, I love women?'”

Abby, again, respectfully answered:

“I think the person that I am, I’m kind of one of those people and maybe people get that from the book, I will pretty much try anything once. Becuase I can’t have an opinion about something that I don’t know of or that I haven’t experienced. And that’s kind of the same thing that went into sorting my sexuality out. Going to Catholic high school, Catholic grade school when I was younger, believing in this God that was basically telling me that the feelings I might be having internally were sinful. I was like ‘Alright, I gotta try this other life out. I gotta see about.’ And I tried, you know. I did what I was ‘supposed to do’ as a kid, and I dated the boy and I experienced the boy and as soon as I met and started dating my first girlfriend, I then got it. I understood what I was missing all along. And this is no disrespect to my boyfriend in high school; this is just like more of a knowing. I met this woman and I was like ‘Oh, I get it now. This is how you’re supposed to feel.'”

Queer women have all had to answer similar questions to the one Terry asked, by even the most well-meaning of friends or family or even strangers: How do you know you’re gay if you haven’t done it with a guy? As if the only way to know who you are is to know what you aren’t. And while Abby had an answer for this question, it’s still one that is misguided and completely inappropriate. 

Rachel Maddow was once asked by Howard Stern if she was a “goldstar” (a lesbian who has never had sex with a man). Her answer? “None of your business.”

Maybe it’s Terry Gross’s business to ask in-depth questions from her guests, and maybe Abby made it everyone’s business in her book, but what kind of relevance does a question like the one Terry asked Abby truly hold? Heterosexual people are not required to try out homosexuality or bisexuality in order to decide who they are any more than lesbians need to sleep with a man to know they are interested in women.

Surely there are women who, like Abby, have felt shame surrounding their questioning of their identity and decided to see if they could enjoy sleeping with a man, but was that a necessity for them? Many women would say no; and not because they necessarily regret it, but because sex is not the indicator of who you are and who you are attracted to. It’s just not. There are some lesbian-identified women who have slept with or continue to sleep with men. The act of sex does not define you; lesbians are not choosing to not sleep with men because it’s a simple choice they are able to make. Like Abby told her mother, “This is not a choice, this is who I am.”

Questions about these kinds of things can be expected from the likes of Howard Stern, but it’s disappointing to hear from someone like Terry Gross, who has also had some trouble in the past discussing trans issues. As someone who has listened to many of her conversations with public figures, most of whom are cisgender and heterosexual, there has never been a question like this asked of them. And gay men are usually exempt from this line of questioning as well. Rarely are they pressed on if they “tried” having sex with women to see if they could make it work. Instead, gay women are posed the option as if we hadn’t thought of it ourselves; as if certainty can only come with trying on heterosexuality in a very specific way.

And what does it mean for women who have “tried” and decided, like, Abby, it wasn’t for them? Should they then be given the go-ahead as opposed to those who haven’t? The insinuations accompanying such a question are too loud to ignore, especially on NPR.

Do better, Terry Gross.

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