Terry Gross has a theory about lesbianism, and she tested it out on recently retired soccer star Abby Wambach in a Fresh Air interview this week. The day after her new memoir, Forward, was published, Wambach spoke with Gross about her recent DUI arrest, being the top-scoring soccer player of either gender, and coming out as gay to her Catholic family.
It’s that last bit that really got Gross’ mental gears churning. Here’s what she said:
So I want to ask you more about like 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 on Long Island to have had a boyfriend, to have had sex with a boy, so that you could know with more certainty, “no, I love women?”
I had to stop and reread this question a second time before I believed it was true, because Gross is a heavily decorated interviewer, and one of the first things a journalist should ask herself before asking a gay person about her sexuality is “Would this sound weird if I were asking it of a straight person?” In other words, do straight women need to try having sex with other women just to figure out if they’re actually straight? Do straight men need to sleep with other men to justify their sexuality to themselves and the world? Most straight people would object to that preposterous proposal—they know who they are and what they like, and they don’t need to prove it to themselves or anyone else by trying out every other option. Gay people deserve the same respect for their sexual self-determination. To suggest otherwise is to say that being gay is some kind of aberration, a curious bug in the system.
The theory of homosexuality that hinges on an unsatisfactory sexual experience with someone of the opposite gender casts doubt on the legitimacy of gay identity. Gross, who told the New York Times Magazine that she’s battled rumors that she’s gay, is essentially positing that gay people must have a good reason for being gay, that some lesbians can’t really be lesbians until they’ve ruled out men by sleeping with them. That’s absurd, insulting, and fundamentally untrue.
Wambach would have been justified if she’d walked out of the interview, but she soldiered on and gave Gross an extraordinarily thoughtful, honest, self-aware response:
Yeah. I mean, I think the person that I am … I will pretty much try anything once because 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, right? … I went to Catholic high school, Catholic grade school when I was younger, believing in this God that was basically telling me that the feelings that I might be having internally were sinful. I was like, “all right, well, I got to try this other life out. I got to see about it.” And I tried.
You know, I did what I was kind of, quote, unquote, “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—like I met this woman, and I was like, “oh, I get it now. This is how you’re supposed to feel.”
I remember having conversations with my friends in high school, like, “what do you think love feels like? You know, I don’t know. I think I’m in love.” And if you ever in your life say, “I think I’m in love,” you’re not, right? When you are in love, it’s a knowing. It’s a knowing like you know your own age, and you know your own family’s, like, last name. That’s what love feels like. And if you are in question of it, you probably aren’t in love, and I’m sorry to tell you that.
Here, Wambach shows that Gross’ question ignores the reality of a homophobic world. In a society that presumes everyone straight until proved gay, it does sometimes take a while for people to see any other strain of sexuality as an option. Especially in regions or cultures that devalue queer relationships and lack queer role models, as in Wambach’s Catholic community, it can be hard for young people to even imagine what their lives could be like as queers. So, many gay people do date and sleep with people of the opposite gender before coming out to themselves and the world. This does not mean they’re giving heterosexuality a trial run to confirm that they don’t like it. It just means that it’s the expected norm; as Wambach said, it’s what she was “supposed to do.”
For some gay people, Gross’ theory is probably absolutely true. Some people try out sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women, and could maybe go either way, but decide they like one better than the other. Others are bi- or pansexual. But most people don’t have sex with someone of the opposite gender and think, “Meh, that wasn’t great, so maybe I’m gay.” This is just one variety of queer experience. And it’s certainly not the case for Wambach who, just seconds before Gross’ question, characterized her own sexuality as “not a choice, [but] who I am.”
On the street and in the public eye, queer women (especially out journalists, actresses, musicians, and athletes) face routine harassment that sounds a lot like what Gross dealt out this week. A certain kind of man loves to suggest that all we need is a good screw—the “right man,” as it were—to make us realize what we’re missing. At its most vile, that line of thinking is also used to justify corrective rape. We’re used to hearing this kind of trash from online trolls, avowed homophobes, men’s rights lunatics, and people who’ve spent the past few decades of queer visibility in a padded panic room with no access to the outside world. Coming from NPR, in the soothing tones of public-radio empress Terry Gross, it’s a shocking blow.