Abby Wambach’s speech and the importance of discussion

BY EMET MARWELL '18

I have admired and respected Abby Wambach since I began following women’s soccer around my freshman year of high school.  At first, my admiration was due to her unparalleled ability to head a ball out of the air and straight to the back of a goal.  Upon following her on social media such as Instagram and Facebook, I began to admire her for her character and activism as well. When she announced her retirement and my newsfeed on Facebook filled up with goodbye videos from and for Abby, I felt as if I knew her personally.

One could imagine my elation when I heard that the one and only Abby Wambach would be coming to speak at MHC in September. I distinctly remember sitting with my friend Kate in the Great Room at Blanchard when I began to openly cry from excitement as I read the email from Athletics Director Lori Hendricks announcing the event. Needless to say, I had extraordinarily high expectations for Abby’s visit.

I envisioned a passionate, down-to-earth, honest account of Abby’s personal experiences and how they changed her for the better.  I was anxious to hear about her struggles with depression and substance use, their intersection with her sexuality and insight into how to make it through to the other side.

In some ways, Abby’s talk was just that, but in other ways she fell short of my expectations.  Abby touched on a slew of topics ranging from the history of women’s soccer and women’s sports to her DUI last spring.  Her sentiment to appreciate what life has handed her and to teach from her experience was abundantly clear. However, and perhaps this is trivial, the way in which she spoke about some of these things didn’t sit well with me.

One thing that I’m sure many others from the audience picked up on was her repeated use of the term “all-girls school” in reference to Mount Holyoke College.  This bothered me for several reasons.  First off, as is clear from my presence and the presence of other trans, non-binary and gender-non-conforming people on campus, we are not an all female-identifying student body.  Regardless of the genders of our students, the age implication of “girls” belittles the students here.  Though we may be young and we may act childishly at times, we are all adults. That being said, Abby’s underlying sentiment was the opposite of belittling; her point was she attended a girls’ high school and therefore felt a sense of solidarity with our student body.

I was also bothered by the way Abby spoke of her DUI. I absolutely understand her intention to convey that the DUI acted as a “wake-up call.” She explained how the DUI helped her to self-reflect, take responsibility for her actions, change and move forward in a positive manner.  However, I strongly disliked her comparison of her DUI to the death of a family member.  

I feel that while both may act as a negative marker in one’s life, it is highly disrespectful to equate the death of a loved one, something that is uncontrollable and devastating, to something that one brings upon oneself. I may be affected more acutely by Abby’s comparison because the event came three days before the memorial service for my field hockey teammate Laura Murphy ’15. I imagine others felt similarly, though perhaps not to the same degree.

During her speech, Abby seemed to steer clear of making any explicit or strong stances on the issues she raised, as is common for public figures who are trying to avoid public criticism. This disappointed me, as I was hoping her activism would shine through in her talk and serve as both an inspiration and a guide for MHC students.  She seemed to repeat generalized and cliche sentiments, such as “work hard and you will achieve your dreams.”  I felt it was odd to bring up inspirational sentiments so superficially, when she has so many authentic and relevant anecdotes. I couldn’t believe Abby Wambach, an incredibly inspirational woman who has overcome adversity, has only to say that we should “work hard.”

She left me buzzing with questions:  Abby, you’re part of this movement to get equal pay for professional female athletes why is this necessary in the first place?  How is this a form of sexism? What allows this systemic sexism to persist? Why do professional athletes get paid so much in the first place?  Athletes absolutely work hard, but so do countless others who don’t see anywhere close to the same monetary compensation as athletes.

Abby admitted during the Q&A session that she doesn’t know everything. I absolutely commend that. What I wanted to know is her story.  I wanted her to explain more about her struggle with depression (provided she felt comfortable doing so). I wanted to hear about how understanding her sexual orientation has impacted her mental health, and how her mental health has impacted her substance abuse.  I wanted to feel her humility burning through her tough exterior.  And I wanted her to tell me how she keeps moving forward. I wanted her to bring me hope.

During the Q&A, I was the first in line to ask a question. To preface my question, I briefly explained how I had been recruited to play field hockey here at Mount Holyoke.  After coming out as transgender before my first official season, I made the hard decision to begin hormone replacement therapy, making myself ineligible to compete in women’s field hockey.  I asked Abby how she, as an activist, public figure and ambassador for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Athlete Ally, foresaw the trajectory of trans athletes in sports.  What could she and others in positions of power do to improve the situation for people like me?  How can we incorporate being true to oneself and playing sports, two things that are so crucial to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of so many?

Honestly, I am still reeling from her response.  She led everyone in a round of applause for me, told me she loved me and fully supported me and called me a badass.  (To clarify, Abby Wambach, THE Abby Wambach, called me, some random, dorky, chunky trans dude, a badass.) But she also said that no one should have to choose between being themself and playing the sport they love.  She admitted that she doesn’t know everything about trans issues and is willing and ready to learn.  She emphasized that, with time, honest and respectful conversations will help to bring about change.

The rest of the Q&A session went similarly.  I felt that she took stronger stances, despite never explicitly expressing her opinions.  She was composed, forthcoming and genuine.  What struck me most was her willingness to have conversations.

If we take anything from this event, I hope it’s that no matter where we stand on any issue, nothing will change until we have candid and respectful dialogue.  No one knows everything, nor should anyone be expected to know everything.  We all come from such disparate backgrounds that it is not possible to fully understand each other, maybe ever.  What we can do, though, is seek to listen to, learn from and teach each other while also respecting personal boundaries.

We may not always agree or understand, whether it’s about mental health, trans experiences or simply wanting to go to Buck for brunch instead of Prospect, but if we can listen and be open about our needs, hopefully we can all move forward towards a brighter future.

Mount Holyoke News

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