In news that (depressingly) shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, a trans woman tried to live her life in a way that made her happy and was attacked for it.
Gabrielle Ludwig has already been through quite a lot. She moved from Germany to America when she was a child, served in the military for almost a decade, and has had two failed marriages and a daughter. But her passion is and has always been basketball. She played during college, but when she dropped out and was overwhelmed by the tedium and hardship of life, she lost sight of that. So now, at fifty, she is attempting to return to the sport that has always made her happy. That’s been a hard journey, especially because Ludwig wasn’t satisfied with recreational leagues. She decided to return to college so she could be a part of college basketball. The coach and administration at her chosen school, Mission College, were fine with that, to a certain extent. But because of the hoops that she had to jump through in order to be eligible to play for the team, like having her legal name changed, which she had not done despite being on hormones for years and undergoing a sex change operation, her basketball goals started becoming a part of something bigger.
“If the example I can set for the kids who are transgenders in high school, for the people who hate transgender people and for those learning to deal with transgenders, transsexuals, if they see me as a normal person and we are not the bogeyman and love life and raise kids just like you, maybe some of this mystery of who these people are will be taken away and there can be more blending into society. People are afraid of what they don’t know. I am willing to put myself out there. It was not like that before. It was just about playing basketball. It’s about more because I see an injustice.”
And this month, Gabrielle played her first college basketball game in thirty years. She played well, her teammates supported her, and though the team lost, she felt good about what she’d done — until the media heard about it.
An article published in USA today about her first game recently gained national attention, and with that, Ludwig has had to face even more backlash than she’d previously expected.
When questioned about her history and her birth name, Ludwig said, “Robert Ludwig is gone, and the person you have is Gabrielle Ludwig, with everything Robert embodied and was …[Robert] should be honored. He was a great guy. Robert is gone. He was a great father. His spirit is still here. It’s just that the spirit matches the body, as it should be.”
Photo courtesy of Martin E. Kimek, USA Today Sports
But that isn’t enough for some people. It’s not enough that there’s gossip around the college that the basketball team, which already is known as a sort of band of misfits, has accepted a transgender player; it’s not enough that spectators have booed her and publically speculated on her genitalia as if she’s some kind of zoo animal; it’s not enough that even the USA Today article that came out in support of her repeatedly and consistently misgendered her. On December 6th, two sports commentators at WTEM Radio in Washington DC, a company which is owned by ESPN and marketed as ESPN 980, reported on the story with a highly offensive transmisogynistic rant.
Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin introduced the story and then immediately launched into an attack on it. At first, they attempted to hide their transphobia by saying that Gabrielle is too old to play college basketball and that there should be an age limit in the NCAA, but they quickly got to the point. (trigger warning: transphobia, biological essentialism)
“The whole gender-bending thing…whatever you’ve got to do to scratch that inner itch or quell those inner demons, that’s fine– but don’t go playing sports then. And don’t go playing sports going “but I’ve got the rights of everyone else!” Yeah, you’ve got the rights to live as a human being, y’know, with other people respecting you and everything else, but athletics is different. And a man’s body, and a man’s DNA is different than a woman’s. That’s why we have separate leagues for separate genders!” said Czaban
The segment also included the hosts repeatedly referring to Ludwig as “him/her” before finally deciding that “’it’ is the politically correct term,” casually dismissing her identity as a woman, and mocking her tattoos and physical appearance.
(again, huge trigger warning on that video, which has the full segment)
So let’s get this straight, here, Steve Czaban. You’re totally cool with trans* people, right? You think they’ve “got the rights to live as a human being,” which is just so, so great of you — what would they do if you didn’t deign to validate their humanity – but that ends on the basketball court. Athletics is different; basic civil rights don’t apply to sports! So basically what he’s saying is that he’s totally willing to accept trans* women’s identities and existence on the planet, but only if they don’t interfere with his interests or do anything that he disapproves of, in which case he reserves the right to dehumanize and mock them. Yet another case in which a white cisgender man tells a woman that she has to earn his respect by existing within the boundaries he’s set for her. Because we don’t have enough of those.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who was upset by this. On the 10th, the radio station issued a statement saying:
We strongly believe two of our employees crossed the line when discussing a transgender student-athlete on their program last Thursday. Such intolerance and insensitivity will never be tolerated by this company. Due to the nature of their conversation, the pair have been temporarily removed from ESPN980’s Sports Reporters program.”
“The two are not employees of ESPN and made the comments on an affiliated radio station that controls its own local content. The offensive commentary goes completely against ESPN’s company culture and values. We have expressed our significant dissatisfaction to the station’s management.” In addition to this, GLAAD has offered to work with the station to better educate Czaban and Pollin. While the offer is a good idea, I’m not so sure I’d want to see them back on the air at all, though I would like to note that I’m a cisgender woman and obviously don’t have a right to decide whether or not the trans* community at large would be offended if they came back on air. But they’re definitely going to have to do more than hide behind an apology issued by their station if they want to fix what they’ve done wrong.
And as for Gabrielle Ludwig? She continues to play. She talked to Outsports about the ordeal earlier this week:
These two people in Washington DC just tore my life apart, and they don’t even know me. They did it in respect to how I look, how I’m built, the tattoos on my body. They took great pride in humiliating me in the national public. I don’t know if I’m supposed to cry or scream or beat them up. It’s affecting my sleep, it’s affecting my confidence….My only saving grace is knowing there are people in my corner, including the kids that I coach...If I have to take a beating for it, it’s worthwhile.”
Truly a brave and gracious woman. The worst part of all of this is that it’s not uncommon. Like I said in the beginning of this article, this isn’t a surprise. Most trans women undergo some form of bullying, prejudice, and abuse, and hundreds are killed each year, particularly women of color. When we ignore stories like Gabrielle’s, we imply that it is okay for this to happen. This woman was called “it” — as if she were a thing, a nonentity, less than human– and verbally abused simply because she had the audacity to express her gender and step onto a basketball court. This is vile. This is not okay.
Written by Marlena Carcone
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Header image by the Associated Press