“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”
- Audre Lorde
Living in a male-dominated world, millions of women around the globe face challenges in every aspect of their lives. Our societies are structured in a way that men are privileged and reap much of the benefits in society for merely being a man; it has been this way for thousands of years. Society treats men and women differently from the point of assigning them pink or blue and holds boys and girls to very different expectations.
From the point of handing a girl a baby doll to play with they are expected to be nurturing, selfless, obedient and respectful of men and to aspire to marriage and starting a family. Men, on the other hand, are expected to showcase leadership, strength, and an aspiration to lead a successful career life. Young girls must battle through these expectations and ideas that they are bombarded with by parents, peers, school environment and the media.
As girls grow up they are not taught about sexuality or allowed to express their desires freely; women’s sexuality has been taken away from them. In a society where women and men have to conform to rigid gender roles like in Sri Lanka, anything that attempts to deviate from the norm faces a severe backlash. In this setup lesbian and bisexual women threaten the status quo.
Due to this in many parts of the world lesbian and bisexual women face oppression and harassment based on their sexual orientation and gender expression. However, through adversity, many lesbian and bisexual women have broken barriers in their respective fields pressing for progress. Women like Josephine Baker, Margaret Mead, Audre Lorde, Gertrude Stein, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Ellen De Generes, Martina Navratilova, Elizabeth Jean Barker, Baroness Barker, Urvashi Vaid, Nicola Adams, and Rachel Maddow have shown us that these challenges are not impossible to overcome.
These women have paved the road for future generations of women to express and love themselves and break through society’s limitations to channel their highest potential. They too, have at one time faced the same barriers we face here in Sri Lanka, and I have used them as examples here rather than anyone from Sri Lanka, for obvious reasons.
"Nicola Adams, a professional boxer and double Olympic Champion, is openly bisexual and has been breaking down barriers for black, bisexual and lesbian women all around the world. She is the first open LGBT competitor to win an Olympic Gold Medal in boxing"
Audre Lorde lived in a time of racial tensions and gave a voice to issues of human sexuality, race, and gender. Audre received a master’s degree from Columbia University and worked as a librarian for most of her life. In 1968, she published her first poem, and it contained a piece called “Martha”, where she addressed sexuality, to the surprise of her audience. Her life took a major turn as she explored the struggles of being a black, lesbian mother and was even received the American Book Award for “A burst of light”. Audre battled cancer for several years, and although she lost to cancer, she is remembered as a great poet and warrior for the unheard voices of women.
Born and raised in Louisiana this young and charismatic comedian is known for coming out about her sexual orientation on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Ellen De Generes through her career has broken down barriers and entered people’s home as a household name, loved by both young and adults alike. She became the first gay or lesbian person to host the ‘Academy Awards’ when she was appointed to host the ’79th Academy Awards’ in 2007.
In 2014 she ranked at number 46 in the Forbes ‘Most Powerful Women in the World’ list.
Growing up in a conservative Catholic community didn’t stop Rachel Maddow from breaking through the obstacles placed for her. An outgoing, athletic, and confident young woman, she became the first openly gay or lesbian person to host a primetime news programme in the US.
Her show “The Rachel Maddow Show” became the highest rated show on the channel, and she has received multiple awards for her accomplishments as a political commentator and television host.
Nicola Adams, a professional boxer and double Olympic Champion, is openly bisexual and has been breaking down barriers for black, bisexual and lesbian women all around the world. She is the first open LGBT competitor to win an Olympic Gold Medal in boxing. Having to face financial hardships and discrimination for being a woman in a male-dominated sport at an early age, gave her the strength she needed to persevere against all the odds.
In recognition of Lesbians making strides in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, I must highlight those such as Josephine Baker, Sonja Kovalevsky, and Margaret Mead. I must also mention more contemporarily Dr. Danelle Tanner, Nergis Mavalvala, Dr Amy A. Ross, and Dr Donna Riley who have been honoured by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals over the past decade. Notably, Dr. Tanner’s work spans multiple fields: microelectronics, Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), capacitors, and nuclear weapon components. She is also an advocate for pay and benefits equity in her labs. Dr. Ross for 30 years has been an advocate and mentor for enrolling more LGBT students in the fields of science and technology.
Even though women’s issues have been in discussions more so than ever, much change is yet to be achieved. Some of these are harder to fight just because they are woven under the pretence of culture and are often difficult to confront. Women still face barriers in being autonomous about their sexual health and reproductive rights, marriage rights, issues in their workplace with unequal wages or not been hired outside of stereotypical gender roles. Women’s perspectives and ideas are often undervalued and under represented in governance, where women’s rights are often decided by men. It’s time we nurtured our young girls to aspire outside of the pre-existing frames.