I remember my ninth grade student teacher. I was a student at Villa Maria at the time, a then all-girls’ school in Montreal’s NDG neighbourhood. We quickly grew quite fond of and attached to her, and she felt the same way about us, she didn’t hesitate to say; she later went onto become a full-time faculty member. About a month into her training, she shared with us what I considered then to be a strange thought: “It’s so nice to see you girls hug each other and walk around hand in hand without feeling awkward or ashamed or wondering what anyone thinks about you. It’s such a joy to see this kind of sorority among you.” Why should we feel awkward or ashamed, I wondered? What could people possibly think about two teenaged girls holding hands other than that they were good friends and classmates?
A couple of short years later, I discovered what else they might think, but I still struggled to understand why that should be cause for embarrassment or shame. Love, like many other emotions fundamental to human existence, exists in coloured layers. Friendship is one. Romantic love, another. But it’s all fruit of the same tree. What was the big deal?
Some years after that, I discovered what the big deal was — to many people, at least. I began to understand my student teacher’s comment through lived experiences. None of them were my own. I live with the privilege of being cis-gender and heteronormative. I’ve never had to struggle to have my romantic relationships recognized as legitimate and just as profound as anyone else’s. I’ve never felt the need to keep my sexuality a secret, as if dirty or scandalous in some way. I struggled with other teenage anxieties. Not feeling attractive to boys. Not feeling like one of the “in” girls. Not understanding my place in my ethnic community because substantially different from the people within it. But I never thought twice before linking arms or holding hands with Sharon, or Lisa, or Erica, or Lydia, or Lynde, or Stephanie, or Katherine, or Kristina, or Jackie while walking down the halls of my protected school.
I have loved all these women and the many others who have come into my life (plenty of them still in it today) since then. I have celebrated my triumphs and cried over my failures with them. They have been the bedrock of my development and the pillars upholding my world-view.
Today is International Women’s Day. In Italy, that means giving out mimosas — tiny yellow flowers that bud abundantly this time of year there — and gathering with your best girlfriends to focus on yourself as a woman and as an autonomous individual with or without a man by your side. Women have made great strides in Italy since the time when celebrating Women’s Day became popular, post WWII. The Italian government has thought well in recent years to direct some of its funding specifically to women entrepreneurs and sometimes to fill a quota of positions at participating companies with women as qualified as their male competitors, what is called “la quota rosa” in Italy. But walking hand in hand with a woman in Italy, especially after the exuberance of adolescence, still means something there. Wearing your hair short or dressing a certain way still comes with a specific set of assumptions. It still means what my ninth-grade student teacher hinted at all those years ago.
Since I started traveling there in 2005, Italy has come a long way in its acceptance and celebration of the gay community. Every year in June, it holds a massive Gay Pride Parade in Rome. All throughout the country, people hang the colourful rainbow flag — international symbol of pride for the gay community — from their windows. There are even some openly gay television personalities, talk-show or reality-show hosts, or other popular figures. Ferzan Ozpetek is one of Italy’s best-known contemporary film directors — and also openly gay and committed to representing gay stories on the big screen. Gay men have begun to take their place in popular culture. But gay women? Where are the gay women?
Sure. There’s Gianna Nannini who came out only recently, as she approached her sixties, and after a lifetime dedicated to turning herself into an international rock phenomenon and household name. With a community of loyal followers behind her. With a surname whose prestige predates her by generations (the Nannini clan, Siena natives, are bakers famous for their panforte, known throughout the world). There are perhaps a few others that escape me, because not spoken about in the mainstream. But aside from them prevails the overwhelming snickering and hush-hush attitude of a people that refuses to attribute to women a panoply of roles and characteristics despite the progress it has made on the longer path. Being a woman in Italy has a rigid and limited scope: becoming educated, getting married, becoming a mother, existing as the rock of your family unit. At times, it also means contributing to society in charitable or gender-appropriate ways: being a teacher, a nurse, a jewelry-maker, an artist. If you are lucky, it can mean participating in the trade belonging to your family for centuries: being a doctor or an architect or an engineer or a psychologist — like your father, or your uncle, or your brother. Very rarely does it mean emerging onto your own path and thriving there, independent of the people you choose to call family.
This is a generalization, of course. I don’t want to suggest that all Italians are stuck in the past. That isn’t so. And many women — regardless of gender identification and sexual orientation — are the pioneers behind Italians’ changing attitude toward femininity. Michela Murgia. Loredana Lipperini. Concita De Gregorio. Anna Salvaje. These are just a few of the names in “female emancipation” in heavy rotation these days. They are neither the only nor the first women to be active in this fight. They draw strength and inspiration from Grazia Deledda, Dacia Maraini, Anna Maria Ortese, Alda Merini, Elsa Morante, Orianna Fallaci. They stand on the shoulders of their foremothers and boy, do they know it. And isn’t that the true essence of International Women’s Day? Solidarity among women and sisters. A recognition of the larger community to which we belong and a celebration of our strengths — emotional, physical, intellectual — and our right to equality.
This International Women’s Day, wherever you are in the world, I encourage you to reach out to all the girls you’ve loved before and tell them so. Better yet: take them out for a slice of mimosa cake with a mimosa on the side and a vase of mimosas on the table before you. There cannot be too many reminders of our strength, unbeatable, in numbers.