“We got pink hair and purple hair. We got tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. We got straight girls and gay girls.”
– Megan Rapinoe, US soccer player, world cup winner
“God has made the world this way, and everyone was not made the same. They take this small topic of hormones, make it such a big issue and declare that you cannot run. We are human.”
– Dutee Chand, Indian sprinter, 100 mt champion, World University Games
They’ve never met. Maybe they haven’t even heard of each other. But two brave sportswomen, by taking a stand, have made a difference.
Rapinoe’s rousing battlecry demanding equal pay for sportswomen and social inclusion for all was tough to miss – even in India, despite the din of the cricket world cup. Just days later, as Chand held on determinedly to a slim lead to cross the finish line, her shy-yet-rooted-in-conviction assertion of her sexuality rang out loud and clear.
In a world where hate crimes, systematic targeting of minorities and the vulnerable, the myth of ‘the other’ and apathy to suffering are the norm (we’ve seen so much of this in India since Narendra Modi came to power and in the US since Donald Trump was sworn in), these are important voices. Especially because so many well-known people who do have a voice are running scared from standing up for what’s right.
Celebrity voices matter
Why is it important for the famous to speak up? For one, it energises others to talk about what matters and trains the spotlight on the worst aspects of our reality. Different celebrities choose different causes and, because there are so many tuning in to them, their voices carry far. Think of Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and how many conversations it sparked.
With polarising heads of government in office in Rapinoe’s US and Chand’s India, we should be seeing stars speaking out about issues ranging from communalism and casteism to gender discrimination and immigration. While we’re seeing a lot of it in the US, it’s comparatively muted in India.
But how does celebrity activism make a difference? Is there a way to measure its impact? Common sense tells us that awareness is the key to opening minds. When the famous use the platforms they have – social media, public speeches, award ceremonies, sporting triumphs – to make political statements, they draw attention and reach an even wider audience than they normally would.
For instance, Twitter data shows that Streep’s 2017 Golden Globes broadside at Trump – for his anti-immigrant stance, for insulting a physically challenged journalist – and a reminder to the press to do its job was the most tweeted moment of the night. Last I checked, the speech had more than 2.7 million views on YouTube and an estimated 20 million viewers tuned in to the TV broadcast.
Not all that matters can be counted
We must accept also that there some things that can’t be measured. For example, Chand’s determination in the face of severe discrimination is an inspiration to the LGBT community. The community has been ostracised – even brutalised – for decades in India, eventually prompting a lengthy legal battle that ended with the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships. The societal battle, however, is far from over – people with alternative sexual orientations continue to face discrimination and even violence.
“My family objected, and that’s why I had to tell the world. When someone throws you out of the house, you find another house,” Chand said.
Let’s not forget either her support for other athletes who faced prejudice. At age 18, in 2014, Chand was excluded from the Commonwealth Games because of her hyperandrogenism – “increased” levels of testosterone. She battled the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport – and won. So, when South African runner Caster Semenya was embroiled in a similar battle, Chand reached out to her immediately and offered an introduction to the Canadian legal team that fought her case in 2014.
Rapinoe has responded to the socio-political reality around her with lightning bolts aimed at Trump. “Your message is excluding people. You’re excluding me, you’re excluding people that look like me, you’re excluding people of colour, you’re excluding Americans that maybe support you,” she said at a victory parade for the US’ world-cup-winning women’s soccer team. These followed her statements during the world cup on equal pay for women players and inclusion in society for all races, colours, sexual orientations and others. In a memorable speech, she said: “This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better, we have to love more and hate less. Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.”
No one’s surprised that today the issues raised by Rapinoe are being talked about by all of the US. Not that they weren’t debated earlier, but her voice has brought an urgency to the discussion – a kind of pressure, if you will, to do something about them.
Rapinoe and Chand have refused to stand idly by while their fellow citizens are being targeted. But, sadly, at a time when more Rapinoes and Chands are needed, there aren’t enough like them.
Being successful and famous requires you to be great at what you do. But it’s when you go beyond that, to mean something greater than your job, that you become a legend.