(1) A Visit to Gay Friends in Sicily

Selinunte, a scenic coastal town in Western Sicily, is as steeped in history as any locale on the ancient island.

Temple at Selinunte, Sicily

Over the centuries waves of foreigners, from Greeks to Arabs to Carthaginians to Romans, invaded and settled the area. Today, antiquity is the town’s main tourist attraction, along with its unspoiled coastline of sandy beaches and nature preserves. Archaic attitudes also seem to have survived in present-day Selinunte, as my partner Rob and I discovered during our summer 2000 vacation.

Our friend Gianni, with whom we were staying in Catania, the main city of eastern Sicily, had made telephone reservations with the Hotel Alceste in Selinunte. He requested two rooms, each with a double bed, for Rob and me and for himself and his partner, Paolo. The four of us arrived at the hotel late on a Sunday afternoon, after having spent most of the day visiting the spectacular Greek ruins in Agrigento.

At the check-in desk it soon became evident that the clerk had no intention of honoring our request for rooms with double beds. In Italy, such an accommodation is called a “matrimoniale,” and, as the name suggests, it is intended for heterosexual couples. The clerk informed us that we had to take rooms with two twin beds. Gianni insisted that this was unacceptable. As the conversation turned into an argument, with rising decibels and growing frustration on both sides, the clerk’s boss emerged from his office, quickly assessed the situation, and then sternly told his underling, “Let them have what they want.”

Though settled in our favor, our dispute with the clerk nonetheless was embarrassing. The matrimoniale mix-up unfortunately is not an atypical experience in Sicily and Southern Italy. Before Rob and I arrived in Sicily for a week-long visit, we had spent five days in Naples, where we slept in separate beds at the inaptly-named Hotel Palazzo, having been informed that no matrimoniale was available.

Rob(left), George(right) & Sicily friends

Gay men will rarely, if ever encounter this situation in Northern Italian cities such as Milan, Florence, and Bologna, where organized gay communities have created the social, cultural, and commercial venues that make those places attractive to Italian and foreign same-sexers. Southern Italy, however, is a very different story: gay life in the regions south of Rome collectively known as the Mezzogiorno is far more underground.

(My observations here focus mainly on Sicily, the southern region I know best, and from which my mother’s parents emigrated. Though I have visited Naples, from whence my paternal grandparents came, I have had less first-hand experience of gay life there.)

Southerners tend to regard sex between men realistically, as a fact of life. As long as one doesn’t make a “brutta figura” (i.e., a public display of one’s proclivities), a certain social tolerance prevails. The law reflects this situation. Although Italy has not enacted any national gay rights legislation, there are no anti-gay laws, either, and the age of consent for both homosexuals and heterosexuals is fourteen.

Italy has undergone far-reaching economic and social modernization since the end of World War II. But the old, pre-industrial and largely agrarian culture rooted in family, traditional sex/gender roles, and religion still remains potent in the South, and it influences to a considerable degree the expression of same-sex sexuality.

One reason why many Southern Italian gays and lesbians find it difficult to adopt a “gay lifestyle” is the cultural expectation that unmarried adults should live with their parents. And such constraints aside, many couldn’t afford to live independently. Italy’s prosperity extends to all its regions, but the South still remains poorer than the rest of the country, with the highest unemployment rates. Economic necessity often means that unmarried adults live with their parents into their thirties, forties, and even beyond, their incomes contributing to the support of the family, or the family supporting them if they are underemployed or jobless.

This isn’t the entire story of gay life in the South – “modern,” uncloseted homosexuality has made inroads. (I’m referring mostly to male homosexuality, since I’ve had limited contact with Southern Italian lesbiche.) Catania, Sicily’s second city, has a gay community center, as well several bars and dance clubs. There are local affiliates of ARCI Gay, the national political organization, in most of the major Southern cities.

International gay male subcultures also have put down roots. The bear phenomenon seems one of the most popular, not surprising in a part of the world blessed with hirsute males. My lover Rob and I, in fact, met Gianni, our closest Sicilian friend, through an Italian bear website. We also met Dario, a Neapolitan friend, through the Internet – he sent us an e-mail invitation to visit him after seeing one of Rob’s nude photos at a bear site. (Mille grazie to my honey, whose cyber-exhibitionism has made it possible for me to connect with the land of my grandparents.)

At the other end of the follicular spectrum, the ‘Chelsea boy’ look–clean-shaven, muscular, and depilated–also has established a presence, albeit one less prominent than the orsi (bears). We observed several of these bulked-up and razor-burned specimens sunning themselves on the beach at Taormina.

Mention of that town, on the eastern coast of Sicily, demands acknowledgment of its esteemed place in homosexual history. In the decades prior to the birth of the gay liberation movement, Taormina, as well as Capri and a few other places in Southern Italy, was a favored destination of Northern European and American homosexuals.

Seeking freedom from their repressive Anglo-Saxon Protestant societies, artists, intellectuals, and aristocrats headed south to enjoy a more tolerant, Mediterranean pansexuality that they associated with the ancient Roman and Greek worlds.

In the Mezzogiorno, they reveled in the sunny, sensual environment and the easy availability of local youths and men. Robert Aldrich, in his book ‘The Seduction of the Mediterranean’, states that “The most clearly articulated and most influential subculture which existed . . . was . . . that which both reached back to the classical world and extended south to the Mediterranean world. It is remarkable how long-lasting the fantasy of the homoerotic Mediterranean has been through the collective Western history of men who love other men.”

The most famous of these homosexual pilgrims was the German baron, Wilhelm Von Gloeden, a photographer who managed to persuade dozens of youths and young men from Taormina to strip and pose for his camera (photo, left). Von Gloeden often arranged his models in kitschy tableaux meant to evoke antiquity. Today the baron’s pictures are sold in tourist shops all over eastern Sicily. A few years ago, when I picked out several postcards of Von Gloeden photos at a souvenir shop near Mount Etna, the shopkeeper was surprised by my purchases. “Most people steal these,” he said. When I asked why, he replied, “Because they are too ashamed to pay for them!”


Rob’s and my Sicilian friends are among those relatively privileged gays who can afford to live apart from their families. Two are university professors, another an architect from an upper middle class Palermo family. Gianni, one of the professors, is one of the most “out” gay men on the island. Several years ago, after a vicious gay-bashing occurred in Catania, a newspaper reporter and a photographer stopped by the gay center to interview some of the participants in a discussion group. Despite the photographer’s promise not to shoot anyone who objected, Gianni’s bearded face was prominently featured in the photo that showed up in the next day’s paper.

The reaction to Gianni’s journalistic “outing” came quickly, especially from his family. They had already known about his sexuality, but having it divulged in the local paper was something of a shock. “We love you and we don’t care what you are, but you must be discreet!” admonished one of his sisters. His colleagues at the university generally were supportive. A few ignored the incident entirely, while only one–a member of Opus Dei, the reactionary Catholic organization favored by the current pope–was openly critical.

Homosexuality, as Rob and I learned, to our amazement, is a tradition in Gianni’s affluent family. His father, despite his forty years of marriage to Gianni’s mother, liked men, and his two paternal uncles also were gay. One, a sexually repressed “old auntie,” lived with Gianni’s grandmother until her death. Once nonna was gone, he began to indulge his taste for hustlers, until one of these ragazzi di vita, in an incident that can only be called pasolinian, robbed and killed him.

Pompei Erotic Fresco

The other uncle was something of a gay playboy; he died when he smashed up one of his sports cars on a treacherous mountain road. When Gianni came out to his mother, her pragmatism overcame her dismay. “Your father was that way and he still got married and had a family,” she calmly noted. Her comment hardly came as a revelation, though, because Gianni already knew about papa’s proclivities. A successful businessman, he had a series of young male proteges whom he trained and employed and whose off-hours company he enjoyed.

One evening Gianni answered the phone at his parents’ home. After hearing Gianni’s “Pronto!,” the male voice at the other end started talking dirty. “Oh, you must want my father,” Gianni said. The line then went dead.

The first time Rob and I stayed with Gianni, we visited his parents, who lived an hour outside Catania in a picturesque medieval town. Besides Rob and me, Gianni brought his friend Lorenzo, an architect from Palermo, and his (Gianni’s) new boyfriend, Ramzi, a Lebanese who had immigrated to Sicily from Beirut. During our visit, Gianni’s father’s gayness quickly became apparent to us. He was just so thrilled to meet Gianni’s friends! He took us to his well-stocked library, where he showed Ramzi his prized volume of Sicilian Arabic poetry. As he thumbed through the pages, remarking on poems he particularly admired, I realized that he was flirting with his son’s boyfriend.

I wondered what kind of accommodation Gianni’s parents had reached over four decades of marriage. “Well, there’s me and my two sisters,” Gianni said, “so I assume they’ve had sex three times.” Gianni believes that his mother never much cared for sex; he says religion, cooking, and her family are her main interests. His father had his books, his business, and his male proteges, all of which consumed his time until his unexpected death two years ago, from an aortic aneurysm.

After his father died, I asked Gianni whether they’d ever discussed sex, and their shared sexuality. Not really, our friend said. After one of Gianni’s ex-lovers died of AIDS, his father asked him whether he was “being careful.” Satisfied with his son’s response, he never broached the subject again.

George and Rob

For Rob and me, Gianni has been our Virgil, introducing us both to Sicily’s organized gay community and to its sexual underground. Thanks to him we’ve sat in on political discussions at the Catania gay center and enjoyed an al fresco orgy with naked sunbathers at Barcarello, a secluded strip of coastline outside Palermo.

We’ve danced with Sicilian gays and lesbians at seaside discos and spent an afternoon cruising a porno theater in Catania’s central district. (The run-down but spacious theater, formerly a legit movie house, seemed to be patronized mainly by married men. Rob and I amused ourselves by counting the number of wedding rings.) We’ve spent lazy, sunbaked days at Le Rocce (The Cliffs), the gay section of the Taormina beach, cruising the locals and tourists, and an evening hanging out with queer college students at a Palermo youth fair.

Through Gianni, we’ve also met a fairly representative cross section of Sicily’s gay male population. Turi, a professor at the same university, was determined to leave Sicily when we met him seven years ago, certain that he could never have a normal gay life if he stayed. He was anguished over having to choose between the homeland he loved and his alienation from its more conservative mores. Turi now has had a lover for a couple of years, and he no longer feels the need to emigrate. Lorenzo, the Palermo architect, left Sicily to live in Barcelona for a few years with a Spanish lover. He has since returned, and is active in his city’s nascent bear scene.

Taormina Beach

Gianni amicably broke up with Ramzi, the Lebanese immigrant, after one year. He’s now with Paolo, a working class young man who lives with his widowed father and his three siblings, none of whom know that he is gay. Ramzi has taken up with Nino, a man from Palermo whose family, according to Gianni, is mafioso. Cosa Nostra they may be, but Gianni says they accept their son’s relationship, which I find amazing given the Mafia’s ultra-macho culture.

Then there are the truly sad stories. Domenico, a man in his mid-thirties who lives with his parents in a dreary housing project, is a classic case of internalized oppression: he only pursues heterosexually-identified and usually married men, who want from him nothing more than a convenient fuck. He complains often about his unhappiness, but ignores his friends’ advice to change the situation.

Marco was, when we met him in the mid-90s, a pretentious rich kid living in a piss-elegant apartment whose walls were lined with photographs of his fabulous self. He subsequently became addicted to heroin –a real scourge in Southern Italy –lost his home, and ended up on the streets as a transvestite prostitute. Marco brought his more prosperous johns to a small room he had rented in Catania’s red light district, where he had rigged up a hidden video camera. His career as a blackmailer ended when one of the johns beat him to within an inch of his life.

Rome Pride 2000

Our Summer 2000 Italian tour had begun in Rome, where we attended World Pride, a week-long series of events culminating in a massive gay rights march. We joined several hundred thousand gays, lesbians, transgenders, and supportive eterosessuali who took to the streets of the Eternal City in defiance of a campaign by the Vatican and its right-wing political allies to prevent the march from taking place. At Piazza Ostiense, the march’s starting point, we met up with Turi, who had come to Rome with a busload of Sicilian gays. As we walked in the blazing Roman sun, enjoying the exuberance of the crowd, I noticed that Turi was crying. “You have no idea how much this means to us,” he sobbed.

When we returned to New York we received another indication of World Pride’s significance for Italian gays. Gianni sent us an e-mail that put the confrontation with the hotel desk clerk at Selinunte in a different, and surprising light. It turned out that the success of the Rome event, and the example of my and Rob’s openness about our sexuality, had encouraged Gianni to challenge the clerk.

“Thank you for bringing some of the spirit of World Pride to Sicily,” he wrote.

By George De Stefano
Reprinted with permission from Gay and Lesbian Review, March-April 2002
(The author’s writings have appeared in ‘The Nation’, ‘The Washington Blade’, ‘The New York Blade News’, and ‘Voices in Italian Americana’, among others.)


(2) Italian Gay couple test the legal limits with Dutch marriage

When Antonio Garullo and Mario Ottocento got married last Saturday in The Hague, they crowned a long-standing dream, and began what promises to be an even longer judicial nightmare. The gay couple chose to marry in the Netherlands because it is currently the only European Union country that grants heterosexual and homosexual unions equal legal standing.

Garullo and Ottocento were the first foreigners to be married in the country and they are the first gay Italians to legally wed. But when the happy couple flew back to their home in Latina, south of Rome, on Tuesday, they returned to their status as de facto singles because Italy does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Charging that their lack of legal status denies them fundamental human rights, the couple is about to challenge existing legislation in court. And in the eyes of many, they have already become paladins against an unjust situation affecting all unmarried couples, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“We could have legitimated our cohabitation privately and not have gone public with the marriage,” said Garullo from his home in Latina. “But we decided that if no one took the first step the situation would never change.”

Their next move will be to ask an appeals court in Rome to ratify their Dutch marriage, a procedure required of people who marry outside their home country. “But this time, the request will be rejected because Italy doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages,” said Ezio Mensione, the couple’s lawyer. He explained that they would challenge that rejection in the Cassazione, Italy’s highest appeals court.

There, too, they expect to lose, but Mensione believes the high court might send the case on to the Constitutional Court because of its unique nature. Garullo and Ottocento also plan to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where Mensione reckons they have a good chance of winning a discrimination case against Italy.

Citing the Treaty of Amsterdam, which forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, the lawyer was certain his clients’ rights would be recognized. But a civil servant with the European Commission in Brussels said that their changes of winning a discrimination case in Strasbourg were slight. He pointed out that the Council of Europe’s 1950 Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms made specific reference to marriage between men and women and not to members of the same sex.

Besides, he said, Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam only enables the Council to take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it cannot force a member state to recognize something that is against the policy of the member state’s legislation. “One thing is discrimination, another is recognition of a marriage between two homosexual men,” said the European civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous. “For the time being, I don’t think they have a chance, who knows, perhaps in ten years.”

More optimistically, Alberto Baliello, who follows legal issues for Arcigay, Italy’s largest gay rights group, said that even if they did win in Strasbourg, the victory would be hollow. “Even if they find Italy guilty, the court will impose a fine and nothing will happen,” he said explaining that the court’s decisions do not mandate changes to national law.

The more important battle, he said, was to change Italian legislation that not only does not recognize rights to same-sex couples, but extends that discourtesy to unmarried couples in general. “Basically there is no alternative to marriage,” he said.

Most EU countries recognize same-sex unions, granting them at least some of the same rights reserved to heterosexual couples, and Belgium will soon follow the Netherlands’ lead regarding same sex marriages. In late 2000, Germany passed a “common life” law recognizing certain rights much like the PACS in France, the civil solidarity pact that applies to all non-traditional unions.

Italy, on the other hand, grants no rights to same-sex unions. A few cities, namely Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Ferrara and Terni have instituted civil registers that take note of same-sex marriages, but they have no legal implications. Only the Valle d’Aosta region gives certain rights to same sex couples, like the ability to take out a loan together.

Apart from their symbolic crusade, the Latina couple, Mensione said, were fighting for the more practical collateral rights “like pension reversibility and other benefits. Over the past few decades, scattered bills granting equal rights to unmarried couples have made their way into Parliament, but none has ever made it even to a preliminary discussion. Many gay rights activists fault the left for not taking up the cause. “That’s the problem with the left, they are good on the collective rights but don’t do much for the individual,” rued Mensione.

Saturday’s wedding created quite a ruckus, particularly after Antonio Gagliardi, Latina’s chief prosecutor, said he considered the nuptial vows to be nothing more than “a folkloristic gesture.” He said he would object to Garullo and Ottocento’s attempts to register the union because it “opposed the fundamental rights of our country and of our constitution, which indicate the family based on matrimony as the natural foundation of our society.”

During question time in Parliament on Tuesday, Franco Grillini, a deputy for the Democratic Left and the founder and honorary chairman of Arcigay, asked Justice Minister Roberto Castelli what measures he was planning to take against Gagliardi for his “offensive” remarks. Grillini, who was present at the Dutch wedding as friend and official photographer, said he presented a bill to Parliament that would allow people of the same sex to get married last September, but had little hope it would ever get voted on, launching a not-so-veiled barb at his own party.

“The point is, really, to build support in public opinion to then take up the battle,” he said, adding that the influence exerted by the Vatican over Italian politics has made all questions related to the family dicey. “But today I think that consensus already exists.” Garullo, 37, and Ottocento, 30, are unlikely civil rights champions.

Both men grew up in Latina, a town of 110,000 where they have a sculpting workshop. They didn’t have much to do with the local gay community and don’t consider themselves activists. But the Gay Pride parade in 2000, which brought tens of thousands to Rome, was the moment of awakening which gave them the strength to forge on with what promises to be a lengthy legal battle.

On Saturday, they will address this year’s national Gay Pride parade in Padua. When they decided to marry, Ottocento went to the Hague and rented an apartment for a few months so he could establish residency. The rest was bureaucratic. They are going to go on their honeymoon in a few weeks, in an undisclosed, but sunny, location. “I married Mario because I love him and wanted to build a family,” said Garullo.

“And that comes before any battle.” All those involved with the case sense that it is going to be an uphill struggle. “After all, we’re talking about a country that doesn’t even have a law banning discrimination for reasons of sexual preference,” said Baliello. “Even Romania doesn’t allow for discrimination against gays.”

From the International Herald Tribune (http://www.iht.com) June 7, 2002
By Elisabetta Povoledo, Italy Daily


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