A+ Gender & Sexuality

Italy’s long fight for equality

17 Mins read

by Valentina Curci

In 1977, 25-year-old Mario Mieli appeared on an edition of Come Mai, an obscure programme shown on Italian television about which it appears impossible to find more information today.

While the archives of Rai, the national public broadcaster, are normally scrupulous, it is not unfamiliar to acts of self-censorship regarding uncomfortable characters who, in hindsight, it would have been preferable to leave off screen.

A blurry excerpt of the programme, and probably Mario Mieli’s only preserved video interview, can be found online. It starts with a shot of Elements of a Gay Critique, Mieli’s prodigious university thesis turned into a paper and published that year, and with the host of the programme introducing it with a deep and deliberate voice, carefully moulded to the television norm.

A voice, helped by the gritty filter of the speakers, belonging to a time when small-screen personalities spoke almost as if they were personally in the houses of the audiences, seemingly kind but also certain and authoritative, warm yet detached.

A voice that must convey the feeling you are listening to the undisputed truth, like the voices of commentary in propagandist documentaries from Istituto Luce or like Good Morning Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer’s one, had it been a hundred times mellower and subjugated to the wishes of the Army.

Elements of a Gay Critique was, in 1977, a pioneering work on moral philosophy in which Mieli had crafted his theory on gender and sexuality.

It is a pioneering work today, elaborated and furthered by the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, shared and studied across the world.

With it, Mieli, a young university student, became the first Italian homosexual ideologist and indisputable reference point of the movement of gay liberation that was taking shape, following tendencies already rising within most parts of the Western world, in 70s Italy. Today it is still a pioneering work, and it is also incredibly hard to find in Italy.

Mieli’s was a story of escapes and participation that unfolded in the need to overturn every concept of belonging, borrowing from the ancient absence of necessity to define oneself and from ideas stemmed from his period in the British Gay Liberation Front, which was born in the wake of the historic Stonewall protest and a gathering in the basement of the London School of Economics.

Palermo pride 2013 [Flickr:Tatogra]

The United Kingdom had decriminalised homosexual acts in 1967, but claiming the freedom of Eros for the idea that everyone is pansexual and defiantly pushing concepts of ‘campness’ in Christian Democratic Italy was — to put it bluntly — a whole new kettle of fish.

Proving it, is the composed embarrassment of the mellow voice that introduces Mieli to the audience, defining him “a character” and then taking a pause long enough for you to wonder whether you accidentally turned off the sound. But you did not, as evident in a following snort, almost imperceptible and yet pointedly there.

A character who is “rather known,” the mellow voice continues, this time with an unmistakable sigh. The reason for the sighs becomes clear as the camera shifts on a rather unimpressed Mieli, who the voice explains to be a “predominant exponent of the homosexual movement in Italy” and who, the voice announces more gloomily, “is here in the newsroom today.”

When the camera pans to him, Mieli appears thin, his face gaunt but seraphic. He wears a top and a scarf knotted in some sort of pussy-bow trailblazer of 2019 Gucci Cruise, skirt and thighs, eyebrows neat and pronounced and delicate touches of make-up.

He would have probably done a far better job at describing his looks himself, as he did only months after that television appearance in the pages of Lambda, a publication akin to a Pravda of the Italian gay movement for which he was assiduous contributor, recounting the experience of being booed during the rally against repression — organised by the 1977 protesters — by the more moderate groups of the gay movement, who saw in his transvestism the emblem of a stereotyping of the community that made it an easy target for attacks.

He wrote then: “I was dressed as a defenceless peasant girl, the boos were the bleating affirming the rightfulness of my words: that yellow skirt, that green jumper, that red flower on my chest, those turquoise espadrilles, that ageless make-up were my pretty outfit.”

It becomes clear, if even parts of the gay movement itself did not share his view on transvestism, the meaning and impact of appearing on the still-black-and-white Italian television dressed in canonically female clothes.

His deadpan expression dissolves for a moment when the mellow voice, with a ridiculing smirk, comments on how he is “dressed to the nines”, leaving space for an arched eyebrow and pursed lips, immediately schooled into seriousness when the first question is asked. “Why cross-dressing?”

It is a peculiar year, 1977. The civic growth left by the 1968 movements did not change the fact that loving people of the same gender, not to mention cross-dressing, would result in punishment.

In 1977 the Italian Communist party had started backing the governing Christian Democracy, leaving its own supporters bereft of the historic Left, while the younger generations were witnessing the fading of that post-bellum dream that had prompted the standing up of a population, left at a loss in front of an uncertain future, accused of ennui but instead looking for effective action. Amid drugs, progressive rock, protests against the political parties and armed struggle forms a new wave of rebellion in which the gay movement finds its active place.

In 1977, Mieli, the expression of a generation that was lost and finding itself, clad in skirt and thighs, dared to talk on national television about pansexuality, to appropriate derogatory terms like ‘camp’ and ‘queer’ with pride and start a process of self-determination that would be joined by a whole movement, while screaming that by refusing these theories ‘we risk the catastrophe of this society’.

Palermo pride 2013 [Flickr:Tatogra]

That year, 1977, was the peak for a movement that had started from zero, that was loud but not as numerous as someone would think, despite the noise it generated. Beppe Ramina, one of the most prominent exponents of the Italian gay movement and one of the founders of Arcigay — the biggest LGBT organisation in the world fighting homophobia, fighting for equal rights regardless of gender and identity, born from the ashes of the 70s movement— recollects the first tentative meet-ups and the small numbers involved, when even national protests would consist of no more than 200 people.

“In the 70s there were two big movements, feminism, which Italy was just discovering, and the political protests, especially in Bologna, where a movement of expression of many creative forces, including the expression of the body and of the sexual identity was born,” says Beppe.

“In those years Elements of Homosexual Critique was published and we were also learning from feminist theory. In Bologna, there was a gay union called ‘Collettivo Frocialista’ [a play on the word fa*got and socialist, as it gathered in the headquarter of the Socialist Party] made up of no more than fifteen people, mostly students, guided by Samuel Pinto, called Lola Puňales, an exile from Pinochet’s Chile”.

The Collettivo remains in history for one of the biggest victories of the time, when the movement was more established: the obtaining of official headquarters for a LGBT association, il Cassero, the first of its kind, for which the Bologna section fought intensely.

“It was during the first Pride, which was held in Bologna [in 1980], that we met with the major and asked for a self-managed place for gay, lesbians and transsexual, a place for shared expression and cultural activities,” Beppe recalls.

“I think [obtaining it] meant a lot for us and for the city. There were clashes with the curia, because the building we asked for had an inscription commemorating the Madonna di San Luca. They opposed the presence of homosexuals in such place, which started two years of negotiations, but in the end, we won.”

It marked the first time the public administration acknowledged and supported a LGBT association. It still exists to this day, and has thousands of members, making it one of the biggest cultural initiatives in Bologna.

“We developed good diplomatic relations with politics. We got the Cassero after a long meeting with the secretary of the Communist Party, who was fixated on not letting us have the location with the religious inscription. We objected and won, arguing that in the past that place had already welcomed other kinds of associations, and denying it to us would have meant agreeing that LGBT people do not have the same right to association as other citizens.”

The gay movement arose in an empty vacuum of human rights for homosexuals in Italy, who were destined to prison, insane asylums, or, at best, false lives. It is in this situation that Fuori!, the Italian Unitary Homosexual Revolutionary Front was born, in 1971, moulded on those movements already active in France and the UK, became the first Italian association for both gay and lesbians in the frame of the gay liberation movement.

Fuori! was the mainstream section, moderate and ‘traditional’ and publishing its newspaper of counter-culture: from that experience would stem a history of associations, internal political secessions and birth of autonomous local collectives that characterised the Italian movement and that ultimately brought to its dissolution and to the creation of Arcigay.

“The reactions to the movement were different. It was the first time that our kind of subjectivities were expressing themselves, looking for confrontation. I would say there was mostly a lot of curiosity,” says Beppe.

However, harsher reactions weren’t lacking. “In Bologna we managed to gather 10,000 signatures in favour of the Cassero, but a part of the neighbourhood sided with the curia. The influence of the Church was heavy, but I think those fears that were developed toward us dimmed with the years.”

At the time the concept of pathology as a subheading for homosexuality dominated, a neurosis clogging the expression of the Eros that can be cured with psychoanalysis. “But people were talking about it,” Beppe reminds us, and if people were talking about it, it meant that a discourse existed, and it was easier to add to an existing discourse to change it, starting a process to transform less harsh reactions into tolerant ones.

Even the law had to informally adjust to these sudden, brazen and more numerous displays of homosexuality, agreeing that ‘abnormal’ tendencies were not punishable unless carried out in public.

However, it did not mean much, as transvestism was still subject to police intervention, as were other forms of public same-sex affection displays. Porpora Marcasciano, president of the Transsexual Identity Movement, recounts in her discussion of the transgender movement Antologaia how she was arrested in 1981 while she was just walking to university, during a police sting.

It was a country of juxtapositions, Italy in the 70s, constricted by Catholic morality but starting to get familiar with new concepts — extra-conjugal relationships and divorce, bikinis, cinematographic nudity and abortion — reading translated copies of Cooper’s Death of the Family, posing vicious heterosexuality as a remedy to the gay vogue coercing the Italian youth, while the first gay bars were opened, and at times even left so.

It is probably why Mieli found place on television at all, melding Marxism and psychoanalysis, Freud’s polymorphism to Marcuse, to explain that sexuality can take any direction, that we are all potentially pansexual but put by society in men and women’s “uniforms”, derived from what he called “educastration” of the individual, led to believe heterosexuality is the norm and everything else a deviant perversion, expressing shock for doctors who push the “aversion therapy” meant to cure homosexuality.

In 1972, it was indeed the organisation of an International Convention on Sexual Deviances by the Italian Centre of Sexology — of Catholic origin and pushing for conversion therapies — to mark the first reaction of opposition and protest by the Italian movement, in what is remembered as the Italian Stonewall.

Forty people, mostly members of the Fuori!, with the becking of foreign groups and intellectuals, welcomed doctors and psychologists participating to the convention screaming “Doctors, we’re here to heal you!”, aware that they are making history.

It was the first time LGBT people took action, subverting their status as victims. The Fuori! newspaper wrote the day after: “To all homosexual comrades who still hold doubts, fears, we say: ‘come out!’ the risk is often an illusion, but even if it were real, it doesn’t matter. Life is one step away.”

Palermo Pride [Flickr:Tatogra]

Even though that date marked the legitimacy of the movement, seeing an influx in people joining it, it needs to be reminded that not everyone had a penchant for that kind of militancy, despite it being the time of political contestation and extra-parliamentary organisations.

Many clubs where homosexuals found escape were disrupted by the wave of subversion of the movement that wanted to transform them from places of shame to places of liberation, when maybe not everyone was ready to take that step.

“Not everyone was ready to fight. Fuori! found the support of the Radical Party, which created a schism and made it even more difficult to organise action. In those years there weren’t many of us,” Beppe says.

“It’s also true that today we think ‘how hard must have been then?’, and I believe that it was hard to come out, to put yourself out there, but fighting was easier compared to today because there was a sense of protest and fight. Coming out had a very political meaning, while today it is much more complicated, especially because of how articulated the discourse on identity is. I’d say we had more fun in expressing ourselves, in showing ourselves, even with violence, without considering too much those mediations that today are fundamental.”

Ramina’s experience is mirror of a tendency more concerned with the widespread militancy of that political moment than with the need for parliamentary representation.

“For example, I was already the secretary of Lotta Continua [extra-parliamentary organisation] and I was very politically involved, so when I came out and I joined the collettivo I maintained that political activity. It wasn’t as if I was heterosexual and leading a certain life one moment and then starting another life after coming out,” says Beppe.

After coming back from London, even Mieli wrote: “I found out I have done political activity to affirm myself within a bourgeois ideology I disavow. Today I am part of the revolution movement.”

He had interjected revolutionary ideology and the political movement, and applied them to the sexual revolution. This position was shared by many, and was what caused the fragmentation of the Italian movement in different fringes.

Fuori! was aiming to isolate the movement from the social situation, while trying join the debate on civil rights, concerned at the time with abortion and divorce, and looking for the support of the Left, which however didn’t seem interested in the LGBT battle.

It obtained the support of the Radical Party, which led to a schism of the movement into a radical section and a Marxist-anti-capitalist one, using Mieli’s Freud-Marxism as a bulwark, ideologically correlated to the students’, workers’ and women’s movement of ’77, fighting for the crash of a system founded on a heterosexual and chauvinist structures that perpetrate alienation and capitalism. Or, as Mieli put it: “proletariat and women are two faces of the communist-community party, and the gay movement is the butt.”

Common ground were the objectives to obtain, using sexuality to unlock the existing scheme of things.This fragmentation spurred the birth of local movements, ‘collettivi’, like the one in Bologna, small communities born in several cities, fundamental for the affirmation of single identities and sharing of experiences and guided to action through the publication Lambda. By the end of the 1970s, the movement was multi-faceted, political, moderated, violent and diplomatic.

In Rome, the Homosexual Political Movement preached detachment from the proletarian battle, other groups criticised joining the battle for abortion, maintaining it would bring unnecessary hate on a group that was fundamentally unconcerned with it, while the Homosexual Collectives of Milan, under the guidance of Mieli and the feminist movement, attracted disapproval for promoting femininity as a positive polarity and perpetuating the stereotypical image of homosexuality.

They developed a flourishing theatre activity, bringing to the stage the successful play La Traviata di Norma, “namely: fuck off…yes indeed!” which, aiming for some sort of Brecht distancing, used transvestism as a paradoxical means of parody, offering a satire on heterosexuality by overturning all those stereotypes and prejudices attributed to homosexuals.

Fighting to destroy the superstructures canonical in the Italian society and be allowed to live their true existence, the Milan collective was heavily criticised by the public opinion and by parts of the movement itself that claimed there was need for ‘seriousness’ to avoid winding up the consensus on homosexuality.

The division was demonstration of a failure in manoeuvring the movement into a common direction to organise a unified thought, but also of a certain reluctance and incoherence coming from certain parts of the movement to understand other ways of expressing the freedom of the Eros, confirmed by later clashes with the transsexual movement.

During his television appearance, Mieli answered the mellow voice’s “Why transvestism?” with a simple answer: “Because I like it,” while the camera zoomed out to show his skirt. It was simple, but it was also polemic, because why can women dress as men and men cannot dress as women?

We should really question why, he said, with the maturity of a 25-year-old confronted with a giggling interviewer and his mellow voice. Transvestism was incredibly important during those years of LGBT fights, subverting the roles of men and women and showing the human to be just that, human. It did so in a moment when gender norms were broken only by famous personalities, confined to the category of the ‘artists’, people with the privilege to appear different.

It wasn’t the likes of songwriter Alfredo Cohen, who wore make-up and sang Valery, dedicated to one of the biggest trans-activists of the time, who were questioned. It wasn’t the long and unruly hair of the prog groups, successful and ahead of their time, twinning piano melodies and flute rhythms, from Demetrio Stratos’ diplophonies to Le Orme, who in the 70s sung The Angels’ Manufacturer against clandestine abortion, who were questioned.

It was the common man, who was not an artist, showing up on television and making everyone uncomfortable while trying to make everyone understand. In his song of Balkan sounds, Cohen imagined the vexations and offences Valery was constantly subjected to, in a sorrowful hymn of compassion and comfort: “those who sting you bear the acrid and cold thorn of envy/ have no smiles, have no thoughts/ have no winters, have no seasons”.

1977 seems so close to current times, wrapped in the legacy of libertarian tendencies, rebellion and the blossom of punk, that acquiring cognition of the dire state of civil rights, especially for minorities, comes as a disillusioned crash. But 1977 was just as close to the years of Nazi persecution of gay men, with pink triangles in concentration camps.

1945 in Italy marked liberation, with the illusion that the country and thus its population was free from constraints, the fascist censorship, the windows that had to be covered at night to hide the lights, just as everything had to be hidden in favour of displaying behaviours complying to the wishes of the regime.

Palermo pride [Flickr: Tatogra]

In Italy, in the ’40s, gay men were taken from their towns and confined on a small island, to build Mussolini’s Italy in a perfect masculine model. In the ’50s, Gino Olivari, who fought for homosexuals by asking for ‘healing’ was made out to be a sympathiser, as the consensus saw LGBT people equal to the women burnt in the pyres of the Inquisition.

And in the ’70s, newspapers still talked about the “fetid flower of homosexuality” and either carried out investigations on those “sickening perversions” or just treated it as a taboo, as was the case with everything concerning sex.

It is why the ’77 ventures were so important and revolutionary. They brought to the first Day of Homosexual Pride in Bologna, in 1980, where, beyond the political differences and views, the movement gathered in expression of the importance of staying true to one’s self and in refusal of a sense of fault for doing so.

It was a historic occasion, and it was then that, with a peaceful rally among the streets of the town, a delegation was received by the mayor and obtained the Cassero: an occasion that represents a mark in the history of the Italian movement, from which on it became more socially involved but also more entwined with the reality of political parties.

Unfortunately, it also represented one of the last expressions of the character of ‘movement’ itself and of community, later on caught in the AIDS crisis, which put into question everything the movement had fought for and the discourse on sexuality and gender, already damaged by the movement’s focus on political categories.

“I am always sceptical about speaking of an Italian community. In those years the people who travelled around the country for conventions and protests were always the same. We were a nomadic community, and when we meet up today we still feel that bond, even amid the divergences,” explains Beppe.

“But I am sceptical about the feasibility of building a community, especially because of what happened during the AIDS crisis. I, together with some other people, tried to create an association for people who were dealing with AIDS, but it appeared impossible to build a gay community that would face, with a series of tools, even only of support, that crisis. And if you aren’t able to build a community around that, it’s hard to build around anything else.”

It is from this necessity that the Arcigay was born, in a moment when political belonging had devoured the realities built in the community. “Together with Franco Grillini [current president of Arcigay] we decided to give life to this association, an autonomous branch of Arci [Italian non-profit for cultural centres], to give a more solid stability and sense of community to the separate collectives, and to build a national presence,” says Beppe.

For the meaning Arcigay, one of the biggest LGBT organisations in the world, has in the history of the Italian movement, it is striking how the route and the fights that led to its creation are often forgotten in standardised history, wrapped in silence filled only by current redundant —albeit important — battles for civil unions.

“The prevailing discourse now focuses only on couples’ rights,” says Beppe, commenting on the change of objectives of the movement. “I believe that removing talk of the body and human desires and needs, makes [LGBT] politics a matter of unions. I think that we could push forward theories much more radical and deep regarding our place in society, on mechanisms of exploitation, on inequalities. I think reducing all of this to a lobbyist issue of affirmation of certain rights is taking away from the possibility to reason on other things.”

Porpora Marcasciano, president of the Transgender Identity Movement, commented in Antologaia on the current battles of the LGBT movement, reprimanding contemporary transgender people for letting the radicality of the past get lost, expressing a judgement of inadequacy on this world, that we believe to be more apt to a certain kind of libertarian tendencies, reminding of the process of self-determination and the struggles of those who came before, who made it possible for the people of today to be as they are.

“I don’t think we stopped fighting,” says Beppe. “There are different expressions of it today. Maybe the protagonists of the ’70s contest the fact that today there is a tendency of relying on the reality of associations and there isn’t any more discourse on the roots of identity and oppression. But I personally believe there is still some of that. There was a democratisation of homosexuality, which is now mirror of the Italian society. There are left-wing gay sand right-wing gays. In 1977 we were anarchists and militants; therefore, we came out with that spirit, we already had a baggage of fighting experiences. I am happy with they way things are today, it was one of our objectives [to allow everyone to manifest their sexuality].”

Mario Mieli, amid controversies and provocation, psychoanalysis and Marxism, ultimately traced back his thought to a poem by Sappho, and within his theoretical approach agreed that “some say an army of horsemen/ some of footsoldiers/ some of ships/ is the fairest thing on the black earth/but I say it is what one loves”, that it is love and freedom of love the aim of the gay liberation movement, a battle that in Italy still needs fighting to these days.

In the early ’90s, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, the author of Separate Chambers, still had to answer accusations of making homosexuality a ‘predictable theme’ in his novels, and saddened, explain he only wanted to write only about love, that nobody asks anybody why they only narrate heterosexual love, and if there was an intent, it was merely that of subverting the canons of maudit homosexuality as double life, sorrow, discrimination, to paint it in normality. That “in front of love and death, we are all the same.” Which is what the movement unified ultimately fought for.

“It isn’t the institutional victory to define the importance of our power and our successes,” says Beppe Ramina. “In the moment we are protagonists of our life and of our history we already got what we needed: serenity and freedom, even if it is the freedom of still fighting.”

Romans used to say: “si vis pacem, para bellum”, which means if you want peace you should prepare for war. Mieli maintained that the love within us is a mean to express life, and win against the death intrinsic in the system in which we live. But Mieli wasn’t always right, and fights are necessary sometimes, as were those of the small Italian collectives united in 1977.

A battle that shall be remembered, to remember it fought the roots of ignorance and intolerance, oppression and discrimination, nihilism and the alienation of those who were just trying to be, because it was their right, because, as sung by Cohen in his comforting and bittersweet melody to Valery, ‘life is good in winter just as in spring’.




Featured image by Tatogra via Flickr CC

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