Queer Cultures in Italy: a Lecture by Enrico Salvatori
On Tuesday March 28, Prof. Paolo Prato invited Enrico Salvatori to his Italian Media and Popular Culture class. Salvatori is an expert in audiovisual archives and history of broadcasting and has been a RAI collaborator since 1999, and is now the editor of the digital channel Rai Storia.
Salvatori started the lecture by asking whether it’s possible to talk about queer culture in Italy. Considering how elusive the word ‘queer’ remains to the wider Italian audience, it would perhaps be more accurate to talk about a gay Italian culture within the arts, literary scene and show business.
The first documented use of the word ‘queer’ belongs to Italian philosopher Teresa de Laurentis during a conference at the University of California in 1990. “Queer is an umbrella word,” said Salvatori, “that tries to define a personal choice of identity in opposition to the heteronormative expectations, which require someone to be either a man or a woman, heterosexual or homosexual.” Recently the word ‘gender’ has become quite popular, especially in the “gender theory” field. Conservative Italian activists and politicians use gender theory to encapsulate and stigmatize a culture that strives to educate younger generations to a conscious choice of their sexuality.
Salvatori gave a timeline of gay Italian culture, divided in three phases. The first phase, “prehistory” spans from 1950s to 1972. During this period, the word “gay” is used for the first time in Italy by writer Alberto Arbasino in his novel L’Anonimo Lombardo, in 1957. Federico Fellini’s iconic film La Dolce Vita features some homosexual and transvestite side-characters among its crowded cast. In 1960, the first explicitly gay song is released: Seguendo la flotta, written by Arbasino and performed by Laura Betti.
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The second period goes from 1972 to 2000. After the protests of 1968, freedom of sexuality had become more socially acceptable. While male homosexuality is still heavily frowned upon and therefore censored from media, female homosexuality is an object of desire for the male gaze, and it becomes more and more common to see lesbians on screen. In 1972, Italian television broadcasts a live program about homosexuality which turns into a debate on homosexual prostitution. “It should have been an informative program but all they could talk about were the bad things,” said Salvatori. It also shows images of the first gay manifestation in Italy, FUORI (Fronte Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano) manifesting outside the first Sexology Congress in Sanremo, where some demonstrators are invited to speak. In Come Mai, aired on 1977 on Rai 2, the leader of the Italian gay radical movement, Mario Mieli, is interviewed about queer culture. The Sorelle Bandiera’s performance as a trio of transvestites in a gay cabaret in Rome, L’Alibi, is appreciated by TV personality Renzo Arbore, who is the host of L’altra Domenica of the progressive Rai 2. He decides to have perform the jingles of the show. Their success makes them a fixed presence on tabloids, in theatres and even as protagonists of their own movie, L’importante è non farsi notare.
The 80s are plagued by Aids that kills the best minds of the newly emancipated gay generation. Arcigay, Italy’s largest LGBT association, was founded in 1985, and 1994 saw the first Italian National Gay Pride, in Rome. The first rounded gay character in Italian media is Romeo, played by Franco Castellano in Commesse. The Internet gave to gay and lesbians the chance to meet in chatrooms, and in 1997 the website gay.it appears online.
The third phase goes from 2000 to present day. On July 8th, the World Gay Pride took place in Rome, during the Jubilee, and it was condemned by Pope John Paul II. Italian Cinema started to produce and distribute gay movies. 2001 sees the success of Ferzan Ozpetek’s The Ignorant Fairies. In 2002, GAY TV, a cable channel, is born out of a sociological research targeted to the LGBT community. Several gay personalities appearing on TV normalize LGBT people. Vladimir Luxuria is an emblematic figure of this “quiet revolution”: after a career in cinema and theatre, she is the parliamentary candidate for Rifondazione Comunista, becoming the first transgender in the world to be elected in a Parliament. In 2008 she wins the edition of the reality show Isola dei famosi, and writes a fairytale book. In 2010, the internationally famous singer Tiziano Ferro came out as gay in a Vanity Fair interview. On May 20, 2016, Italy legalized civil unions. After that, Rai 3 started broadcasting Stato civile, a show that features the story of two couples, of different age, gay or lesbian, who are to tie the knot and enter into civil partnership.