Rome -- this morning on the Metropolitana, the subway, I spotted two boys standing hand in hand, one of them holding a bag full of Christmas shopping. They noticed me looking, and I smiled at them. One boy beamed at me and leaned toward his boyfriend for a long, and very public, kiss, as the stolid Romans watched idly. To my surprise, an old woman sitting nearby smiled at me and then at them. "E solo l'amore," she said. It's only love. Rome has seen it all before. Rome is still the most sensual city in the world, and despite the attempts of politicians to rouse the public against out-and-proud gay demonstrations, the Romans practise a tolerance that's been bred in the bone. Roman gay life goes on as it always has: the casual cruising in the streets, the flirtations in the parks, the quiet bars invisible from the outside. The city that weathered the Vandals and Ostrogoths, the Normans and the Germans, weathered gay pride last summer like any other storm. Nothing has really changed. Or has it?
Amid the annual competition among churches for the most elaborate nativity scene, there are storms and controversies swirling around World Pride, the international gay event held for the first time last summer and, if the Vatican and its allies have their way, for the last time.
The Church has been leaning on the government, at all levels, to cancel the gay celebration. This pressure has been more successful than you might ordinarily think, because the centre-left coalition that has semi-successfully governed Italy since the last federal election has been forced to resign following the astonishing triumph of the right in regional elections, including the provincial governorships. So a caretaker federal government is anxious not to do anything at all, while an aggressive new right-wing regional government in Lazio (the province that includes Rome) is actively courting the Church's support and condemning World Pride organizers.
The amount of bullshit is heavy and disturbing, even to veteran watchers of Italian politics. The newspapers, including Vatican mouthpiece the Messaggero, have been fear-mongering in a ludicrous way for the past few weeks and have recently stepped up their campaign.
The new angle is, of all things, a public safety concern! The police say they're worried about people camping out in tents in parks and so on, which is ridiculous, as if a horde of homeless people were about to descend on Rome. A recent article quoted the bishop of San Francisco, who has raised much ire at home by the remarks he made to the Messaggero, saying that San Fran turns into an outpost of hell during pride festivities. Such unspeakable things happen that he himself is forced to leave town.
All this is not helped by the interfering remarks of the new president of Lazio, who, ruing the difficulty of banning World Pride outright, was recently quoted saying (sadly not ironically): "Unfortunately, that's the constitution -- we don't have a right." Quite an ugly phrase coming from the head of a coalition of the heirs of Fascism.
Today, in my in-box, I received an interesting e-mail petition in Italian with lots of names attached. It asks for support to protect World Gay Pride against the loud-voiced opponents of democracy, and to boycott Italian goods in protest.
Now this is serious stuff. I've never heard this kind of rhetoric from supporters of gay rights in Italy before, the prevalent theme being a kind of "let's all get along and slowly society will change" attitude. Calling for boycotts is quite a different tune.
Italians I've spoken to express amazement and horror that politicians are behaving in such a hostile way to gays.
Moreover, hoteliers -- facing a disappointing tourism year -- are watching pilgrims pour into convents and monasteries owned by the Church and restored and adapted for use as hostels with Italian tax money. They're thinking something is seriously wrong when the year's one major non-religious tourist draw that won't be putting extra money into Church coffers is suddenly being so viciously attacked.