Gays, History & A New Bishop of Rome

Lesbian activist and Rome City Councilmember Imma Battaglia under the rainbow Christmas lights that Mayor Ignazio Marino had installed on Via del Corso. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Lesbian activist and Rome City Councilmember Imma Battaglia under the rainbow Christmas lights that Mayor Ignazio Marino installed on Via del Corso. | MICHAEL LUONGO

BY MICHAEL LUONGO | Imma Battaglia leaned in to tell me a story of intrigue — about secret closed door agreements between the Catholic Church and political figures. It all seemed farfetched in the modern era, more akin to the Borgias’ rise to power or something from Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

“You know, it is a part of our story,” she said. “It is part of our city. The Vatican is in the middle of this city. They meet every day, they have lunch together. They are lobbyists.”

The Church’s hand in everything.

Francis’ first Christmas as pope was a prism for viewing changes in the Church and in Italy

Imma and I had not seen each other in more than 13 years, since we first met while I covered Rome’s World Pride in 2000. It was that global event’s first incarnation, created as a direct challenge to the Catholic Church during its celebrations of the Millennium and the Jubilee (Il Giubileo), the 2,000-year anniversary of the birth of Christ. The gravitas of that first World Pride has since devolved into essentially a circuit party.

In 2000, Imma, as head of one of Italy’s most important rights groups, Circolo Mario Mieli, was a rallying force at the operatic, drama-filled events she and other LGBT leaders pulled off against Pope John Paul II. Now a member of Rome’s City Council, Imma seems not to have aged. She still has her closely cropped, lesbian chic tomboy hair, her tanned, chiseled face, calling to mind Ingrid Casares, Madonna’s 1990s Cuban-American Miami girl-toy.

The Church didn’t win against World Pride. And if recent circumstances like the October 2014 Synod are an indication, the Church might — just might — be on the road to giving in.

But history weighs heavily in Rome. Imma’s office is half a block from the Trevi Fountain, where Federico Fellini filmed Anita Ekberg wading running through its water. Step outside, you can hear the water roar. It’s this history, this weight of ruins and religion that inescapably burdens Rome’s LGBT rights movement, making it unlike that even in other Italian cities.

December of 2013 was a different time from my previous visit, with a new pope, one who famously declared, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay clergy. I personally know the pope, having met him in Buenos Aires when he was simply Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, a man opposed to Argentina’s gay rights movement, Latin America’s most successful. It was this seemingly changed man I wanted to understand better in his new setting during my two-week visit over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays a year ago. I would see him at some of the same religious rituals I had photographed him at in Buenos Aires, like Midnight Mass, though in Rome I would never be able to simply walk up to him, shake his hand, and ask him questions.

I wrote about Bergoglio’s views for Gay City News when he was elected pope, observing that under his leadership as archbishop, his homophobia cost the Catholic Church membership and respect in Argentina, especially when he crusaded against the country’s 2010 same-sex marriage law. The Buenos Aires archdiocesan Catedral Metropolitana became a center of the battle over LGBT rights, with protesters standing on its steps to harass Pride marchers going by — though there’s no evidence Bergoglio approved of this. In response, the cathedral was often graffiti-covered and splashed with red paint reflecting the view of some critics that the Church had blood on its hands.

I expected more of the same on gay questions when Bergoglio morphed into Pope Francis. But he surprised me. He surprised a lot of us, and many Americans — gays included — have become enamored of him.

But what about Italians, whom he serves symbolically as well as bishop of Rome? When I arrived in Italy, I wanted not only to see the changes in Rome’s LGBT community since my previous visit, but to understand as well what activists, politicians, and ordinary citizens thought of Francis. I would come to learn of a variety of opinions, but since the days of the Caesars, what one has seen in Rome is not always what has existed under the surface. As Imma said, there is always something behind closed doors.

Those things, she believed, were secret deals between the Vatican and Matteo Renzi, then the young new secretary of the Partito Democratico, the Social Democratic Party. He was only 38, and Imma was surprised when he went no further than endorsing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. A man so young and heading a liberal party, she expected, would tout full marriage equality. “This for me means that there is a sort of hidden agreement,” Imma said. “In Italy, when you become the secretary of the Partito Democratico, you have had meetings with the Vatican. You know, nothing can happen without a meeting.”

Soon after our interview, in February of 2014, Renzi was named prime minister.

Secret deals and hidden agendas bolster the status of the pope, as does his seeming openness on gay issues. But as this past October’s Synod of bishops demonstrated, the openness isn’t necessarily what it seems or easy to pigeonhole. A draft report of the Synod struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone on gay questions, one dialed back in its final form by the time the gathering adjourned.

Pope Francis travels through the Vatican crowds. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Pope Francis travels through the Vatican crowds. | MICHAEL LUONGO

In reality, according to Imma, Francis has never said anything directly about LGBT issues when it comes to actual rights. “He never really pronounced something against gay issues or gay marriage,” she said. “He is very, very clever in talking.” With a dramatic flourish, Imma emphasized her words, twisting her finger near her ear. “He is putting a lot of attention on this, the gay theme. He never says something against. He never says something for.”

I told Imma Francis is a contrast from the man I knew in South America, who called gay marriage the work of the devil. Why the change?

“Because he realizes that he is in Europe now. And in Europe, gay marriage, gay civil unions are recognized,” she said, even though Italy, in fact, does not yet have either. “So he learned his lesson, because he is not doing this. He is very open. He is really coming to everyone, each word he says is on the balance. He puts a lot of attention on his words, to try to avoid this argument. The more he can do this, the more powerful he is.”

But it is not just the pope who has changed, Imma believes, but his entire institution. “I think what has changed from 2000 to today is that the Vatican has learned a lesson since World Pride,” she said.

And the same event changed the entire the entire country.

“All the politicians, all the people, the gay community, they realized their power,” she said. “People were no more scared. It is a growing community and growing self-consciousness and self-confidence” — helmed by “more and more gay politicians” like herself.

Most important of all, the LGBT movement has joined itself to the most powerful building block of Italian society: the family.

“Rainbow families with children are growing by large numbers,” Imma told me.

That is a theme I heard about from other activists. And the family, even with an LGBT twist, is something the Church can’t ignore. In November 2013, just before my visit, Francis addressed the Union of Superiors General, a conference of leaders of male religious orders in the Church, and talked about new kinds of families — including those headed by divorced and LGBT parents — that he believes the Church must begin to think about for the sake of the children. Any supposed sins of their fathers and mothers should not be visited upon them.

Activist Andrea Maccarrone (center), who heads Circolo Mario Mieli, at the group’s month dance party Muccassassina. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Activist Andrea Maccarrone (center), who heads Circolo Mario Mieli, at the group’s month dance party Muccassassina. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The Cow Who Killed Me

Drunk handsome men pawed at me as I tried to make my way through the dance floor. They saw I had something big and they all want me to use it on them.

None of them, as far as I know, wanted to sleep with me. It was my SLR camera with its long lens, slung around my neck, that they were after. They all wanted me to photograph them.

This was another change from 2000, when it was much harder to find gay men who wanted to be identified and photographed for publication — at World Pride events or out at nightclubs.

Andrea Maccarrone, who currently heads Circolo Mario Mieli, was in front of me, his hand clasped in mine, making sure he didn’t lose me as we sought a quiet space to talk. We were in the midst of Muccassassina — literally “Cow Assassin” — his group’s monthly dance party and people thought I was the official photographer.

“It’s Facebook,” Andrea told me, laughing as we snaked through the sweaty crowds. “Everyone wants their picture on Facebook now.”

We found a corner in the warren of narrow changing rooms under the club’s stage, the constant thump of music and pounding feet above us. It was far from tranquil, but easier to talk, even as drag queens and glitter-streaked dancers, musclebound and shirtless, brushed provocatively past us, double kissing Andrea along the way.

Unlike Imma, Andrea focused — at least at first — on the downsides since World Pride.

“Some things are even worse than in 2000,” he told me, adding, “There was World Pride and it was a huge march, and it was special. We did it, against everything. Politics. Society. People want to maintain to defend this freedom. We hoped things would change, but they didn’t.”

Andrea, 34 at the time of the interview, is originally from Sicily. I was already familiar with how geography and Renaissance princedoms and city-states continue to impact the way Italians think about their country, and Andrea helped rewrite my assumptions about the state of LGBT rights. From his perspective, Rome lags behind the rest of the nation.

He pointed out that Sicily and Puglia have gay governors, adding, “The big difference for gay people is mostly by living in a big city or a small city,” much as in the US. “Lombardia is not only Milan with the fashion industry,” he said, contrasting the backwardness of the region’s hinterlands with its principal city. The relationship between Venice and the surrounding Veneto, he said, is similar.

The grandest irony, in Andreas’ view, is that Rome is “the biggest city,” but also has the “highest profile of bashing. What we see is this killing and violence, but not in the south,” with its “more live and let live attitude.” The suicide of Simone D., a 21-year-old gay man who threw himself from a tall building, had stunned Rome on the eve of my visit there.

Andrea believes the Church is central to the difference between Rome and the rest of Italy regarding the acceptance of the LGBT community.

Andrea called Francis “a great communicator,” turning even non-believers into Vatican admirers. “He grew very much in popularity,” he said. “They talk even about how the pope is building tourism and bringing a new image to Rome.”

Still Andrea said cautiously, coming closer to me as the music made it difficult for us to hear each other, “The structure under him remains. We have very hostile bishops and clerics,” even if, as he added, “this pope has created hope for gay Catholics because they are inside the Church. What we see in Italy is a political revolution.”

That observation was something of a contradiction from his earlier pessimism about what has not changed since World Pride, but Andrea went on to argue that growing gay power challenges the exceptional status of the Church in Italian society. The May 1 Family Day, an event the Church uses to promote religious values, he said, has become smaller than Rome’s Gay Pride. A decade ago, all that was on the table was civil unions; “Now we are about marriage,” Andrea said about an LGBT discourse that only moves forward.

The Vatican is aware of society changing around it.

“I think they are getting smart, the Church,” Andrea said. “Italy knows it. They are over 2,000 years old. They can change with society, keeping the power.”

Changing to maintain power is an Italian tradition, Andrea said, mentioning the novel “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa about a Sicilian noble family impacted by dramatic social transformations during the Risorgimento, a period in Italy from the Napoleonic Era to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of the country. The main character, he explained, talks of how “we need everything to be changing for everything to stay as it is.”

Today, with Pope Francis and the Vatican, it is the same.

“They are very good at this, to adapt to the situation,” Andrea said.

Still, politicians continue to genuflect to Vatican authority, he argued, mimicking their prattle, “‘The pope says, the pope says.’ Every politician left and right says, ‘the pope says.’”

Most Roman politicians are behind the times, Andrea insisted, but he noted that the mayor, Ignazio Marino, a member of the prime minister’s Partito Democratico, is a leader on LGBT issues. “He has been strong,” Andrea said, “even among politicians, he is among the most open. He is in favor of same-sex marriage. But he is also cautious.”

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino in his office suite at in the Palazzo Senatorio. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino in his office suite at in the Palazzo Senatorio. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Meeting with the Mayor

My first thought in the mayor’s waiting room in the Palazzo Senatorio — at the Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill, the extravagant Renaissance municipal complex designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti — was how much the overwrought interior feels as if it were decorated by an Italian grandmother with a limitless budget. I sat on an ancient sofa, its carved, gilded wooden trim filigreed with worm holes. While Italy technically has separation of church and state, across from my perch was a painting of Mary with the baby Jesus, a malachite cross to its side. The window looked onto the back of the Vittorio Emanuele monument — the grand marble memorial to one of Italy’s last kings — located at the terminus of the Via del Corso, which was draped, controversially, with rainbow Christmas lights. Standing at the window with me on that drizzly January day, Marino’s press officer searched for sign of the mayor’s bicycle, a potent symbol of Marino’s progressive environmentalism and of his humble, down to earth nature.

The matter of the Christmas lights, which some in the city believed were a memorial to Simone’s suicide — was the first thing the mayor and I discussed.

Marino told me, “I knew that in Italy they would become a topic for arguments, because everybody did say the mayor wanted that because of LGBT rights.” Gay issues, he said, are “important to me, but the feeling that I wanted to give was that this city is a city of peace and rights and the rights of a young child, a woman, somebody that travels from far away in Africa to run away from war, torture, or other horrible things” are important, too.

A few months before our meeting, hundreds of refugees from Libya and Eritrea, both former Italian colonies, drowned off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Pope Francis tweeted about the disaster, and for the mayor it was part of what made 2013 “a very tough year.”

In later photographing the rainbow Christmas lights, I discovered they culminated in a giant tree decorated with the word “peace” in a multitude of languages, and decided perhaps the mayor was sincere in saying they were inspired more by the plight of the African refugees than by his advocacy for LGBT rights.

Marino is a surgeon by trade who once worked in Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson Hospital. His experience in the life and death issues of medicine combined with his own personal situation informs his views on what LGBT families face.

“In this country, the law is so behind,” Marino said. “I live with my wife now for about 23 years and we have a daughter. We are married, but we do not have a marriage certificate. We just live together. We have a child. I am a 58-year-old male, so at risk for a cardiac event or a brain hemorrhage…. The person with whom I live for 23 years, if she does not have a marriage certificate, by law, she cannot enter into the ICU, holding my hand, and she cannot participate to the discussion about medical treatment.”

Unlike nearly every other European country, Italy does not have what might be thought of in the US as common law marriage — the rights and benefits attached to a union that lacks the formalism of a certificate. The mayor’s marriage without a certificate, he understood, is just like the marriages and families formed by gay and lesbian couples who are denied legal recognition in Italy.

Throughout our interview, Marino echoed much of Andrea Maccarrone’s assessment that Rome lags the rest of Italy on LGBT issues.

“Rome was governed in the last five years by a coalition of people strongly and sincerely against civil partnership,” the mayor said. “Not only they didn’t want to hear about gay marriage, they don’t even want to listen about any discussion of civil partnerships. So with that kind of majority, Rome fell behind.”

Marino is striking back, with the limited powers he has to right the wrongs facing LGBT families. Like several other mayors across Italy, he has recently established a municipal civil registry for same-sex couples who marry abroad as a way to protest and highlight the lack of equality under Italian law.

As with his discussion of the rainbow Christmas lights, the mayor leaves the strong impression that he thinks holistically on questions of human rights — whether for LGBT couples, unmarried heterosexual couples, immigrants, the poor, and those who are homeless. Though he told me he has not discussed LGBT issues in his Vatican meetings, in a place like Italy, his actions, observed closely by the Church, allow his views to be aired, even if he says nothing directly.

The mayor gave me more than twice the time that had been promised, and as our interview wound down, I asked about the future of LGBT rights in Rome.

“I think that Rome should be as any other city in Italy, a town where doesn’t exist any form of discrimination,” Marino said. “I have been saying for several years, we don’t need special rights for special people. We need the same rights for all the people.”

But the mayor understands that historic and stubborn obstacles require special workarounds — hence, the civil registry as well as his decision one day this past May to fly the rainbow flag on the Campidoglio façade, something Imma Battaglia long hoped to see happen.

Pope Francis carries the Christ child during his first Midnight Mass at the Vatican. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Pope Francis carries the Christ child during his first Midnight Mass at the Vatican. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The Pope’s First Christmas

Marino and Imma were among the politicians I ran across as I photographed Christmas rituals held in the Vatican. At one event, Imma’s mother dramatically reached out and hugged the pope from the politicians’ seating area, able to be so close to him because of a daughter whose life has been dedicated to fighting Church doctrine.

Few places in the world are more beautiful and religiously joyous at Christmas than the Vatican.

My final day in Italy was the Epiphany, January 6, the morning spent in the Vatican’s basilica for a dazzling spectacle celebrating Christianity in a city whose rulers once sought to crush it as just another revolutionary movement from the empire’s edges. That religion is now the city’s raison d’etre.

Organ music and the high falsetto voices of adolescent boys singing in Latin echoed through the vast arches that rise overhead and into the chapels, niches, and marble columns behind the photography dais, amplifying and sharpening the rich melodies. At times, an almost frightening sound flowed through the church, a woosh that would begin softly, crescendoing into a deafening roar — the posteriors of genuflecting crowds hitting thousands of chairs.

Crowds filling St. Peter’s Square during Midnight Mass. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Crowds filling St. Peter’s Square during Midnight Mass. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The most dramatic moment that day was Francis’ entry through the bronze front doors. The organ music suddenly pitched higher and lights in the ceiling’s arches brightened like a lightning burst. Cameras and smartphones waved madly over the heads of worshippers. Thrilling as this man-made show was, Mother Nature — or perhaps, if you believe, God himself — got involved. The very second the pope entered, a beam of light broke through a transept window, striking a statue of Santa Teresa. Though not a Catholic — despite my Italian ancestry — even I gasped and quivered at the timing. Throughout the ceremony, the beam cast its spell on me as it made its way across the wall to Bernini’s bronze altarpiece. Priests and altar boys raised gilded crosses behind the pope, their polished metal surfaces sparkling against the sun’s rays.

Unlike in Buenos Aires, though, I was not mere feet away as he performed the rituals, the only foreigner among a tiny handful of photographers. There were dozens in Rome, and we were stationed far away.

St. Peter’s Square, a pagan Christmas tree at its center overlooking a life-size Neapolitan-crafted nativity set, was filled with joyous revelers — clergy and lay — every day of my visit. There were hundreds of Argentines, many waving celestial blue and white flags as they donned Santa Claus hats and shouted for El Papa, Spanish for The Pope.

Argentine tourists hoist their nation’s flag on Christmas Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Argentine tourists hoist their nation’s flag on Christmas Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

One young woman told me she believes the pope himself personally called about her Vatican entry ticket, so familiar was the Argentine-accented voice confirming her request. It’s just one more legend about Francis’ personal touch, yet the woman was still surprised to be there. Without Francis, she would never have attended a Vatican ceremony. Argentine visitors to Rome have increased so significantly that Aerolineas Argentinas doubled its flight capacity.

While the Argentines stood out to me, tourists from dozens of other countries waved their flags within the crowds. Among them were Ukrainians, seminary students with families and friends trying to bring attention to the conflict besetting their country. They included a young man and a young woman whom I would find out were dating when I later saw them embracing in another part of Rome. Ukrainian Catholics are among the Eastern Rite Churches affiliated with the Roman Church under the pope’s authority, but that have the leeway to allow for married priests.

Young men who have dedicated their lives to the Church fascinate me. Some read as gay to me, but not the vast majority. Many are strikingly handsome and, in their youth, are at their sexual prime. Though I know many priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders, it has long been a calling that baffles me.

The seminary students presented a mesmerizing image against Bernini’s colonnade. With the winter wind flapping against their black robes as they made their way across St. Peter’s Square, I was reminded of Richard Chamberlain’s indelible character in TV’s “The Thorn Birds.” Dozens of the seminarians were in the Vatican Museum during my tour, evoking the Renaissance as they stood gathered in groups within the dim rooms ornamented by Raphael’s depictions of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Bible.

The lives of the artists behind this spectacular display have inspired Roman gay travel company Quiiky to conduct gay-themed Vatican tours. Quiiky’s Alessio Virgili who is also the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s Italy representative, said the tours highlight the “gay life of some artists, like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, or about the love of Hadrian and Antinous. We think that it is important to speak about their homosexuality to understand their art.” Tours use licensed guides and do not require Vatican approval, though Virgili does not know what Italian media scrutiny of the gay tours bodes for the future.

The Swiss Guard on duty on Christmas Day. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The Swiss Guard on duty on Christmas Day. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Many Italians and others I met in Rome told me that the outpouring of love for the new pope by both people of faith and those who consider themselves secular represents a vast change from the Vatican under Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

I had hoped to meet with Sergio Lo Giudice, an openly gay Italian senator of the Democratic Party but he was away for Christmas. In an email, he told me how refreshing he finds the changes at the Vatican, even if he sounded unsure how deep they go.

“Francis is using an innovative language, very different from that of his predecessors and respectful of the dignity and value of homosexual persons,” Lo Giudice wrote, though he added, “There has been no opening on the doctrinal, so homosexuality remains for the Catholic Church a sin as well as a moral disorder.”

Lo Giudice’s email distinguished between Francis and the Church hierarchy, suggesting a potential for conflict.

“I hope that the pope’s words can have an impact on the attitude of the hierarchy and the Catholic community on these issues,” he wrote. “I believe that Francis, who has quickly become a very popular pope, will have a positive influence on people. I am less optimistic that the Vatican hierarchy, often very conservative and obsessed with sexual morality, will soon follow the same path.”

Voicing a view similar to Andrea Maccarrone’s, he argued it is “characteristic of Catholicism to adapt its principles to reality.” Lo Giudice added, “Perhaps Francis realized that in a world dominated by inequalities and social injustice it is absurd that Catholicism is most identified for its rigidity on sexuality or on self-determination of women.”

Still, he cautioned, “We need to be careful so that this new style, so modern and friendly, doesn’t turn into an effective tool of legitimizing exclusionary and oppressive attitudes.”

Indeed, the positive news that came out of October’s Synod — even if walked back somewhat in the gathering’s final statement — largely obscured an international family conference hosted by the Vatican the following month that was titled “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” It included Christian right Protestant leaders from the US.

A Gay Village patron on New Year’s Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

A Gay Village patron on New Year’s Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

On the Town in Rome

Gay life is not uniformly visible across Rome, and when it is the location can be surprising. Coming Out is a hotel, bar, and restaurant complex on Via San Giovanni in Laterano, a gladiator helmet’s throw from the Colosseum. Its rainbow lights in a brilliant triangle above the entrance leave no ambiguity about their meaning, unapologetically making Roman homosexuality visible to millions of international tourists visiting its famous ancient neighbor.

Coming Out was crowded with locals drinking outside, flirting with each other. Though many Romans assumed from my looks that I was a local, I passed two men in tight jeans who apparently took me for the tourist I was and quickly switched into English while conversing about blowjobs. All of us were leaning on another piece of history, a balustrade cordoning off ruins excavated under Mussolini. Italy’s fascist leader surely never imagined that this 1930s modernist tampering with the Colosseum surroundings — not to mention his massive sports complex adorned with male nude statues, now called Foro Italico and home to World Pride’s White Party in 2000 — would become gay Roman playgrounds.

Another night, I made my way to the Hangar, a small place with two bars and a dark room, where I met the American owner John Ross. Warm and affable, Ross swooned when talking about the new pope, telling me, “I think he is the best thing that has happened to the Catholic Church in 1,000 years.”

At Garbo, a small gay bar in the Trastevere neighborhood, festooned in colored lights and candles that warm its gray brick interior, I heard similar sentiments from staff and patrons. Jahan Genet, a bartender originally from California, energetically told me, “We love the pope.” His boss, bar owner Remo Tofani, an Abruzzi native, called the Francis “open,” adding, “I like this pope. He is cleaning up a lot of stuff from years and years of the Church.”

An American soldier stationed in Naples said of the pope, “I like what he says about the gays, but people say he really hasn’t changed anything.” He also said he found Naples more progressive than Rome, mentioning he even met a lesbian powerful in the mafia there.

A Latin American man who works for the Church told me, “If you’re waiting for Francisco to change things, it’s a little too early.” The pope could be pro-gay, he said, but “he hasn’t changed anything that would reflect his views on gay rights.” Still, he thinks Francis could have the kind of galvanizing effect on the Church that Vatican II unleashed in the 1960s.

“The pope is opening the path to new ways,” he said. “We’re not going to see it, but the next generation will.”

Vladimir Luxuria prepares for her New Year’s Eve performance at Rome’s Gay Village. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Vladimir Luxuria prepares for her New Year’s Eve performance at Rome’s Gay Village. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Vladimir Luxuria and the New Year

It is that next generation which preoccupies Vladimir Luxuria, another major Italian LGBT rights figure I met during World Pride. A transgender woman who wears many public hats, Vladimir is best known as a singer, actress, and former politician. After a Vatican Mass early on New Year’s Eve, I traveled to a club where I watched as Vladimir’s makeup artist prepared her for the evening’s show, her silvery getup bringing to mind a queer-themed “Lost in Space.”

Even nine months ahead of the bishop’s October Synod, the Vatican website was soliciting input and Vladimir and I discussed what she expected to come out of it. While acknowledging that both the Church and politics in Italy were behind the times compared to the rest of Europe, she said, “There was a constant growth of same-sex couples, and there are 100,000 children raised by same-sex couples. So even though there is no law, society goes, you know. Society does not ask the permission to the law.”

Though politicians often use the Church as an excuse for resisting change, Vladimir believes the Church under Francis is opening up. The pope, she said, is asking “how should the Church react and behave with the children of same-sex couples who want to be baptized?… Paradoxically, it is a way they recognize these children.”

Vladimir also sees changes among rank and file clergy, even in their attitudes toward transgender people. She recalled a funeral where “the priest, who is the director of Caritas, an important Catholic association, he referred all the time to this transgender as a she, and he called her God’s daughter. And he said, if Jesus was amongst us now, he would have come to her and accepted her. At the Church of Jesus, right in the center of Rome.”

Remembering Francis’ efforts in Argentina against same-sex marriage, Vladimir said she expects the pope to compromise by recognizing “the less worse is the civil unions.” She added, “I am sure he is against gay marriage but he is less obsessed than the previous pope on homophobia, on anti-gay declarations, and he has changed the style, the language on our issues, so I think it’s the first little step, toward a more open Church about the LGBT community.”

Politicians, she believes, stand in the way more than the Church. As a former member of the Italian Parliament, she is disillusioned and decried “politicians who think of the religion while they are making some laws. It is not a problem of what the Church says about gay marriage, because of course we do not think it would be possible to have a religious gay marriage. We want a civil gay marriage.”

That is a goal, Vladimir is confident, Italians can agree on. Her country, she said, is “more willing, more ready to have laws like other countries in Europe and the Western world.”

Vladimir_Luxuria_CENTER_GayVillagNYE.JPG Vladimir Luxuria (center) on stage New Year’s Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Vladimir_Luxuria_CENTER_GayVillagNYE.JPGVladimir Luxuria (center) on stage New Year’s Eve. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Under the Lights of the Via del Corso

Before I left Rome, I visited the Via del Corso with Imma Battaglia; it is just a short walk from her Council office.

“Every time I walk under the rainbow, I am happy,” she said, her eyes beaming. “I find peace.” She reveled in telling me that the pope himself was forced to walk under them during the December 8 procession for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Imma’s cheekbones were bathed in the multi-colored river of light, and locals and tourists alike were flashing selfies next to us. It was almost dangerous the way all of us stood in the center of the Via del Corso, as cars, motorcycles, and massive buses struggled to avoid hitting us.

The day I arrived in Rome, Imma told me that several months before the mayor asked her to keep secret a message he wanted to convey to her. Then, in November, she said, “I was walking through Via del Corso, and I was looking at these men putting the lights, and I look at it and I go, ‘Wow, it’s a rainbow. He keep the promise.’”

Her hands flicking up and down in dismissal, Imma added, “Of course, you know there are people, gay people, who are never happy and say he did not do the rainbow flag. There are seven lights. There is the light blue. This is the peace flag, not the gay flag. I tell journalists, I don’t know, I don’t care. I know why the mayor put these lights. It’s against homophobia. It’s for equality. It’s for peace of course, but peace without rights is not a peace. We are all children of the same flag.”

Now, lit underneath them in all their glory, Imma remarked on the years since World Pride, when her work was so challenged by the Vatican: “After 13 years, a lot has changed and today we have a mayor that supports gay marriage. I am proud.”

As we walk together, she continued, “I feel history is changing. It’s time for equality. Even in Italy.”

Michael Luongo presents a slideshow “Christmas in Rome” with an emphasis on the Vatican, the pope, and LGBT issues, as well, at the New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, on Tuesday, December 30 at 6:30 p.m., and at the Queens Library in Flushing, 41-17 Main Street on Sunday, January 4 at 2 p.m.

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