In 2013, my high school in southern-eastern suburban Rome was a place where veiled and insidious discrimination against anyone defying perceived standards of normalcy occurred on a daily basis. Within certain groups, homosexuality was tolerated as one tolerates a burden one cannot easily get rid of and the idea of being transgender was so misunderstood it was mostly erased from public existence, if not through ignorant remarks and mockery. While there was a substantial group of progressive students and teachers, they didn’t constitute the vast majority. For many people in the school, any act vaguely surpassing the boundaries of cisheteronormativity was to be met with a cold tolerance that let strong undertones of judgement tangibly shine through. As a publicly queer person, one wouldn’t probably get physically hurt but would often have to navigate a nauseating maze of verbal harassment which, whether written, whispered, shouted, or spat out, was usually enunciated with mockery and prepotent laughter so to be easily dismissed as harmless joke.
Students from many Italian high schools live for the attempt to occupy the school’s main building as a yearly ritual, and 2013 was no exception. In that year, the occupation wasn’t fully successful: faced with a threat of police intervention, our school representatives decided to accept our headmaster’s offer to have a period of ‘autogestione’ instead, this being a legal alternative to occupation in which students are given control of the school schedule and are able to independently organise and host talks, lessons, workshops, screenings, and other events. Some friends and I decided to contribute by organising a series of group discussions on LGBTQ+ rights, wanting to create room for dialogue despite being fully aware of the fact a consistent part of the school population was hostile to the topic. A bunch of sixteen-year-olds still trying to figure themselves out, we were far from experts on the matter: retrospectively, it is evident that we weren’t the most suitable group to deal with such a delicate situation, but I am glad that we still tried to do so and that we had the best of intentions.
Our event ran twice on the same day: if things went decently well the first time, the people in the room mostly unresponsive but not hostile, the second time slot proved to be extremely challenging. We realised we would be tested from the very beginning when around thirty people entered the room en masse, their boisterous attitude clearly showing they had no intention of engaging in constructive confrontation. As soon as we started talking, we were inundated with provocative questions about the supposed intrinsic challenges to lesbian sex and with stale, hypocritical arguments on the need to protect the integrity and sanctity of the ‘Traditional Family’. Though annoying, these initial comments were relatively harmless in their blatant superficiality. Things became more disturbing with the intervention of a heavily homophobic character who had come to arrogantly push forward his hateful arguments, all derived from a delirious mixture of utilitarianism and Stalinist-hued Marxism. His speech quickly moved from theory to practice in its invitation to violence, the crowd around him finally tuning in again to join him as he kept spewing out atrocities. From that point onwards, the three or four of us had to try deal with their verbal abuse up until the bell rang and they quickly dispersed, making sure they exited the room with some final cutting remarks. On that day, we returned home shocked and angry, further awakened to the uncomfortable closeness and reality of intolerance to our lives.
Earlier on during that same year I went to my first Pride, not telling my parents nor really knowing what to expect from the experience. Despite the scorching heat, that day was a truly wonderful initiation to what I perceive to be Pride’s foundational features: those of fearlessly loud collective presence in the face of oppression and of protest in celebratory mode. Starting from Piazza Della Repubblica and ending at the Colosseum, we cheerfully marched through the streets; an immense human stream chanting, dancing, kissing, singing and embracing under the afternoon sun, each of our steps physically manifesting a pulsating resistance within the city, radiating from its centre to its outskirts and from its outskirts to its centre. It felt, above all, like a reclaiming act: Rome, heart of Catholicism and capital of the secular state of Italy, April-founded ancient city, hectic modern metropolis and beloved site of our convergence, was ours too and unequivocally open and unashamedly queer.
Drums in the background and the occasional eruption of a chant: what do we want? Trans rights! When do we want them? Now! It was the end of June 2019, marking fifty years from Stonewall, five years from that luminous Roman pride and two days from the Scottish Parliament’s deplorable delay of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), and some university friends and I were in Edinburgh for our first Scottish pride. Scotland is much more LGBTQ+-friendly than Italy and I expected this pride to be even better than the ones I had previously attended in Rome and Bologna. My expectations were not fully met: I was hoping for the usual marvellous, purposeful chaos, but the day felt too quiet and orderly. The only moments in which the crowds loudly asserted themselves were to raise attention on the gravity of the GRA developments, to cheer for supporters waving from windows, or to react to TERFs or the odd reactionary old man with the Jesus sign. For the rest, the march was very silent, resembling more of a generic procession around the city than the rebellion through festivity I have come to associate with Pride.
The sheer amount of rainbow-washing also disturbed me. Though signalling the rise of LGBTQ+ individuals to the status of openly welcomed customers and representing a formal stance against bigoted parts of the consumer population, I find the June corporate support to be quite repulsive: its recognition of human rights to minority groups only endorsed as a consequence of the current profitability of such an endorsement. For this reason, I did not enjoy the sight of countless people walking around in Sainsbury pride t-shirts, holding Costa rainbow cups and collecting stickers and whistles from this bank or that railway company. The after pride show at the EUSA wasn’t much better: though there certainly was more celebratory spirit, I still struggled to find any authenticity. Apart from a few exceptions, the act of Glaswegian drag queen Mary Mac being the one that felt most genuine and meaningful to me, most performances fell flat, failing to communicate anything significant.
Despite this, I returned to Glasgow with the reiterated conviction of the fact Pride is a beautiful and absolutely necessary event. At a certain point during her show, Mary Mac held a brief speech on the hardships of acceptance and on the importance of being surrounded by a supportive community, to then ask people who were attending Pride for the first time to raise their hands. As a multitude of arms went up, I had a look around and got a bit emotional. That one moment reminded me that, whether in dance or silent marching and beyond debates on rainbow-washing, what truly matters about Pride is queer people publicly existing within a support net constituted of allies and one another, each person’s presence reinforcing and legitimising that of the others in the face of bigotry and hatred.
It is hard to deny that Glasgow and Edinburgh are safer cities to publicly be LGBTQ+ than Rome, more inclusive than the Urbs Aeterna not only in June but all year round. I will never forget my positive shock at the Dear Haters autumn 2018 governmental campaign, a public declaration of support towards discriminated communities that, to this point in time, could never be realised in Rome without major controversy. The lack of recognition and of explicit alliance often having the effect of a death sentence, clear messages of the kind Scotland sent with that campaign are potentially lifesaving, clearly spelling out the matter of being welcome to ostracised groups rather than leaving it ambiguously unrecognised so that hatred can make its way through the gaps. Still, as the problems with the GRA show, equality is far from reached and there is much more work to be done. That is true not only for Scotland, but for Italy and everywhere else in the world too: dismantling prejudice is an incredibly arduous process on both structural and personal levels, and it is in virtue of that dismantling that we march and will keep on marching.
[Ema Fazzio – she/her]