What does it mean to be a lesbian, gay, or queer person in Italy today? Which paths can LGBQ people follow in a still unfriendly territory and what are the discourses through which they negotiate their experiences?
In contemporary Western society, sexual identity is perceived as a core element that affects the way people experience their entire lives. Sexuality is viewed as a cornerstone of both public and private selves, and the social meanings attached to them can bring freedom or constraint, privileges or restrictions, full citizenship or a life confined at the social margins.
Non-heteronormative identities (where heteronormativity refers to social and cultural practices that endorse heterosexuality as the only ‘natural’ and neutral way people can engage in a sexual/romantic relationship as described by Warner 1991) in this article have been explored in a cultural and historical period in which, on the one hand, people have experienced widespread heteronormativity and in which, on the other, a broader transformation in social definitions of family and intimacy has led many countries –although not Italy- to approve same-sex marriage. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT 2012) the majority of Italians (56%) believe that an important factor in the acceptance of LGBQ people is their ‘discretion’, while LGBQ people themselves calibrate their visibility according to different social contexts. Italian LGBQ people are more socially visible with their friends (77%), less with their colleagues (56%), even less with their brothers and sisters (46%) and only a minority (20%) disclose to their parents.
Since my aim was to explore in depth and to make space for individual experiences and meanings, I carried out my research through a qualitative approach, that allows a high degree of what Cardano (2011: 11) defines as “context sensitivity”, matching the methodology to the object of study. I have therefore studied the formation and management of non-normative identities by recruiting and interviewing a sample of 50 people composed of two main populations: parents with a gay son (there were no lesbian daughters available) and self-identified gay/lesbian/queer people, with and without children.(1) The case study has been driven by strategic choices, with the explicit purpose of extending the predictability of the findings (Cardano 2011) to the general populations. Observing presumably privileged experiences among a sample entirely composed of LGBTQ associations’ members I have been able to collect biographical narratives of people who could construct and manage their non-normative identities within a protected environment, where they could experience social support and the acknowledgment of their identities. Using a critical case study design, we can presume that if we find –as we did – difficulties in identity construction and management among a sample of people who are white, middle-class, with a high level of education and who are politically involved, we can expect this to happen even more so in the general population.
The narratives of the respondents (all names are pseudonyms) depict an overall variation in experiences. However, one of the traits that the two populations have in common is the need, at the beginning of their biographical transition, to positively re-signify the concept of sexual otherness both to themselves and to their significant others, changing meanings, changing minds and eventually normalizing queerness. In this process one of the most cited stereotypes was that of mental illness, supposedly informed by a pathological model of homosexuality transmitted from the past; as a respondent described her coming out to her parents: When I told him [that I was a lesbian], he turned to my mother and said: “I told you so! (…) We should have taken her to a psychologist a long time ago!” (Teresa, a lesbian mother).
This process is often more challenging for the older generation of heterosexual parents, who are often not prepared to deal with the discovery of their offspring’s homosexuality and who frequently experience friction with their more traditional –often Catholic- backgrounds (Bertone, Franchi 2014). We can find a clear example in the words of Samuele, a sixty year old Southern Italian, father of a gay son:
But I knew in my heart that the cultural model was so strong (…) That he is YOUR son, he is the person you love most.. (…) Then you say: (…) “Oh heck, but you, society, how much do you want to condition me? (…) It came to my mind the image of God saying to Abraham: “This is the dagger, sacrifice your son”. Sacrifice my son? No way! (…) The battle has to be brought from inside you against your son, outward, outward.
The intense image of The Binding of Isaac –an iconic Biblical reference- proposed by Samuele is particularly eloquent: the normative discourse is embodied by the figure of God, who asks Abraham to demonstrate his faith by sacrificing his son. When Samuele’s son came out to him, he felt the heteronormative pressure that to reject his son’s ‘difference’, in line with his traditional value system. But he hesitated, reflected, and finally decided not to sacrifice his son to divine/normative expectations but instead to direct his metaphorical dagger against heterosexism and homophobia, becoming an activist for LGBTQ rights, as did the majority of the respondents.
Deciding to give an account of oneself and disclosing a non-heteronormative identity to others entailed for participants a set of different strategies that went beyond the visible/invisible dichotomy and included different ways and different meanings of both disclosing and concealing one’s identity to others. All of them had, at a certain moment in time, also used concealment strategies, even those who had been activists for longer and who consciously used their visibility as a political tool.
In my research, the degree of visibility proved to be particularly low for parents with a gay son. In fact, half of them did not want to talk about their sons’ sexual orientation with the older generation of grandparents mainly because they ‘did not want them to suffer’ and also because sometimes they simply considered it adequate to omit it. For example, Loredana, a 50-year-old mother with a gay son, commented: You know, why do I have to tell her? Sometimes I think: is it really important who my son sleeps with? (…) Because, I don’t know, I think I might disappoint them and maybe my parents, you know, already have other worries, and it seems to me that this is something that can be avoided.
The coming out with the family of origin emerged overall as an essential phase, intended more as part of a process rather than a circumscribed event. The majority of LGBQ interviewees came out to their parents only after completing their education, when they were economically independent and thus better equipped to deal with a potentially negative reaction. Federico, a gay man, said: I decided to come out to my parents, all together, even my brother, all together (..) and I decided to come out at that particular time because I knew I would have left my parent’s house and I would have come here to live on my own. Because (..) I was independent, I had found a job, I could say, “I can stand alone, I can walk with my own legs”.
One common element in both groups is the centrality of the concept of visibility, intended as both a coping strategy and a political tool. This is particularly evident for LGBQ people with children, who placed great importance on the impact that visibility could have on the well-being of their children. Coming out was considered a coping strategy to use as much as possible – the more one is visible, the better – in order to create a supportive environment for the baby to grow up in. The vast majority (18/20) of this sample were openly gay/lesbian in all their relational contexts; visibility is highlighted in the participants’ narratives as some kind of “golden rule” of same-sex parenting, perhaps also performed in order to compensate for the lack of social and legal recognition of their parenting. As Elisa, a 42 year old lesbian mother, puts it: And the first thing that a member of Famiglie Arcobaleno [LGBTQ support association] had told me over the phone was the importance of visibility, of how you present yourself. How your child lives in their home must be reflected by how they live outside the home, otherwise they would believe that there was something to hide.
This research suggests that non-heteronormative identities are constructed and managed within a plurality of pathways, through both words and silences performed at different times, in different ways and contexts. So, there is no single route to inhabiting identities that have been designated as ’other’. The meaning of sexual otherness varies among people and can change for the same person through time and space but in Italy it involves difficult choices and is a greater struggle for some than for others. The movement towards the creation of truly inclusive societies, where heterosexuality is no longer a natural and neutral category, is a goal that requires us in the interim to continue to advocate for equal rights to protect and enhance the well-being of non-heterosexual Italian LGBQ lives.
Bertone C., Franchi M. (2014), “Suffering as the Path to Acceptance: Parents of Gay and Lesbian Young People Negotiating Catholicism in Italy”, Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 10 (1/2), pp. 58-78.
Cardano, M. (2011), La Ricerca Qualitativa, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Istat (2012), La Popolazione Omosessuale nella Società Italiana, Report di ricerca.
Warner, M. (1991), “Introduction. Fear of a Queer Planet”, in Social Text, 29, pp. 3-17.
(1) The first subsample was composed of five lesbian women and five gay men without children, and the second subsample included four couples of women who had a child through reproductive technologies abroad, one couple of women who pursued self-insemination with a gay friend and, finally, five couples of men who went to the USA to have children through surrogacy.
Valeria Quaglia is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology and Methodologies In Social Research at the Universities of Turin and Milan. Her current research interests include Constructions of Masculinity, Sexuality, Queer Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Qualitative Research Methodologies.