My favorite part of travelling is the serendipity with which people are brought into your life. I am staying in an Airbnb that is a room tucked away in a more private area of someone’s apartment. Due to a need for repairs in the room, I have been staying on a pull out bed in the tenant, Charles’s, living room for the past week. The first night in my new space he graciously invited me to stay for a small dinner party with his friends. Much to my happy surprise it ended up being a house filled with gay men from all over the world! We joked and chatted for hours over tacos and wine, noting cultural differences in acceptance of behavior and culture.
In the days leading up to this experience I had been doing research online to find gay venues that showcase drag performances and came up with next to N O T H I N G. At home in Philadelphia there are a variety of drag performances that are ongoing weekly. And when I have spoken to other students travelling here they have said that the gay club scene has been mainly dominated by cis-gendered men. It was not difficult for me to deduce that while Italy may have a thriving gay culture, it is still limited to sexuality, i.e. men seeking out only men. Forget the LGBTQIA– the acronym is really just “G” here. During the party I spoke mostly with my new friend Leopoldo, a young Italian engineering student about gay and queer culture in Italy. Leo confirmed my belief that Italy is still very stigmatized when it comes to trans and genderqueer individuals. He even noted that gay men who perform drag here are thought of as less desirable than gay men who act entirely masculine–so much so that when Leo became interested in drag and decided to try it out for himself, he stayed in his apartment and kept his creative expression to himself. Upon seeing the pictures of my new friend in his altered persona, I felt deeply moved. On the one hand, I felt very sad that something that is so praised in American pop culture had to be kept securely closeted here. On the other hand, I felt emboldened by my friend; how brave of him to pursue his interests purely for himself!
Why is Italy so far behind? For starters Italy, and Rome in particular, is the capital of the Catholic Church. While socially people are more relaxed about the age people are expected to lose their virginity and enjoying substances such as cigarettes and wine as day-to-day consumable items, they still cling to the idea that people should identify their gender with the sex they were assigned at birth, and that people who present as male should be with people who present as female and vice versa. While historically speaking it was common for men to have male lovers in Roman culture, it was never seen as a serious relationship. Men were never expected to marry each other; and beyond that, there is no mention of the desires of women or third gendered people. All of this is to say that even gay culture here is steeped with patriarchal norms. I have walked into gay bars and have been met by many pairs of men’s eyes, but I have not once seen a woman, trans or nonbinary person in one of those places. This begs the question– where are the people like me? Surely we exist in Rome because have always existed everywhere, even if quietly.
When I asked everyone at the dinner party if I had their consent to photograph them, several people asked me not to (note: everyone who I did end up photographing consented). They needed to remain anonymous for work and familial purposes. I believe that in Italy there are the gays who go out to enjoy themselves in bars, and then gays who must find community behind safely closed doors. Within that place a new kind of church is created. It is a communal space where everyone knows and trusts each other, and where people can come and cast off the fears of life to celebrate in a world that does not celebrate them. I feel honored to have been invited to this gathering, as it was also a balm to my heart. Finally I had found a place where I could tell people my real pronouns and share my experiences without fear of judgement. As a member of the LGBTQIA I believe that in a world that is constantly reminding us it is against our very identities, we must learn how make space for ourselves.