La TV italiana mette i gay in prima linea


Italian TV puts gays front and center

By Elisabetta Povoledo – International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

MILAN – Ever since the conservative politician Rocco Buttiglione denounced homosexuality as a sin, Ital’s gays have been having a field day.

It may be coincidence, but state and private networks have suddenly begun broadcasting programs featuring gay leads. In recent weeks, an Italian version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" went on the air; the popular American program features five gay men who "make over" a straight man, from his looks, to his clothes, to his apartment, to what he eats. A television miniseries about a tough cop accepting his gay son got a 30 percent audience share last month. Gay commentators abound on talk shows.

Corriere della Ser’s weekly magazine splashed the phenomenon on a recent cover, asking: "Being homosexual is trendy. Too much so?" And Prima, a media magazine, editorialized last month: "Oscar Wilde defined homosexuality as’the love that dare not speak its name’ It would seem that now we do’t know how to make it shut up."

The attention has drawn mixed reactions from Ital’s gay community, pleased that issues that affect them are being addressed in the mainstream but worried that some forums – especially lighter television fare – are dragging down the level of the debate.

"I think the fact of calling things by their name, of being openly gay, is positive," said Massimo Consoli, one of the pillars of the national gay rights movement. There was a time not long ago, he recalled, when the word "homosexual" was not allowed in polite conversation.

But Daniele Scalise, who writes a column about gay issues in the newspaper Foglio, fretted that television was trivializing serious sociopolitical questions. "I’s disturbing that Italian gays are being transformed into performing monkeys, clowns, jesters for the amusement of the straight public, without there being any recognition of our basic rights," he said from his home in Rome.

Italian gays, he said, still face discrimination regarding same-sex marriage and the right to adopt children or to conceive them through artificial insemination. "It means ther’s a problem."

For the most part, gay culture has simmered silently in Italy. Laws were never passed against homosexuality, even during Fascism. "Mussolini said there was no need for laws because there were no gays," Scalise said. "Hypocrisy safeguarded us."

Today, however, gay issues have become a lightning rod for many in Italian society, where Catholic tradition has been overlaid by the demands of new generations for sexual liberation.

Buttiglione, who talked himself out of the post of European Union justice commissioner last autumn with his remarks on homosexuality, continues to insist that he is the victim of a lobby that wants to push gay issues to the top of the EU agenda.

The Buttiglione debacle sparked a certain amount of anti-gay solidarity. At the time, Mirko Tremaglia, minister for Italians abroad, made headlines when he used a derogatory term for homosexuals to say that the European Union was being run by gays.

Buttiglione, who is now Ital’s minister for European affairs, does not seem prepared to let the polemic die. Last month he accused Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, of being a "pedophile"

and hounding him out of the commission, the Italian press reported. Speaking at a conference on the EU constitution in Florence last month, Buttiglione, a staunch Catholic, decried the existence of "strong lobbies" that wanted to "impose gay marriages and privileged policies for homosexual minorities on the European and national parliaments," news reports said.

Many gay activists charge that the Vatican has effectively managed to block all legislation that would allow them to further their legal rights. Just last month Pope John Paul II condemned gay marriage, warning that the family was "threatened by social and cultural pressures that tend to undermine its stability."

"W’re at the heart of Catholic culture, of the double standard of’You do it but you just do’t talk about it,&quot’ said Nichi Vendola, a hard-line communist, gay activist and practicing Catholic who last month surprisingly won a center-left primary to challenge the center-right incumbent in elections in Puglia in April. Vendola is convinced that he won the primaries because he is gay.

Franco Grillini

Franco Grillini

"Ther’s always been the resistance of the Vatican hierarchy," said Franco Grillini, a member of Parliament with the Democrats of the Left, the largest opposition party. The party has been battling to pass a bill that would recognize gay couples, along the guidelines of the Civil Solidarity Pact that was passed in France in 1999. At the same time, Grillini said in a telephone interview, "conflict with the Vatican has given these issues greater visibility."

Ditto for gays on television. Grillini believes their presence has skyrocketed because media executives discovered that gays "pull in an audience."

Marcello Veneziani, a conservative commentator who is on the board of RAI state television, disagrees. "I’s part of the code of the politically correct, imposing itself on society," he said of the gay television phenomenon. "And anyone who complains is thought of as barbarian or uncivil."

One media personality to attract attention has been Platinette, an outrageously camp drag queen whose disarmingly good-humored demeanor has made her a beloved television icon.

"In television today, the more flavors the better the audience mix," Mauro Coruzzi, the man who dons outré wigs to become Platinette, said in a phone interview.

But he cautioned that the growing gay contingent on television did not signal epochal change. That would happen, he said, "only when I can work as an anchor on major broadcast news. Then w’ll have a social revolution."