Sunday, June 09, 2002

...But the sky gets bluer and bluer

In the one sunny day of this wretched end of the spring in the North-East, Padua stopped to let the Gay Pride Parade go by, and rushed up to look, with an uncertain smirk, and occasionally cheer.

Two years ago I had been to the 2000 parade, pointedly re-named "World Pride", and stubbornly held in Rome during the Jubilee on the face of ever-increasing shrilly advice to cease and desist from the Church and from the usual faction of Italian politics that thinks it's much better not to annoy the Church. Among this faction was, painfully, numbered the then Mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, who rather fancies himself a left-wing man and later tried to head the Center-Left coalition. He announced that he would support the parade but, when things got going and the Church started moaning aloud, retracted and abjured. He lost the election, can you believe it?

Padua's parade was loudly protested as well, but curiously enough not by the local Church, which kept a low-profile and even made cautious opening moves, demonstrating a refreshing tolerant attitude. No, in this case it was the, well, the fascists who protested.

I cycled by them on my way to the rendezvous point with the rest of my Amnesty group, that took part in the parade (torn between embarrassment and genuine emotion). I would have liked to take a photograph but cowardly decided that there was no point in being provocative at this point.

It was three pm and they had a huge stage put up on the major Paduan square, Prato della Valle, in front of Santa Giustina and not far from the Santo - the Cathedral of Saint Anthony - holy of holies and important tourist, er, pilgrimage spot, laying in wait (the Santo, not the fascists) for the great celebrations for St. Anthony's day the next week. Padua's Town Hall, who discovered at the last moment that they couldn't give the public space of the municipal building to the Pride organizers to host conferences, because said spaces were suddenly found out to need air conditioning installed immediately, the same administration that is bothered by bars placing chairs and tables not of the Approved Model on the streets and squares, apparently had no qualms about conceding a very important spot to New Froce, uhm, sorry, Force, the fascists.

Now we have post-fascists and unrepentant though getting on the old side fascists, but these are the real thing - or so they obviously believe. They had red, white and black banners which stopped one segment on this side of being swastikas. They had powerful PAs the blared heavy-metal music about WAR (which the song seemed to consider with a lot of satisfaction as an experience in itself). The stage was plastered with the same posters they had put up here and there on Padua's walls (very quickly torn down by unknown but obviously almost unanimous hands): the photograph of a very tall and powerful black man kissing a slighter and shorter white man with spiked hair, and the caption NO TO GAY PRIDE, and, smaller: No to peadopornography - Italy needs children, not homosexuals. They had announced that they were going to stop the parade "with their bodies" which caused a lot of surely intended mirth all around.

They have contributed crucially to electing our current mayor. No, I'm not kidding you: their leader conducted a rabid campaign in favour of the current mayor, who ended up winning by a margin of about a thousand votes - more or less the votes the FN can swing.

Now there was a lot of unhappiness about FN demonstrating against the Pride on the same day and hour as the parade, and being so obviously favoured by the city administration. So much so that a faction of the demonstrators, roughly the anti-globals, announced that they were going to try to stop the FN's demonstration. The Pride organizers begged them not to do it, and at the last moment, after a lot of bold announcement to the contrary, they let themselves be convinced. This was a last moment decision though, so Padua was attended by a thick contingent of policepersons and carabinieri in riot gear. Going from Prato della Valle and the FN's sparsely attended fortress up towards the concentration point for the Parade I kept seeing cars and jeeps and vans (some of them protected by steel grids) and buses filled with grim-looking policepersons, some of them bedecked with padded armour. When I arrived at the concentration point, there was a human wall of police with plastic shield on either side of the streets.

I felt sorry for them, scary as they looked. I didn't know about the anti-fascists no-globals last-minute decision not to seek battle after all, at that point, and I felt a tiny bit like going up to them and wishing them good luck. I don't wish being beaten up on anybody, and I didn't think - no, really - that if the antifascists wanted to walk up to the fascists and try to stop them from holding their own parade they deserved all they got. Still, both demonstrating groups sounded like they really were looking forward to beating each other up, while the police looked like they really could do without it. So I felt sorry even if I was acutely conscious that if things went bad, I could well end up on the wrong side of those shields and batons.

They looked on with unreadable expressions. When, later on, I managed to get a snapshop of a clutch of them flanking (and protecting) the parade, the photograph turned out to show stony, perplexed, and bored expressions, and a smirk that might have been mocking or might have been delighted. According to reliable sources inside the gay community, a lot of them could well have marched, after all.

Around seven pm, when the parade was over and we had set up our table in the square where the organizers were giving inaudible speeches (because we had ended up near a group of drummers), my partner phoned all worried because he said he'd heard of disorders on the news. I reassured him and told him that they didn't reach us, but today on the papers no mention was made of any kind of disorders, so it might have been a case of expected news not materializing in reality. At that point, the square was encircled by another solid wall of plastic-shield bearing police or carabinieri, but the shields were firmly pointed _outside_, and when I tried crossing the line I was stopped with firm and utter politeness and re-routed toward another entrance.

At the end of it all Alessandro Zan, chief organizer of the event and shy engineering student , thanked the police, "those that never get thanked," he said," and that on this day have protected and made possible a democratic demonstration", and went on to pointedly compare the Quaestor's (the town police chief) behaviour to the Mayor's. Everybody clapped. The police and carabinieri kept looking on in professional neutrality.

But let's tell this in some kind of order - I got to the large avenue were the parade was forming up and didn't locate the Amnesty people for a while. Instead, I saw the atheists, the GGIL - the largest, oldest, toughest Italian union, proving the "order service", that is the security - the Sinistra Giovanile with its red flags and people donning T-shirts with a red rectangle and "Another World is Possible - Genova 2001 - I was there", and the Radicals (who are, because Italy is a curious country, in gross approximation on the right), and of course, the GLBT. Some of them colourfully provocative, most of them very, very normal despite their best intentions. Especially the women, because, as the local paper uncharitably notices "the appearance of gay women is the height of reserve and measure". And one Filipino in traditional costume, feathers and all, smashingly beautiful and very happy to be photographed. (And some hetero infiltates, of course.)

They look so normal that one of my fellow standard-bearer looked at me and told me: "I think most people here are hetero". This was when we noticed that the whole of the big avenue running from the station to the city centre was packed with people - 20,000, Padua hadn't seen so many people on the street since the Alpine Corps held their annual meeting her. I shrugged and told him: "No they aren't. At best 40% are hetero. The fact is, there are lots of people you wouldn't spot, were it not for the fact that they're holding hands with some other guy or girl."

Our group secretary - who is a high-school teacher - kept being approached by students and ex-students, obviously very happy to see him there - and to let him know that they were. I wonder if it has dawned on him yet why they were there. At one point he turned and told us: "You know, the people looking on think we're all of us gay." A shameful shade of disquiet went through the Amnesty people - not one gay among them that I know of. But they kept marching. One guy came up to ask us if we were Amnesty's gay group. I don't know what Paolo told them - on the other hand, one middle-aged woman asked us, while we were waiting to set off, if she could march with us. "My heart is wholly with them," she said, looking around alarmingly, "but, well, I'm not gay."

The strange thing is that when I went in the Rome parade, my chief worry was to be sussed out as hetero. "If it's the Gay Pride," I wailed to one of my many gay friends that didn't go but were happy I went, "what's the point of _me_ going? I can't very well pretend I'm proud to be gay, can I? I'd be usurping somebody else's moment in the spotlight." My friend wouldn't offer such an easy way out. "They asked for the hetero to come and march together," he pointed out. Yes they did. All the same, I cut my hair very short and dressed in, er, a measured way then. My gay friends laughed themselves silly.

I didn't try to pass for a lesbian this time, and much of the point of the parade was that you couldn't tell, and that, as one billboard held by three women (parents, I think) proclaimed, "We are all different." And that nobody was alone, it wasn't an Us and Them issue, it was a matter of who was willing to fight for somebody else's rights and who wanted to deny them, or forget about them - and in Padua, the first were being cheered on and applauded by the onlookers, the second was proudly marching not a kilometre away with Roman salutes and Italian flags with the face of Mussolini stencilled on... all six hundred of them, apparently a huge turnout and deemed a wonderful success by their leadership. And the third... it was staying away, for all sorts of reasons, some of them not despicable.

All the same, as a collective coming out it is becoming less obvious, unless one wants to dress up in leathers or don a blue wig. And some, understandingly, don't. For now, they solve the problem by wearing T-shirts that say "Nobody knows I'm GAY", or, rather more subtly, COCK (with the Coke logo).

In Garibaldi Square, where the parade turned right to go towards Insurrection Square, right under the column that was built to house the statue of Garibaldi but that has a Madonna on it now (the good Catholics city fathers having removed the Garibaldi statue to a less central location about a century ago), two police vans with steel grilles were parked in a strategic spot with policeman poking up from the van roof. One of them was looking on, the other had a digital videocamera and was filming us. Official or personal curiosity I don't know. I smiled and waved. The streets were packed at that point with curious but smiling people. Some applauded. Some, from the safety of high-up windows, shouted insults. Most didn't - after all, if they were serious about the insults they'd have been with the fascists.

We arrived at the Insurrection Square, set up our table and started inviting people to sign for gay rights in far corners of the world. People drifted off. Drummers started to drum and dance. We bought beers. I bought a nice Gay Pride t-shirt for a friend who hadn't been able to come. The memory card of my digital camera had long been filled up and I stored it with some regret. Another one of us had been going up and down, drunk on the joy of the photographer with lots of things to shot at, and was in her third roll the last time I saw her. The mayor, despite reportedly very touched by a meeting with the Parents of Gay Sons and Daughters, didn't consent to come down.

And that was it: nobody got beaten up, to the possible disappointment of a lot of people, nobody had a fit, the local bishop didn't report of being offended or hurt (thus gaining a lot of points on the Pope in my book), and people in general proved a lot less troubled by faggots at their most provocative than their government is.

A lot of the people interviewed by the local paper said that the great and terrible moment of coming out - "I'm gay!" was met with polite disinterest - "Well, yes, good. So what?" among their friends. No tragedies, no rejection - society at large is generally much farther that it looks like.

While I was walking away one truck was blaring out the same music it had been sounding at the beginning of the parade - Rino Gaetano. Rino Gaetano was ironic, sardonic, elegant and capable of levity and tenderness, and a particular brand of nonsense humour. He performed in jeans and top hat. He sang in happy rhyming nonsense about no-nonsense women who did not seek a Pygmalion and tried to save their salary from inflation and couldn't wait for a new world to start, a world made up of sex. He died very young more than twenty years ago but every time I hear his songs he seems gone just yesterday, and much missed. Ironic, cheerful, devoid of carelessness, aware, and refreshingly free from cloying sentimentality. He was the southern Italian spirit at its best, shred of its rethoric, with all of its heart and mind intact. People were dancing. I was walked away by the sound of his most political song, a long cheerful listing of disgraces and miseries. Those who eat once a day. Those who have short memories. Those who sweat, those who fight, those who eat once a day, those who live in a shed, those who live alone, those who live with little, those who play with fire, those who live for love, those who die on the workplace... and the triumphant refrain, to which the people were furiously dancing, goes: And the sky gets bluer and bluer.

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