Emilia hesitates. I've just asked her about the point when she stopped, as she puts it, "sweeping everything under the rug" and accepted that she was gay. This moment is one of profound significance for so many queer people. For Emilia, it is recent and raw, liberation bound in a sadness she has barely begun to process.
We're talking at the Catania offices of Italian LGBTQ+ advocacy group Arcigay. Its rainbow-painted shutters opened for the first time earlier this year to help coordinate local projects and be a welcoming space for members of the queer community. Emilia is only a couple of months into her internship here and hasn't yet found the right moment to share her story with her colleagues.
She turns to her fellow volunteer Damiano and tells him that she's ready.
Progress for LGBTQ+ in Sicily has been halting. Despite protecting workplace discrimination (not universal within Italy) and electing Italy's first openly gay regional president in 2012, the island is socially conservative and the influence of the Catholic Church remains strong, especially outside of the major centres of Palermo and Catania.
Recently, a new threat has emerged: the far-right government of Giorgia Meloni, emboldening anti-gay voices across the country. During my stay, Catania elects a mayor who described homosexuality as "a choice" during the campaign trail and who declined, when asked, to even aspire to a supportive environment for the queer community in his city.
Twenty-six-year-old volunteer Damiano has seen the impact of the new government's anti-immigrant agenda. Many of the special immigration offices, designed to offer support to migrants, have been closed, he tells me, leaving them in the hands of an overwhelmed "Family Department" that has neither the means nor the experience to cope.
LGBTQ+ migrants have been hit particularly hard. In May, the Italian government rushed through the controversial "Cutro decree," removing the provision for migrants who have been denied a private and family life in their home countries, a fundamental human right, from seeking protection on that basis. The decree also increases the maximum length of detention and restricts migrants' access to essential services such as legal advice. Part of Damiano's work now with Arcigay is to help coordinate this kind of assistance for LGBTQ+ migrants affected by these changes.
Damiano is soft-spoken and polite throughout our time together but can barely suppress his anger at the government and the consequences of its agenda. Even before Meloni's election, gay rights in Italy have been among the least favourable in Western Europe. Damiano and his fellow LGBTQ+ Italians are still waiting for fundamental freedoms taken for granted elsewhere in the continent, such as same-sex marriage and adoption. Meanwhile, gay parents whose names have both been registered on their children's birth certificates are slowly having this right taken away by government decree.
Damiano always knew he was gay. He describes coming out to a friend at the age of 10, who replied, confused, "Then why do you dress so badly?" We all laugh, but it's a little insight into the pervasiveness of old stereotypes.
He tells us about growing up in rural Sicily prior to his "escape" to Catania at the age of 19; the religious and societal pressure not just to fit in, but to conceal progressive views from polite society. He knows people supportive of liberal causes but afraid to express them openly. It's hardly a recipe for progress.
Emilia grew up seven thousand miles from here, in the Argentinian resort town of Mar del Plata. She has lived in Germany for the past eight years, but her wanderlust and curiosity led her here, to the island where her great grandfather was born. She likes it here, she tells me, chatting comfortably in her fourth language. Culturally, Sicily feels closer to home.
She tells us about finding herself in Germany: breaking free from her Catholic upbringing, forming her political convictions and growing in confidence. Then, the pandemic hit. In isolation, Emilia found herself confronting profound truths about her sexuality. The strain was considerable and the bonds holding her and her partner together began to fray irretrievably. Unmoored and destabilised, Emilia struggles to reconcile the pain of what she has lost with the joy of what she has gained.
"I don't know how to deal with it," she says simply.
Flying home to Argentina, a trip agonisingly delayed by the pandemic, Emilia prepared to talk to her close family about her sexuality for the first time. Anyone who has had to come out can relate to how she felt: the rising fear, the failed attempts to initiate the conversation upon which so much rests. Happily, it was not the shocking revelation that she had feared and despite some initial concern, she found love and support.
Without these conversations, Emilia wouldn't be here in Sicily, helping to improve the lives of other LGBTQ+ people. She describes her work with Arcigay as "compensating for lost time." She says it almost apologetically, as though she has let the community down for not coming out sooner. The three of us share stories of friends and partners who came out at different times in their lives and of the forces and pressures that made this process so much harder for them. I hope she realises that she doesn't owe anything to anyone.
I leave warmed by the connection I felt with these two strangers. It’s so often at places like Arcigay where these vital conversations take place, where queer people can find mutual understanding, support and allyship.
Here in Catania, it has sadly become necessary for such organisations to go further, even to step into roles the government has deserted in the service of the vulnerable people abandoned for political convenience. It’s a sign that should guard us against complacency, that even in Western Europe, LGBTQ+ rights are under threat, and progress made can be easily undone.
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