Being a queer student studying in Rome doesn’t usually feel all that different from being queer in Philadelphia. I’m a girl and usually straight-passing at a glance, at least until I open my mouth. There’s the same dangers here as in Philadelphia, but they’re more abstract for me here. I’m not walking holding hands with anyone, I don’t anticipate having slurs yelled at me on the streets, and Rome is a major European city, right? It’s so beautiful here I can’t imagine anything bad happening. As long as I’m careful, I won’t be subjected to any incidents to really be concerned about, right?
But then, just like in Philadelphia, something happens that jars you right out of your bubble of security and reminds you that while you may be confident and proud of your sexuality, the world isn’t quite there yet. Walking through Rome on my way back from class, I spotted this billboard campaign for the first time.
The text there reads “I am with Putin” and the ads are explicitly anti-gay messages being put out by the Italian political party Fronte Nazionale, a far-right party that has said these posters stand in support of Putin’s rejection of war in the Middle East and “because he is fighting the gay lobbies.” Seeing them for the first time was incredibly jarring. “Io sto con Putin” is just ambiguous enough that I doubted my original instinctive assessment that it was about Russia’s recent extreme crackdown on homosexuality and the controversy around it. I thought I was just being hypersensitive, but a quick Google search confirmed my assumptions.
We don’t get ad campaigns like this in America. Not that we’re a homophobia free utopia, because we certainly have our fair share of idiot politicians and political parties demonizing queer people, blaming weather disasters on them and the like. But the idea that any Republican politican would voluntarily support Putin, the leader of Russia and the ‘biggest threat to the United States’ is laughable. We’ll talk in circles agreeing with him but trying hard not to outright endorse him.
I knew Italy had some seriously concerning attitudes about homosexuality before I came here. I knew that while I most likely would not experience any actual danger or conflict while I was here, I would probably experience some of that prejudice first hand. Still it feels like I was blindsided. I was made complacent by the beauty of the city, by the extreme helpfulness of the Roman people, and by the exciting novelty of the country. It now feels like I’m awake. Rome is a beautiful, magical city, but it is not perfect. It can be damaging, however subtly.
The posters have mostly been taken down, since they did not have approval from the city for placement. But I still remember the shocked incredulity I felt seeing them, and its not something I’m going to forget any time soon. My rose colored glasses are gone. But it’s not all bad, one set of posters I saw was defaced with graffiti, with “guillotine” and “assassine” written across Putin’s face. Politics are complicated here, just like they are in America. Not everything is black and white, and Italy is no different. I’m more determined than ever to find and experience queer spaces in Italy and learn more about the Italian queer experience!