The main opposition contender to replace Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy is coming under increasingly nasty attacks — because he is gay.
Nichi Vendola is the openly gay 51-year-old president of the poor region of Puglia in Italy’s ‘boot heel.’ And he is a phenomenon.
He’s learned from Barack Obama’s campaign — the Italian press has baptized him the “Italian Obama” — using an Internet network called “Nichi’s Factories” (fabbriche di Nichi) largely made up of people new to politics, especially young people and exiles from the traditional left. Nationwide polls show Vendola winning over either of the other expected candidates, Pierluigi Bersani, Secretary of the Democratic Party, and Berlusconi.
Two recent attacks give a taste of what will become a deluge of homophobia in Italy, possibly as soon as next May if elections are brought forward as many expect they will be.
“As a Catholic, I believe that homosexuality is a grave sin practiced and unnatural, certainly worse than that of going with the opposite sex. In light of the facts Vendola sins more than Berlusconi.”
Berlusconi’s ratings have hit rock-bottom after countless sex scandals, one including under-age prostitutes.
“I’m gay, but I’m not a pig.”
Berlusconi himself is well known for comments such as this one from last year:
“It’s better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay.”
Rome blogger Judy Harris translates this to:
“You may like Vendola, but he’s gay and I’m a real man.”
Berlusconi, who has prevented every single bit of gay rights legislation, from anti-discrimination measures to civil unions, is a pro at using homophobia as a political weapon — even against the Catholic Church.
Doug Ireland reported last year that when a Catholic daily newspaper, Avvenire, began criticizing Berlusconi after the exposure of his flings with $3,000-a-night hookers and starlets three years ago, Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, published charges that Avvenire’s editor was a closeted homosexual who had harassed the wife of his gay lover. The allegations turned out to be pure invention, but by then the editor had resigned.
Vendola is a self-described gay Catholic communist. His election — and re-election last year — in conservative Puglia as regional president shocked Italy. He is the leader of a new national party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, or Left Ecology Liberty), and in Puglia has adopted a policy of “small is beautiful,” successfully encouraging the intensive development of small-scale agriculture and a network of small and medium-sized factories, particularly in textiles, clothing, footwear and food products.
He is, says Ireland, almost the direct opposite of the vulgar Berlusconi.
A charismatic speaker and published poet, he says things like:
“We must teach our youth the meaning of beauty!”
“Be realist, demand the impossible!”
Or he tells his audiences that:
“The word ‘left’ means home of rights, which means turning the lights on the corners of social pain, which is to speak of the invisible, of so many people bewildered and lost!”
Directly challenging homophobes on an election platform, he said:
Do you really believe that happiness is only heterosexual? Do you really think a gay cannot be happy? No, it is not, it cannot be that way. What makes you miserable are hypocrisy, secrecy, fear of being what you are. Declaring who you are may be painful, even bring exclusion, even bring violence, but I’ve never been afraid to be who I am. And if there’s a thought that gives me more anxiety than that, it is to imagine living a lie. This is misery! Just this.
His campaign will be built on the ‘fabbriche di Nichi’ phenomenon of grassroots organizing, which involves activists in practical projects such as generating environmental action and campaign ideas.
The factories, built by volunteers, are examples of participatory democracy and political reform. They’re not just simple electoral committees but a different sort of space, active and creative. Ideas, propositions, actions of all kind are born there and then distributed in every region, via Internet and by the grassroots actions and projects on the ground.
If Italy does, as expected, turf out Berlusconi, electing Vendola may, says Curzio Maltese, a columnist for La Repubblica, bring “a sense of liberation — the idea of having a declared homosexual as prime minister!”
Photo credit: ScorciDemocratici Torino2010