The paradox of Italian masculinity

On your first visit to Italy, you might be forgiven for thinking, as a gay student of mine once did, that there are gay men everywhere in this country. They certainly display outward signs that could get them beat up if they found themselves in the wrong North American bar. 

Italian men have no qualms about wearing pants or suits that show how skinny they are in the name of fashion. They don't shy away from openly showing affection for each other, kissing each other on the cheeks, embracing warmly, calling each other 'bello', checking each other out on the street, wearing speedoes, or getting naked in a locker room together. They also weep without embarrassment and are unashamedly devoted to their mothers.

  This uncredited photo of carabinieri in Florence went viral last summer after Stefano Secchi posted it on Facebook.

This uncredited photo of carabinieri in Florence went viral last summer after Stefano Secchi posted it on Facebook.

When my gay bestie Craig comes for his now yearly visit to Florence, he loves going to the gym because of how comfortable all the men are walking around naked in the change room. In fact, he was really surprised to learn that Italians still have a problem with homophobia. 

 Italy: land of eye candy for gay men and straight women. 

Italy: land of eye candy for gay men and straight women. 

Many of them will tell you they don't, but as I found out writing this article for Maclean's not too long ago, people who are openly LGBT in Italy tell a different story. A lot of the discrimination they face is very subtle, insipid. A lot of "I don't care what you do in private, just don't shove it in my face". And Italian gay men follow these unspoken rules about their public conduct. The only men I have ever seen holding hands here are tourists. Except at Pride. 

Despite how it may appear from the outside, gender norms remain rigid here. As I've mentioned before, I run up against a ton of resistance encouraging my son to flout them. I may very well be the only mother in Italy who wishes her rough-and-tumble boy were more girly. It certainly feels that way sometimes.

Masculinity remains incredibly fragile in Italy. Which makes social media campaigns like #mascolinitafragile over at Abbatto i muri so refreshing for how it deconstructs and offers an antidote to the toxic heteronormative masculinity rampant in Italy, not to mention Trump's America. Shudder. 

On the other hand, I also see changes afoot, in the people around me, and society at large with steps like the legalization of gay marriage and the first Pride in Florence. So I'll keep focusing on that and what I can do to help those changes along. 

[Update: I've been told the carabiniere in the photo above actually goes to my gym! Oh the lucky gay boys in that change room :)]