Sparandola Grossa: Never Send a Gay Boy to Do the Work of a Gay Man

The Bilerico Project (www.bilerico.com), where I was once considered a “Contributor” but have since been demoted to “Friend” for daring to make precisely the criticism I’m about to expand upon here, recently published an article by columnist Steve Ralls entitled “Italians Do It Better.”

Ralls’ topic–to the extent that he has one beyond the heady joy of being given permission to publish on topics he knows nothing about–is the Regione di Toscana’s “L’Orientamento Sessuale Non è Una Scelta” campaign (“Sexual Orientation Is Not A Choice”).

Ralls’ article and subsequent commentary all focus on the issues that the public-education campaign intended to bring to the fore: the “naturalness” of homosex, questions about biological imperatives vs. behavioral choice (which is one of the dogs that the Church of Papa Ratz most favors in this race), and the fear that lurks in the hearts of even “liberal” individuals that their child might turn out to be queer.

Naturally, I feel chiamato in causa by the whole affair. Indeed, if you put together Italy, homosex, and the opportunity to critique shoddy writing, you’ve pretty much got me at “hello.”

You may have to read Ralls’ article to understand exactly what it is I’m on about, but the piece is pretty short. In fact, it’ll take you about as long to read it as it took him to write it, or maybe a minute more.

When I published “Biological Research on Homosexuality: Ansell’s Cow or Occam’s Razor” in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1984, I actually thought the human sciences had pretty much come to the end of their infatuation with biological theories of homosexuality. Of course, that was before Simon LeVay and the theory of the tiny hypothalami. In other words, it’s a topic that just won’t die. Especially among lay people whose reading on the topic is limited to that highly regarded medical journal, People Magazine.

With respect to the nature/nurture controversy that Ralls attempts to evoke, then, with the “Non è Una Scelta” campaign as his trampoline, I’ll say this: Whether queers are made or born is an “angels on the head of a pin” argument that has virtually nothing to do with the way people actually live their lives.

More importantly, it has no impact on theology, though most often lately it is in religious debates that the topic is raised: if it were proven tomorrow that sexual orientation is 100% genetic or, conversely, that it is 100% created by “environment,” those who seek religious justification for discrimination would be content in either case. If we’re born, we simply have to live celibate lives. If we’re made, we can be unmade. In either case, they’ve got their bases covered. It is intellectual folly to think that the “average bigot” cares one way or another (or that his or her opinions would be significantly influenced by “science”), and it’s a strategic mistake to focus major attention on this question when there is no evidence that large-scale efforts to discriminate are or would be attenuated by “proof” of a sole and exclusive biological cause for sexual orientation.

But what I really want to comment on is Steve Ralls’ journalist style (let’s call it a style), which could stand a bit of reflection. I realize that if Jack McFarland had a blog (and he would), his writing might sound about like Ralls’, though I’m not sure it’s a journalistic standard anyone should aspire to.

But poor Italy, that so many people who know it so little feel entitled to pronounce on its nature, on its culture, on its political situation, on its social realities. And poor anyone who wants to try to understand something about this country, because you have to wade through a hundred books and articles breathless with ten-cent philosophy and tourist epiphanies to find one that contains useful information. Having lived in Italy for more than two years, all I can say for sure is that the longer I’m here, the less certain I am about what Italy “is” or how it works.

The only other thing I’m sure of is that one of the tortures of living in the United States was encountering “Italo-philes,” those always-smiling, always sure-of-themselves, always expert individuals who love to eat in Italian restaurants so they can wink knowingly and allow as how in Italy they would “never” eat something like that; who once sampled good coffee at a café in Rome and so now know that in Italy ‘they’ make the best coffee in the world; who correct your pronunciation of “bruschetta” or who insist on saying, when they’re speaking English, “Milano” or “Roma” instead of Milan and Rome; who once saw a group of wealthy and well-dressed Italians and now insist that Italians have the best fashion sense of anyone; who love to hear themselves utter sentences that begin “The Italians are….”

That’s where we get headlines like “Italians Do It Better,” which is the kind of thing I’d expect to see on a T-shirt on the Jersey shore and not above an article that purports to talk seriously about anti-discrimination efforts in Italy.

There are a couple of things that Ralls missed, but which might be important to know about Tuscany’s Sexual Orientation Is Not A Choice campaign. First and foremost: the idea isn’t Italian at all. Rather, the concept, along with the graphic of the newborn wearing a hospital ID bracelet, was created in CANADA by a group called Emergence and was used in a public-education campaign in Quebec in the Spring of 2007. The Tuscany Region copied the campaign wholesale (with the permission and participation of Emergence). So, I dunno … maybe “CANADIANS DO IT BETTER”?

(It took me, by the way, no more than a few minutes of web-searching to unearth the information above, so it’s not like Ralls couldn’t have found it, too.)

In addition, it may be true that “thousands” of copies of the poster were printed as Ralls writes, but the majority of them were evidently displayed, sold, or given away at the Festival della Creatività, a convention dedicated to the graphic and visual arts that was held in Florence in October, where the campaign debuted. (You can download a copy of the Regione’s brochure, “L’Orientamento Sessuale Non è Una Scelta” here.)

Certainly the posters are available from the Region of Tuscany for display in public places, but so far as I’ve been able to determine (and someone may correct me), there has been no regional, governmental effort to distribute “thousands” of the posters or to display them across Tuscany.

To assert, then, as Ralls does, that “posters will begin appearing around the city. Walls, offices and other public spaces around the largely Catholic area will unabashedly promote a uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality” is uninformed, inaccurate, and just slightly hysterical. (What “city” first of all? Tuscany is a region, not a city.) Moreover, I’m not sure what that “uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality is,” but here Ralls is either in the thrall of some semi-pornographic “Italian stallion” fantasy (“biology-centric excess is, in my experience, exactly what the Italians do best!” Ralls shrills) or has been brainwashed by the racist mythology of the savage, primitive Italian.

Or he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ralls, in short, is in no position to write objectively about Italy or about the social reality of living or being queer here (in any case, he doesn’t write about it; his source is evidently an October 25, 2007 MSN wire-service report which, at least, provides some information about the extremely mixed reaction that the campaign has provoked in Italy; if Ralls read Italian, he might have spent some time scanning online message boards such as the one sponsored by ARCI-Firenze, where 57% of Italian queer respondents approve of the campaign but 43% don’t—not precisely a mandate).

What’s worse is that Ralls apparently doesn’t even possess the instinct to ask himself whether what he says about Italy is accurate or whether it is colored by the racist stereotypes and the Hollywood imagery that he apparently imbibed with his pabulum. And it’s precisely that lack of instinct—speaking of characteristics that it would be useful to be born with—that makes what he writes superficial.

All of that aside, the most galling aspect of Ralls’ article is that he attempts to argue that this small gesture (for that is what it is) on the part of the Regione di Toscana is proof that Italy—the entire country and its entire social and political structure—is somehow far ahead of the United States on some measure of social acceptance or political equity.

Would that it were so. But let’s think about it in demographic terms. The population of Tuscany is around 3.6 million, or almost exactly equal to Los Angeles (though the population density of Los Angeles is FIFTY-TWO times greater than that of Tuscany!). Are we prepared to say, then, that a pro-gay education campaign undertaken in Los Angeles or an anti-discrimination law enacted in that city is an indication that the ENTIRE UNITED STATES is pro-gay, either as a question of government policy or social condition? I think we’d consider such an assertion absurd.

When it comes to Italy, it’s no less absurd. What reigns in Italy with respect to homosexuality is prime-time television where fag jokes get a guaranteed laugh and drag queens provide piquant commentary, but where recurring gay characters are few and far between (last May, one of the most beloved Italian series, Un Medico in Famiglia [A Doctor in the Family] gave its long-running gay character, Oscar, a partner; although the relationship is born in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment of exaggerated blandness, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, nonetheless ferociously accused the show’s lead actor, who has appeared in other gay-themed films, of “irresponsibly” promoting homosexuality). What reigns is homophobic bullying in schools on an alarming national level—and parents who militantly defend their children when school officials try to discipline them for such bullying. What reigns are murders committed to avenge being called queer, and newspaper commentators who defend such murders as justified.

What reigns are right-wing politicians who refer to “asshole bandits; who, like the mayor of Trieste, Giancarlo Gentilini, call for “ethnic cleansing” of “faggots”, or who, like Alessandra Mussolini, make headlines with such quips as “better a fascist than a fag.” What reigns is a Catholic hierarchy that cannot shut up about homosexuality and about the threat it represents to the Italian family—and which never misses an occasion to renew such pronouncements. What reigns is a “center-left” government that briefly floated the idea of joining the majority of the countries in the European Union in recognizing “de facto” couples, got its hand firmly and repeatedly slapped by the Church and the right wing, and retreated into an utter and contrite silence on the topic.

What reigns is a level of queer political clout so inconsequential that even in Milan, Italy’s second largest and, arguably, most “queer-friendly” metropolis, the mayor refuses to allow the city to sponsor the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Festival Internazionale di Cinema GayLesbico e Queer Culture), held each summer since 1986. What reigns is a country with very, very few gay bars that aren’t directed primarily at tourists and a tiny, scattered handful of LGBT centers that are often disorganized, understaffed, and in fundamental disagreement with one another about national or grassroots strategies, a level of day-to-day “street” visibility that approaches zero, and a widespread belief, among LGBT persons themselves, that coming out is unnecessary because homosexuality should remain private. What reigns is an enormous amount of silence.

That is the “uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality.” And you’re welcome to it.

I take issue with Steve Ralls for what strikes me as a trivial article about Italy, but the larger problem of which he is merely a symptom is much more preoccupying. The expansion of web “journalism,” including sites like Bilerico, encourages writing in which facts are not checked (indeed, not even spelling and grammar are checked—witness Ralls’ “it’s” and “babys”) and in which the difference between “my personal take” and “objective news” is dangerously blurred. That is especially true when the topic concerns information that readers may not be readily able to check or experience for themselves (because of geographic distance or language barriers, for example).

As writers and journalists—but primarily as human beings and citizens—perhaps one of our principal duties is to discipline ourselves against … I’m just going to say it … stupidity. Writing requires especial rigor because assertions committed to “paper” organically conjure up their opposites, and because the meta-context of writing for publication (even web publication) demands the definition of terms and the clarification of premises.

When Ralls writes, then, that “the most well-respected scientific groups agree that sexual orientation is not a choice” or that “science … long ago concluded that sexual orientation is innate,” we need to “unpack” the premises; we deserve to know how he knows what he professes to know.

Who are these “well-respected scientific groups” and who, other than Ralls, respects them? And what does “scientific” mean? Psychology is only arguably a science in the sense that neurobiology is a science; even if we consider psychology a full-fledged scientific discipline, however, the members of the American Psychological Association are hardly in a position to comment authoritatively on biology (in fact, they speak of what they “consider” to be true, not what psychology “proves” to be true). The Palo Alto Medical Foundation, meanwhile, is only arguably a “well-respected scientific group.” Further, Ralls indicates that “most” such groups agree—indeed that “science” itself agrees—but these are the only two examples he cites. Has there been some national or international survey of “respected scientific groups” regarding their positions on the matter? Was there some publication or convention in which all of “science” spoke with one voice on the topic of the development of sexual orientation?

If there was, I must have been absent that day.

I go to such lengths here because the way Ralls writes is, unfortunately, the way a lot of people think—it’s slippery, it’s superficial, it leaps to unwarranted conclusions, it rejects a priori what is inconvenient to the argument, and it elides the vast continent that lies between “may be” and “is.”

If it is true, as Ralls writes, that “innate” is the term with which the “LGBT community increasingly defines itself”—leaving aside the vexed question of what the “LGBT community” is, how Ralls knows how “it” defines itself, or the fact that I don’t define myself this way—perhaps the only thing such an assertion demonstrates is that it has become politically expedient (and socially trendy) to view gender- and sexual-orientation related questions as “innate.” (The approach isn’t new; Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs came up with the same argument in the 1860s to defend those arrested for homosexual sex—if they were “inborn” homosexuals, they couldn’t help themselves and deserved leniency.)

More to the point, the problem is that members of the “LGBT community” are no more intelligent than anyone else, are no more rigorous in their thinking than anyone else, and are certainly no less hypnotized and lobotomized than anyone else by the mass media. Indeed, to the extent that we rely mainly or solely on advocacy media for our information, we actually risk being LESS well informed regarding the wider contexts or the opposing points of view that surround issues of concern to us. “Italians Do It Better” is a case in point.

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Posted on 17 November 2007, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Queer ... Plus All Those Acronyms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. >I know you know already, but thanks. A lot.

  2. >Sono d’accordo al 1000%.

  3. >Thanks for a very good post. “As writers and journalists—but primarily as human beings and citizens—perhaps one of our principal duties is to discipline ourselves against … I’m just going to say it … stupidity.” Absolutely dead on correct. Thanks.

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