Something about this topic makes it impossible to discuss…

If you’re sick to death of Povia, “Luca Era Gay,” and reconstituted homosexuals, believe me: I’m with you. The good news is that this is my last post on Povia. The less good news is that it’s going to be a long one.

And that’s because most of what’s being said about Povia, about his song, and about the responses and the re-re-re-sponses thereto is utter bloody nonsense. The kind of utter bloody nonsense that leaves you with the desire to execute your television and unlearn how to read. The kind of utter bloody nonsense that makes you think you must be from another planet, because the people around you are clearly not of your species.

The kind of utter bloody nonsense that, if there were alarms that went off when the level of bullshit reached dangerous levels, the way they do for smog in Beijing, the sirens would have been wailing for days.

Unfortunately, there’s still no face mask to protect you from stupidity. Or from homophobia.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s get right to it. If you’re not up to speed (lucky you), you might want to review your CliffsNotes: Behind This Darkness, Nothing (Part 1): Out & In with Roberto Bolle; Luca Era Gay – Luca Once Was Gay – Povia; and Asking People at the Stadium Whether They Think Soccer is Boring – Povia on Homosex.

“(‘Luca era gay’) isn’t making any kind of general comment—it’s just one person’s story.” (Massimiliano Varrese, the actor who will play “Luca” in the video version of Povia’s song.)

Now, let’s be clear: Massimiliano Varrese is serious eye candy. A comment like that, however, merely demonstrates why “B” actors should keep their mouths shut when it comes to social issues they don’t understand.

Each year, a wide variety of songs are presented at the now fifty-nine-year-old Sanremo Festival of Italian Song. Some are meant to be funny, some are meant to make you dance, and some (most of them) rely on good, old-fashioned cheap sentiment (such as the one that more-or-less launched Povia’s career in 2005, “Quando i bambini fanno ‘Ooh!’” [“When Children Say “Ooh!”], an inoffensive puff piece about how adorable kids are).

Every year, however, performers also bring “social issue” songs to Sanremo—such as this year’s “can’t we all just get along” plea for racial harmony, “L’Opportunità,” performed by singer/songwriters Pupo, Paolo Belli, and Youssou N’dour (“Welcome my unknown friend … let’s experience our differences as an opportunity”); or Fabrizio Moro’s 2007 “youth division” winner at Sanremo, “Pensa,” a song that encouraged resistance to the mafia.

Such songs aren’t presented simply because they intend to “tell an individual story” that “can’t be generalized”; they’re there to make a point regarding specific social phenomena (in fact, “L’Opportunità” comes at a time when Italy is enacting some of the most draconian anti-immigrant measures since Fascism).

“Luca Era Gay” is exactly that kind of song. To insist otherwise is so intellectually impoverished and so willfully ignorant that one can only be astonished by the gallons of gall it takes to do so.

If Povia had had the courage to tell interviewers that he intended to use his time at Sanremo to issue a warning about the danger that homosexuality poses for society and the family, you could have an ounce of respect for him. It’s a benighted position, but at least it’s honest.

Instead, he chose to hide behind the cowardly and moronic cover story of wanting to relate what a stranger “happened” to tell him one day on a train. I don’t know why Povia isn’t writhing in embarrassment, but one gets the sense that shame is not an emotion he’s familiar with.

Speaking of cover stories: Massimiliano Varrese wants to make clear that he’s not at all worried that people will think he’s gay, just because he’s playing Luca in the video. “The paparazzi have photographed me so many times with girls that I don’t think my sexual identity is in any doubt,” he told the internet publication, “Sorrisi e Canzoni TV.”

I don’t even need to say it, right?

Which brings us to the corollary: “It’s just a song. I don’t understand why it’s so controversial.”

If you don’t understand why the song is so controversial, or why so many people consider it damaging and insulting, then sit down and shut up. You don’t have anything intelligent to say on the subject.

It’s fine with me if people like the song or don’t consider its impact as perfidious as I do. But someone who says “I don’t understand,” is either brain-injured or means something else. Something else like: “I don’t actually care.” “I consider the issue trivial.” “I can’t be bothered to empathize.”

I repeat. Love the song if you like. But please don’t say you “don’t understand” why it’s controversial. If you don’t, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, not proud of your indomitable and independent spirit.

The point here (and those of you who already have a keen grasp of the obvious can skip ahead) is context. And context, as we know, is everything.

Italy is a country where national politicians regularly bandy about words like “butt fucker” and “faggot.” Where the Minister of Equal Opportunities insists that “the question of equality in the matter of same-sex unions is a false problem.” Where parents stab or beat their gay or lesbian children and then defend themselves saying it was a matter of “family honor.” Where the mayor of Milan, Italy’s most international city, refuses to allow the city to sponsor the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and where the mayor of Rome refuses to allow the city to sponsor any of the events associated with the annual Gay Pride celebration, one of the largest in Europe. Where there are virtually no gay characters on television; where you can count the number of openly gay public figures on the fingers of about one-and-a-half hands. Where the Pope refuses to support a UN declaration in support of the decriminalization of homosexuality (because he doesn’t want to discriminate against those countries where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death) and, generally speaking, can’t stop raving about homosexuality.

In other words, a country in which public discourse around homosexuality has a certain, let’s call it, slant. And where the counter-response to all of the above is, almost always, silence.

(Sure, people of good conscience are horrified and ashamed. But I’m referring to a proportionate response, literally “equi-valent,” in analogous if not identical venues and with the same number of kilowatts.)

And then someone appears on a nationally televised program watched by one Italian in four, and sings a song in which homosexual relationships are depicted as sordid and criminal, the result of trauma and family misery, and in which heterosexuality provides the escape from that misery and the resolution of that trauma.

And then he sings it again every night for three more nights, and in the meantime he gives interviews to journalists in which he continues to expand on his view that “telling a story about a person who managed to get out of homosexuality” offers a “message of hope.” (Ah, a message of hope? But didn’t he say the song had no message—that it was just “one person’s story”?)

As a response to which, various hugely disorganized gay-rights organizations in Italy snark among themselves, give confusing and conflicting interviews to the media, and seem, with few exceptions, petulant, irrational, and cowed.

Let me make it personal: This weekend, my partner is home visiting his family. On Friday night, like a significant chunk of Italian families, they gathered around the TV to watch Sanremo. And he wound up sitting there, listening to “Luca Era Gay,” next to his mother, who believes that what the song says is true—not true about “Luca,” but true in general. She believes that my partner’s relationship with me results from emotional confusion and represents a psychological difficulty of some sort. She believes he could be heterosexual if he’d only “give a girl a chance.” (And, by the way, doesn’t he want to call his ex-girlfriend this weekend while he’s home?) She believed it anyway, but now she’s seen a nice young man sing about it at the Sanremo Festival and she thinks, “It’s not just my opinion—it’s the validated truth.”

That’s the context in which “Luca Era Gay” appears. In which a mother who receives almost literally no positive information about homosexuality from television and newspapers is suddenly exposed, via the most mainstream and impeccable of sources, to Povia’s “message of hope.”

Now. Does anyone still not understand why the song is controversial?

Or what would happen if we shifted the context slightly? In recent weeks, Rome (and, to an extent, all of Italy) has been reeling after a series of particularly hideous rapes in and around the city. So let’s suppose Povia had decided to take a song to Sanremo that dealt with rape. A song told from the point of view of Lucia (let’s call her), who realizes, after she’s raped, that it really was all her fault: She used to go out by herself to after-hours nightclubs, she hung around with disreputable guys, she wore skimpy skirts and revealing T-shirts, she drank and took drugs. After the rape, though, she turned over a new leaf. She gave up all that rebellion in favor of nice, traditional family values. Now she’s married and happy. And it was all thanks to the rapist.

Women’s groups (and, I would hope, not solely women’s groups) would be in the streets demanding an apology and a retraction from the singer, the presenters of the Sanremo Festival, and the network. (And don’t fool yourself that a lot of Italians don’t believe that the women attacked in Rome had it coming.)

But wouldn’t that also just be one woman’s story? A personal story? Not something you could generalize?

Is there still anyone idiot enough to argue that Povia’s song isn’t delivering a message? Is there anyone still pinheaded enough to try to insist that “Luca Era Gay” appears in some sort of cultural vacuum?

Other than Povia himself, I mean?

Free speech.

The related attempt, meanwhile, to defend “Luca Era Gay” on the basis of “free speech” is one of the most cynical and manipulative tools of the pro-Povia propaganda machine.

In fact, essentially no one has ever actually suggested that Povia should have been censored or that he didn’t have the “right” to sing his song. Criticism of his (feeble) reasoning, of his homophobia, of the errors of fact in the song, of the timing of the performance, of the song’s message—those do not constitute censorship.

What people like Povia (who almost always seem to be right-wingers—sorry, but it’s true) always forget is that having the “right” to say what you like does not automatically confer upon you a privilege—that is, the privilege of 100% approbation.

The right to sing “Luca Era Gay” (if it is a right) doesn’t give Povia the right to be free from criticism. It doesn’t give him the right to go around whinging that the negative responses to his song are, in fact, an attack on the right itself and not on the content of the expression.

And it’s totally slimy to imply otherwise.

It’s worth remembering the analogy rendered famous by the U.S. Supreme Court in discussing this precise issue. Suppose you go into a crowded theatre and scream “Fire!” There isn’t one, but you do it anyway. As a result, people panic; injuries result. You were just expressing your sense of humor, you say; anyway, your speech is a protected right.

No, it isn’t, says the Court, which understands something about context. Because free speech, like all democratic rights, is a two-edge sword: it’s a right and an obligation at the same time. In other words, it’s never entirely free, if free means “without consequences.” The more unpopular the speech is, in fact, the more it costs. If your ass can’t cover the checks you write with your big, free mouth, then you’d better shut up.

And I’m just going to finish up by discussing two of the most loathsome lies perpetuated (and perpetrated) by “Luca Era Gay” and by the way the resulting controversy is being handled by the media in Italy.

“There were people who told me, ‘It’s natural,’ but I studied Freud and he didn’t see it that way.” (Povia, “Luca Era Gay”)

Well yes, actually, he did.

Freud (he’s the guy who floated the concept that all human beings were innately bisexual, remember?) believed homosexuality to be entirely natural. But let’s take a minute to examine the concept, because what becomes blatantly obvious is that what Christers like Povia mean by natural and what Freud meant by natural and what I mean by natural are not the same thing.

The problem nowadays is that all conversation regarding “nature” almost instantly runs aground on the “If God had meant for two men to be together, he’d have created Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve” argument.

That’s because there is simply no way to argue that homosexuality is not biologically, ecologically, elementally natural, not solely in humans but among many other animals. If you don’t like homosexuality, that’s a datum you’d rather ignore, so you skip over to theological or “moral” arguments regarding what is “natural,” which is what Povia does in his song: he’s not interested (he says out of one side of his mouth) in science or biology (except when it’s helpful to his argument to twist a more-or-less scientific interpretation, as he does with Freud); he’s talking about “God’s laws.”

And we can argue for approximately ever about what God considers natural and “correct” and no one can ever be fully right because God is inscrutable and that, Babies, explains in a nutshell a couple of thousand years of history in which human beings have tortured and slaughtered one another by the literal billions because God told them to.

If you’re Charles Manson and God tells you to, you’re a psychopathic murderer. If you’re the Pope and God tells you to, it’s the Holy Inquisition.

While I’m on the subject, here’s a question I’d like answered: If homosex is such a big, hairy deal and if even thinking about it means that you’re going Straight to Hell to be Tormented for All Eternity by Demons with Red-Hot Meat Rakes, how come the Ten Commandments doesn’t mention it? OK, maybe it was on that other tablet, the one Moses dropped. A whole tablet, written with God’s very own finger, in which he very clearly tells us not to touch each other there. Maybe.

Or what about Jesus? He had half the friggin’ Bible to work with, and He didn’t manage to say one single word about the most heinous and unnatural sin known to humankind? I know he was distracted, what with the Sadducees, and the walking on water, and the wandering, but that’s more than just forgetfulness, I’d say. I hope God gave him a good talking to later when the two of them had a chance to sit down with the H.S for the big “assuming-human-form-and-establishing-a-new-religion” wrap-up session.

Of course, one might also point in passing out that God must have created Adam and Steve—because where else did they come from? I mean, was homosexuality imported from some other planet? Except God created the planets, too, right? Anyway, I digress.

The fact that Adam and Steve didn’t make it into the Bible is hardly their fault. Blame it on heterosexist scribes. In any case, since Adam and Steve have been around just slightly less time than Adam and Eve, they’re about as natural as they could possibly be.

In the end, what people like Povia mean by “natural” is that homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. And there I’m 100% in agreement.

For those interested, by the way, I came across a remarkable manuscript image of the letter Freud wrote in 1935 to an American mother worried that her son was gay.

In it, Freud summed up what a career in psychoanalysis had taught him:

Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness…. By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it…. What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed….

Povia considers himself an expert on Freud, but apparently he missed this letter.

Too bad for Luca that he met Povia on the train and not Freud.

“Born Gay”

~~ Povia: “No one is born gay. You become gay because of who you spend time with, what you’re taught as a child.” ~~ Iva Zanicchi (2009 Sanremo contestant and member of the European Parliament): “If you’re born homosexual—it’s not an illness, it’s your condition—and you’re gay your whole life.”

God bless Iva Zanicchi for trying to help, but here’s one thing Povia and I agree on: I don’t believe anyone is born gay.

I also don’t believe anyone is born heterosexual.

What I believe is that we’re born with the capacity to have and to deploy a sexuality, that we are imbued with libidinal energy that can (in Freud’s poetic image) “fill up” or “occupy” objects—lots of them, and even different ones over time. Not unlike the way we’re born with the capacity for language, though whether we speak Mandarin or Xhosa or Russian is, so to say, an accident of upbringing. To that extent, I’m much more of a Freudian than Povia is.

But the fact of the matter is that no one knows—not me, not Povia, not the Pope, not Freud, not flotillas of endocrinologists and geneticists and pediatricians. And it doesn’t look we’re going to know any time soon.

So the really interesting question becomes: What does it matter? How are the various positions being used in the service of other agendas (political, cultural, artistic, religious)?

To date, it strikes me that entirely too much of the commentary regarding “Luca Era Gay” has been derailed in the polemic over the unanswerable and reductionist question, “born or not born?” Even the exceedingly strange Italian gay writer, Walter Siti, got into the fray when he issued a statement “defending Povia” on the grounds that it wasn’t correct to say that people couldn’t change their sexual orientation—indeed, Siti asserted, it happened all the time. “We always have the capacity to cross the borders (of heterosexuality and homosexuality), either from one direction or the other, according to our personal psychology. It depends on thousands of factors, including mere chance,” Siti wrote. (One might best understand Siti’s views on homosexuality by comparing him to the late, great Quentin Crisp, if you can imagine Crisp stripped of all discernible traces of irony.)

Luxuria, meanwhile, the former MP who continues to be the go-to gal for journalists who want a queer-positive quote, put it this way:

(“Luca Era Gay”) is a nice song about science-fiction, because it isn’t as though you’re gay one morning, and then you wake up the next day and you aren’t anymore…. I continue to be of the belief that a popular, nationally televised program (like Sanremo) can do a great deal of good or a great deal of harm. There’s no question that the text of a song that conveys the idea that homosexuality is a sort of burden that you need to liberate yourself from isn’t so great because a teenager seeing Sanremo could get the idea that homosexuality was something that needed to be cured. If, in the interests of providing equal air time, they had Al Bano sing a song about being cured of heterosexuality, I’d be in favor. But the real problem is that we need to be cured of repression, we need to be cured of prejudice. The Italian mentality is opening up slightly, but rather than making giant leaps forward, we’re taking tiny little Geisha steps.

In the end, one is left asking why Povia is banging this particular drum—or, to stay with Luxuria’s metaphor, why he has insisted on donning this particular kimono. But perhaps there’s a clue here: Almost four years ago, Povia gave an interview to the monthly magazine, Panorama, in which he said:

I had a gay phase, too. It was when I was 18 years old. It lasted seven months, and then I got over it. I even converted two of my friends who thought they were gay and now they’re married and they even have children.

In a later interview, he went even further: “My parents separated when I was little. I was left alone in an environment totally dominated by female figures. I played with dolls. Anybody who thinks you’re born gay is mistaken.”

So: Povia era gay or wasn’t he? Just as his song was about to debut at Sanremo in 2009, he issued a retraction: “I’ve never been gay,” he told the Italian weekly Oggi. “I told a reporter that story once, but really, I was talking a lot of nonsense in that interview.”

In fact, throughout the interview in question, Povia talks as though he’s high or drunk, offering up a series of hallucinogenic non sequiturs that clearly left the interviewer perplexed. But he says one little word at the beginning of the interview that I suspect explains this entire ruckus.

“Everybody thinks I’m a nice guy,” he said, “but really I’m trasgressivo.”

Now, “trasgressivo” is one of those overused Italian words that means everything from “I don’t always signal before I turn left” to “My sex life involves military uniforms and Cricetidae,” but it’s essentially similar to an equally overused English word: “nonconformist.”

Poor little Giuseppe. Artsy, bourgeois kid grows up in Milan, talented but maybe a bit of a sissy. Parents separated. Sister’s bulimic. Teaches himself to play the guitar and then lives the life of the singer-waiter, moving around Italy in search of restaurant jobs. Gets his first real break in 2005 when he’s already 33 but, between one thing and another, he’s not exactly zooming to the top of the charts with a bullet. When he isn’t invited to Sanremo in 2008, he launches a contentious campaign against that year’s musical director, accusing him of engaging in the “payola and political payback” that exclude small-record-label musicians from radio air time and from venues like Sanremo.

And through all of this, he really wants to be seen as trasgressivo.

Me, I’d have preferred it if he’d decided to use somebody else’s community as a marketing gimmick, but there you have it.

As of this writing, “Luca Era Gay” has less than 2% of the public vote on one internet poll site dedicated to predicting Sanremo winners, 10% on another and, on the perhaps-more-reliable Repubblica site, is tied for third place (with Patty Pravo) with 11% of the vote.

Half of me hopes Povia loses miserably, and half of me hopes he wins—just so we won’t have to endure weeks of hearing about how he was robbed and censored and silenced by the communists. But whatever happens, I couldn’t be happier that, come tomorrow morning, Sanremo will be over.

Povia era.


Posted on 20 February 2009, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Write ... che ti passa, You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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