Stay Woke, Roberto Saviano: Gay and Brave Are No Contradiction in Terms
I have enormous respect for Roberto Saviano, the Italian writer and journalist, author of the best-selling exposé of the Italian Camorra, Gomorrah (which became a 2008 film of the same name), and tireless enemy of the mafia and of government corruption. For his trouble, Saviano, whom Umberto Eco called a “national hero,” has lived under permanent police escort for a decade.
In his recent Facebook post regarding the murder of Giulio Regeni in Cairo, Egypt, however, Saviano puts his foot firmly into his own mouth and makes a move that he ought to have had the sense to realize was both embarrassing and offensive.
Regeni, as many readers will know, was a 28-year-old Italian student pursuing a PhD in Cambridge, England. He had been working and writing in Cairo, from which he disappeared on 25 January. His corpse was found on a desert road nine days later.
Saviano’s Facebook comment and my translation follow.
Giulio Regeni è morto per aver scritto. È morto (è stato sequestrato e torturato) in circostanze che si fanno sempre meno chiare. Su Giulio si è provato a fare ciò che accade sempre: dopo la morte la diffamazione. Hanno lasciato intendere che fosse gay e che il delitto avesse un movente sessuale. Nulla di tutto questo. Condivido qui l’articolo di Silvia Savi, anticipato in parte oggi dal Messaggero Veneto, che scrive: “Nemmeno l’assassinio della giornalista del Corriere della Sera Maria Grazia Cutuli, uccisa in Afghanistan nel 2001, o l’esecuzione nel 2004 in Iraq del reporter Enzo Baldoni o della guardia privata Fabrizio Quattrocchi sono state spinte verso il silenzio in così pochi giorni.” Giulio ha pagato, per aver raccontato, il prezzo più alto. Che la terra ti sia lieve.
Giulio Regeni died for what he wrote. He died (he’d been kidnapped and tortured) under circumstances that become less clear with each passing day. Yet there have been attempts to do to Giulio what is always done: After death comes defamation. They’ve hinted that he was gay and that the crime was sexually motivated. But none of that is the case. I’m sharing here Silvia Savi’s article from the Messaggero Veneto, which appears in preview today. She writes, “Neither the assassination of Corriere della Sera journalist, Maria Grazia Cutuli, in Afghanistan in 2001, nor the execution in Iraq in 2004 of reporter Enzo Baldoni [kidnapped and killed by a Muslim fundamentalist organization allegedly linked with Al-Qaeda], nor the death of [Italian Security officer], Fabrizio Quattrocchi [taken hostage by Islamist militants in Iraq and killed by them in 2004], was pushed toward silence in so few days.” For telling what he saw, Giulio paid the highest price. Sit tibi terra levis (may the earth rest upon him lightly).
First, saying that Regeni might have been gay and that he might have been targeted in part for that reason is not defamation. Saying that someone is or might be gay is not calumny unless you believe being gay is shameful.
In fact, anyone with the slightest degree of sensitivity to the reality of homophobic violence in the world would immediately have asked the same thing, after reading reports that Regeni’s corpse was found nude from the waist down. Was someone sending a message? Was Regeni gay?
Saviano asserts that “they” (who “they” is remains unclear) are attempting to smear Regeni by implying that the crime was sexually motivated.
Even supposing Regeni was murdered solely for being gay, which I do not actually presume (and, in fact, I have read no such claim anywhere), in what way is that a smear? Even to go so far as to suggest that he was out cruising and got killed by someone who hated queers constitutes no effort to besmirch him—unless one already believes that the sex lives of gay men are despicable.
If Saviano were as progressive as he says he is, he’d have understood that the exposition of a nude or partially nude corpse is common when gay and trans people are murdered. He’d also have understood that being murdered because of “sexual motives” is no less a crime, is no less horrendous, and demands no less outraged a response. “They” may be attempting to imply that being tortured and murdered while looking for sex is “asking for it,” but I feel confident in asserting that few gay people thought anything of the kind.
What is most galling is Saviano’s attempt to place two potential interpretations into opposition with one another: the assertion that Regeni was killed because he was gay and the assertion that he was killed because he was a journalist and truth-teller, that he was murdered “for what he wrote.”
In fact, no one yet knows why Regeni was killed, and Saviano’s attempt to fold the young man into the ranks of martyrs for the cause of journalist freedom—which is, after all, Saviano’s cause—is premature, as are most beatifications.
Yes, numerous reports have suggested that Regeni was killed by Egyptian police for his anti-Egyptian-government journalism. The Guardian, for example, reported on 4 February 2016 that Regeni had written about Egyptian labor unions for Il Manifesto, an Italian communist newspaper, going into further detail in its 8 February story, “Thousands of Academics Demand Inquiry into Cairo Death of Giulio Regeni.”
Regeni’s criticisms of “authoritarianism and repression” in Egypt and of the El-Sisi government appeared in Italy under a pseudonym, according to The Guardian, “because [Regeni] was allegedly concerned for his safety.” The International Business Times reported on 12 February that Regeni had ties to “independent trade union and local dissidents.”
No one need deny those ties, however, and no one need deny that Regeni’s journalism threatened the El-Sisi regime’s stranglehold on democracy, in order to wonder whether Regeni might also have chosen as an easy target precisely because he was—or might be seen to be—gay.
Fascist and totalitarian regimes have long recognized the utility of gay victims because they know how easily crimes can be hidden behind public homophobia. It’s easy to kill a queer, who also happens to be an “inconvenient” person, because there are always those who will believe that queerness mitigates the crime.
Saviano, unfortunately, does the same thing. He implies that Regeni’s possible gayness mitigates his bravery as a journalist or his political commitment as a leftist. He accepts the argument that we should not say (or ask) whether Regeni was targeted for being gay (or ALSO for being gay)—“none of that is the case,” Saviano asserts, with absolutely no proof—because that would compromise his utility as a sacrifice to the cause of silenced journalists.
That kind of malevolence, of ignorance, is to be expected from El-Sisi’s security forces (which have lied from the beginning about the circumstances of Regeni’s death). Roberto Saviano ought to know better.
I don’t know why Regeni was killed, but neither does Saviano. I don’t know whether he was gay, but neither does Saviano.
In the end, I have the same information he has. All I want is for Saviano to stop implying that being gay and telling the truth about “what one sees” are a contradiction in terms.