The Personal Is…Academic

“Sì alla cipolla, no al finocchio”: Forza Nuova protest against Gay Pride in Tropea. Il Dispaccio newspaper, Vibo Valentia, July 31, 2016. “Cipolla” in the poster refers to the cipolla rossa di Tropea, a popular local product.

[1] In her essay “Beginning with the Self to Critique the Social: Critical Researchers as Whole Beings,” Nancy Taber discusses the ways in which her research is not unattached from her professional and non-professional life: “My research is very much connected to who I am, not only as a scholar, but in other contexts of my life. In other words, I do not simply utilize theories, but I live them.”2

It is unequivocal that, in my own case, my histories and my identities inform the way in which I view the world and study it. Moreover, my studies have without a doubt shaped my identity and the way I live in the world. I continue to borrow Taber’s words in order to assert that “…in telling my story, I aim to demonstrate that I am not an objective, unbiased researcher who is disconnected from her focus of study, nor do I want to be. My personal history, experiences, and subjectivity strengthen my research; they do not detract from it.”3

The study of sexual diversity, activism, and cultural production has made me more conscious and critical of what happens around me, of dynamics of power imbalances and oppression, of the ways in which I benefit from systems of violence. If I have internalized so much of what I study in ways that have changed intimate aspects of my life, I would be remiss if I were not to acknowledge the ways in which my life has entered and has motivated my research. In this piece, I will discuss briefly the moments and aspects of my experience that have drawn me towards the exploration of subjects like diversity and queerness.

I was born in a small, truly breathtaking sea town called Tropea (or Trápeia, as the Greeks named it), in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. I moved to Toronto, whose toponym originates from the Mohawk word tkaronto, at the age of thirteen. My homeland has been the site of cultural and linguistic exchanges for millennia: many peoples have settled in Calabria, at times violently, and left a mark on its culture and languages. My ancestral language is not the officially imposed Florentine-based standard Italian, but is instead one that reflects the movement of those who have crossed and conquered the land where I was raised. My presence as a European settler on Turtle Island is also a direct result of a colonial violence that has awaited reparation for the last five centuries, and continues through the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from unceded territories.

The fact that I was raised in a bilingual (Italian/santonofrese) environment at the very tip of mainland Italy, on the open Tyrrhenian Sea, instilled in me a passion for language preservation and cultural diversity. The significant hardships and mass-emigration waves that my region has seen – and which involve my own family – have also made me sensitive to issues of mobility, movement, and transnational connections. On the other hand, the current influx of migrants, who are often met with hostility – when they are even permitted to alight on Italian soil – highlights the often ambiguous and contradictory nature of the history of my land and the behaviour of its people, my people.

These components of my personal history, along with struggles with my sexual identity, have shaped many of my academic and non-academic interests, and they have provided me with the sensibilities to relate to my objects of study. Furthermore, mobility and sexuality have much to do with one another: alienation, marginality, movement, fluidity, foreignness, unfitness – are some of the common experiences across the two categories. To varying degrees, these concepts have informed my personal experience and have motivated my endeavours to study language and culture. I have found that the interdisciplinary approach of Queer Studies effectively welcomes themes of sexual and geographical/cultural mobility, and combinations thereof, into its framework and provides effective tools to discuss them.

When I returned to Calabria, as I often do, in the summer of 2016, I found out that it would be the first time an LGBTQ+ Pride celebration would take place in my home provincia of Vibo Valentia. When I discovered that Tropea had been chosen as the epicentre of these events, I was most pleasantly surprised. I was also afraid, because I am aware of what it means to be a non-heterosexual person in rural Southern Italy: a place where homophobia is socially and institutionally sanctioned, yet where vestiges of a hybrid Mediterranean-Roman bisexuality still make themselves felt through occasional offers, among boys, to masturbate together in empty soccer fields, young or older men walking arm in arm, affectionately sitting on one another at the local Catholic oratorio, and quite often touching one another sensually or even simulating coitus (“ma si ttu mentu jeu non su rikkjuni!” is an exact quote from memory)4. Reflecting these very dichotomies, the Calabria Pride celebrations in Tropea took place successfully, but not without the more or less threatening disruption of individuals and groups such as the extremist organization Forza Nuova, whose posters were featured in the image above.

Most importantly, these posters are legal and were left to hang on the walls of Tropea for many days. Italian law does not protect sexual minorities from hate speech: the anti-discrimination Legge Mancino (Mancino Law) does not include sexual orientation in its list, while Article 3 of the Italian Constitution offers only partial protection under the category of “condizioni personali e sociali” (personal and social conditions), leaving discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity up to case law – and to religion.

The example of violence during Calabria Pride 2016 is one that in many ways exemplifies the current state of the rights of sexual minorities in Italy, who still do not enjoy legal benefits similar to those of other South-Western European nations. The unsettling and hurtful experience of seeing Tropea’s posters, like many other episodes throughout the lives of queer Italians today, forces us to look back at the past and ask: what has gone wrong? Most importantly, it makes us wonder whether or not the integrationist and institutionalizing approach of the strand of the gay movement that outlived the revolutionary 1970s and the global AIDS epidemic is all we should settle for. Or do we once again need the revolutionary power to ask for radical change rather than tolerance?

Because our violence towards one another and towards the planet has put us well on our way to mass extinction, revolutionary thinking and action are needed now more than ever. We need effervescent visionaries who point to the possibility of new ways of life, as the incomparable Mario Mieli did: Vedo un futuro oltre la Visione per questo mondo votato alla distruzione ambientale per troppa ricerca di denaro”;5 a future attainable only if “l’umanità decide di non seguire più la strada della distruzione e dell’odio, bensì quella della creazione e dell’amore.6 The totalizing role of love, which includes the complete liberation of eroticism, is a crucial step in the achievement of a more sustainable way of life, often referred to by Mieli as l’armonia.

Thus, my research is born out of the desire to bring important revolutionary voices back to the foreground of critical theory and to centre sexuality, eroticism, and gender fluidity as instruments of revolution, community-building, and human emancipation. It is born out of the need to draw strength from those who believed it was possible to find completely new ways of being in the world, now that we can scientifically prove that ours is not viable.

Paolo Frascà (he/they/lui) was born in Calabria and moved to Tkaronto (Toronto) as a teenager. He teaches in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is affiliated with the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and he runs various initiatives at the Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian-Canadian Studies.

The Personal Is…Academic appears in Here and Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing, edited by Licia Canton (Longbridge Books 2021).

[1] Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal is Political.” Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. New York: Radical Feminism, 1970.
[2] Taber, Nancy. “Beginning with the Self to Critique the Social: Critical Researchers as Whole Beings.” In An Ethnography of Global Landscapes and Corridors. Ed. Loshini Naidoo. Rijeka and Shanghai: InTech, 2012: p. 73.
[3] Ibid., 75.
[4] “If I’m the one fucking you [giving, not receiving], I’m not a faggot!”
[5] “I see a future beyond the Vision for this world otherwise headed for environmental destruction due to the excessive desire for wealth.” (Transl. mine) Mieli, Mario. Oro, eros, e Armonia. Eds. Gianpaolo Silvestri and Antonio Veneziani. Rome: Fabio Croce Editore, 2002, p. 65.
[6] “If humanity decides to no longer follow the road of hatred and destruction and instead the way of creation and love.” (Transl. mine) Ibid., p. 17.

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