What’s Causing the Current Wave of Transphobic Panic in Italy?

On May 16, 2021, the popular Italian weekly L’Espresso (think of Time Magazine with a pinch of Vanity Fair) published the illustration of a transgender man against a compact bright red wall, chest exposed and a protruding belly with the sentence “La Diversità è Ricchezza” (Diversity is a resource) written on it. The person’s pose is relaxed, but not casual. Head turned slightly, the figure looks out in a content expression that cannot be fully grasped since the upper part of the face awaits delineation. The cover marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), established in 2004 on May 17th, the day the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.

This year the celebration was especially meaningful in Italy for it fell in the midst of a heated controversy surrounding a checkered anti-discrimination bill. Rainbow Europe ranks Italy 35th among European countries for LGBTQ+ legislation. This bill, known as the Zan Bill by the name of the Democratic Party senator and main petitioner Alessandro Zan, seeks to integrate an existing law and extend protection to women, LBGTQ+ and people with disabilities from discrimination based on gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, ableism (think of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act). The House approved the Zan Bill in October 2020, but it has since languished at the Senate due to the vigorous filibuster of right-wing congressmen whose influence over the frail coalition of Prime Minister Mario Draghi has grown dramatically. Despite considerable pressure from the media and large demonstrations across the country, pro and against, no date has yet been set for the final vote. Inevitably, responses to the cover intersected with reactions against the bill, generating a venomous climate that has little parallel in Italy’s history of civil rights policymaking.

Poster for the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (courtesy Non Una di Meno)

The author of the illustration is Josephine Yole Signorelli or FumettiBrutti. Among the most promising graphic novelists in Italy today, FumettiBrutti has between 2018 and 2021 published three long stories and countless stand-alone illustrations that capture a disaffected youth experimenting with new modes of connecting with themselves, one another, and the world. Her figures inhabit cluttered interiors where they withdraw from various forms of everyday violence perpetuated by lovers, fathers, or those closest to them. Her graphic language is stark, her narrative elliptical, her stance is intimate but not complacent. Inspiration came from an episode that occurred when FumettiBrutti was a teenager: In 2008 Thomas Beatie documented his pregnancy in famous snapshots that circulated far and wide, stirred their own dose of controversy, and eventually offered, in the words of Jack Halberstam, a comforting iconography of “queer pregnancy,” the power of which persists today.

FumettiBrutti also alludes to a string of glossy photos of pregnant celebrities, from Demi Moore to Serena Williams, that had raised eyebrows in Italy and elsewhere. Where the “elegance” of these sitters cut short accusations of desacralizing motherhood and objectifying the female body, no redemption for FumettiBrutti’s figure is in store. “Freak,” “chimera,” “abomination” are among the measured words one finds online describing this “inconceivable” character of “a dystopian fiction that does not reflect the hopes and desires of anyone.” Right-wing politicians coined the grammatical monstrosity of “uomo incinto,” untranslatable to English and unrepeatable in any language. Fishing from that bottomless reservoir of metaphorical coloring that is Italian soccer, some spoke of a “spectacular own-goal” for LGBTQ+. Others blamed the illustration as illustration, arguing that it did not fully convey the “horror” of what lies behind it.

FumettiBrutti has stated that she “did not want to send a message, but represent a person, a member of my community” — words that enraged her critics even more. Indeed, her process of morphing the photograph into the drawing, her prudent weighing of what to omit and include (look at the scrupulous spacing of body hair or the delineation of the nipples in approximate but distinct shapes) form a protective shield against the crude immediacy of the photographic record, exempting the figure from the voyeuristic craze that consumed Beattie.

The Zan Bill has come under intense crossfire. Conservative religious groups deployed the usual mantras in defense of the “traditional,” or “natural,” family. “Will I be able to keep saying that a child needs a father and mother?” pondered a local lawmaker. The object of contention is what they describe as “gender theory,” an amalgam of half-baked notions about gender expression and sexual orientation that the leader of a major right-wing party admits to not understanding but knows has to be crushed nevertheless. “Facebook lists 56 genders,” proclaimed another spokesperson in a recent talk show, “How could not this confuse our children about themselves?” To which the astute anchorman rebutted, “Does teaching math confuse our children about numbers?” The dismayed guest was referring to another crucial point, the bill’s implementation of educational programs about inclusivity that would decelerate the spike of episodes of bullying and macro- and micro-aggressions in Italian schools. Sister Anna Monia Alfieri, a fixture in talk shows, sees this as a form of indoctrination into a “pensiero unico” (a single way of thinking) about sexuality and identity that not only goes against the teaching of Catholic doctrine, but would also lead to a flood of transitions.

Demonstration in support of the Zan Bill, Rome (May 15, 2021) (courtesy Simone Barbieri, staff of Senator Monica Cirinnà)

Obviously, by no mean does the bill curtail freedom of expression, which is protected by Article 21 of the Italian Constitution, but it will allow judges to use discriminating language or actions as aggravating factors in prosecutions. Brandishing flags lumping together sodomy, abortion, and “gender theory,” conservative groups have taken over the streets wearing gags to denounce the liberticide bill. The official position of the Catholic Church is, however, not as monolithic as these activists wish for: Several priests have expressed personal support; the influential Italian Episcopalian Conference has not shunned the law, but proposed to collaborate with the Parliament for a new document.

No less adversarial has been the reaction from the left, particularly among those feminists who condemn the notion of gender identity as part of a broader critique of “transhumanism” (gender in Italy is understood only as gender fluidity or being transgender). Marina Terragni, a journalist and champion of RadFem Italia, has labeled the bill a “Trojan Horse for LGBTQ+ rights,” and FumettiBrutti’s illustration as the perfect manifesto of its real agenda, the approval of practices of self-identification (not mentioned in the bill) and the liberalization of surrogacy (known in these circles as “utero in affitto,” uterus for rent), currently forbidden by the Italian law. This nefarious coupling of same-sex parenting and surrogacy, which has nothing to do with FumettiBrutti’s story, has become somewhat a cliché in the debate, even if the bill does not address it in any form.

Followers have cluttered website pages with comments like “horrific,” “a fantasy out of Mengele’s mind,” and other slurs that are of measure with their non-negotiable stance. Slogans like “Keep Italy Gender Identity Free” bounce all over social media, alongside the story of a Canadian man fined for refusing hormonal treatment for his daughter, reports of a student being investigated for asserting that only women have vaginas, and so on. Favored sources include neo-con websites like The Post Millenial or The Federalist, or newspapers like The Daily Mail or The Times, hastily translated with minimal, if any, cross-checking. Monica Ricci Sargentini, journalist and collaborator of Amnesty International, while reposting FumettiBrutti’s illustration, asked “whether this is the form of diversity we want.” “The cover is an insult to women and motherhood,” because “I will share a secret: we are all born from a woman.”

As striking case of ideological short-circuiting, posts by radical feminists have reappeared on conservative pages in the name of what the political scientist Massimo Prearo has described as a “shared vision of society grounded on 19th-century notions of biology sold for progressive thinking and repackaged as a form of feminism compatible with Catholicism, wrapped in a thin layer of fake news and bordered by tiny but effective doses of transphobia.” RadFem announced that they will join Christian associations, pro-life, and ex-gays in the Senate’s hearings, to rewrite an anti-discrimination law born out of discrimination.

On May 15, D: La Repubblica delle Donne, a somewhat prim but influential insert to La Repubblica, Italy’s second largest newspaper, published the exposé, “Journey to the End of Gender,” the word “gender” kept in English. The authors explain that “transgender ideology emerged in the 1990s thanks to the work of postmodern philosopher Judith Butler” and that “For promoters of gender identity how one feels inside is more important than the physical reality of a body. I feel hence I am.” They then enlist an impressive sequence of inaccuracies (meticulously dissected by the brilliant activist Yàdad de Guerre), to conclude that “from Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out to Elliot Page’s, liberal media celebrate trans identity as a brave and progressive act.”

Laboratorio Smaschieramenti, “Transfeminist Slut Walk,” Bologna (June 4, 2021) (image courtesy Laboratorio Smaschieramenti) 

The central essay, “The Girls who feel like Boys” (italics in the original), probes whether “gender dysphoria is the new anorexia.” If the number of young women “fleeing the feminine like a house on fire” is spiking, the reason must be the popularity of FtM Youtubers and TikTokers offering DIY solutions to gender-questioning youth. The authors then show that this “contagion hypothesisfeeds the multi-million “lucrative business” of transitioning and the “mushrooming” of gender-reaffirming clinics across the United States (about 1000 according to their source, Alix Aharon’s The GenderMapper).  

And though “Among some social classes and in schools, being transgender is now something special and cool,” the testimony of teenage de-transitioners is a reminder of the risk run by those who subjugate “perfectly functioning and healthy bodies” to medical treatment and surgical procedures akin to “mutilation and sterilization.” Abigail Shrier’s recent inquiry into Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), a study elsewhere described as “grotesque” and unrecognized by the scientific community, serves as blueprint for this self-confident account of a notoriously  challenging field of inquiry. Inconclusive as the evidence is, the target of this “collective hallucination” is clear: the erasure of the female body. Quoting Terragni, authors contend that, “If MtF cancel the [female] body by taking over the place of women, FtM cancel it upon themselves.” Expressions like “transgender lobby,” “ex-girls,” or inferences that “a fully transgendered identity does not exist,” led some of the consulted specialists to distance themselves from the report.

What does all this have to do with the bill? Even this quick overview reveals that the debate has often veered from the tone appropriate for tackling such complex issues. In Italy, (almost) everything degenerates into a soccer game: You stand on one side, or on the other. The activism of collectives like Non Una di Meno and Laboratorio Smaschieramenti, or interventions by authoritative feminist thinker Lea Melandri, jurist Tamar Pitch, or linguist Vera Gheno have been marginalized by the universalizing claims of some organizations, sharpening the ideological and generational divide between feminism and transfeminism. Within the LGBTQ+ community, positions also differ. Some gay activists and Arcilesbica, the national lesbian network, have forewarned about the “anthropological confusion” that the concept “gender” would generate.

Laboratorio Smaschieramenti, “Transfeminist Slut Walk,” Bologna (June 4, 2021) (image courtesy Laboratorio Smaschieramenti)

A war on data, often poorly cobbled together, disinformation, and personal attacks have distracted from the effect that this inadequate bill would have on a society engulfed in rampant bias-motivated violence. At times, the debate has degenerated into a competition of who owns the key to oppression, bypassing the simple fact that anyone fighting patriarchy (the sole “pensiero unico”) is automatically a subaltern, no matter what their actual demographics are. Plans to create a common platform and strategy have dispersed (mainly due to the ostracism of those who have historically excluded others and now deplore their refusal to cooperate). One could say that the bill has had the positive effect of reigniting a conversation that had been stagnant for decades, and of promoting the work of educator Antonia Monopoli, or of philosopher Giorgia Serughetti and literary historian Alessandro Giammei, who are among the contributors of a special issue of the progressive newspaper Domani on LGBTQ+ culture, befittingly titled “The Right to Be Themselves.”

Yet, the real lesson here has to do with reactions to FumettiBrutti’s illustration. The drawing reclaims a moment in recent history and makes it relevant to an audience that has predominantly never heard of it. One might criticize FumettiBrutti for embracing an icon of queerness that, with its emphasis on motherhood, reinscribes it into a comforting narrative of familial order. The self-evident, one might say literalist, qualities of the illustration are especially effective in this context because they dredge up something so pervasive to remain unmentioned: Homophobia and transphobia seep deep into Italian society, especially among those who present themselves as progressive and forward-thinking. Indeed, in the eyes of its critics, left and right, this image is nobody’s history. It is a figment of a distorted imagination or the premonition of an ominous future that will descend on us once these “chimeras” are let free.

These persons, their bodies and worlds, are already here, and have been here for some time. The visibility of FumettiBrutti’s figure is truly unprecedented in Italian visual culture, but is made possible by the trials of tenacious activists who 50 years later still await their due. FumettiBrutti’s candid statement provokes audiences to stop imagining or conjecturing, and deal with what is already here. This is a “member of my community,” and her community is contiguous if not convergent with ours. Marguerite Duras once said that oblivion begins with the eyes, eyes the figure in the illustration does not yet have. But we do, and now, more than ever, it is time to look at who is around us.

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