When in Rome

12.11.2006

By Michael Joseph Gross

Under the crystal chandelier at Garbo, a faux-rustic bar in Rome's artsy Trastevere district, the hunky captains of Gruppo Pesce, Rome's gay swim club, sip cocktails of Martini & Rossi, Cointreau, and vodka with a gang of friends. They're sharp, attractive guys, happily vamping as they clink glasses: 'Cheers, dears, thank God we're queers!'
Just don't ask them to stay out past 2 a.m. Tomorrow is Sunday, and Sunday, for most of this crowd, is set aside for visiting mom'which no one seems to dread at all.
Lorenzo, a 45-year-old Jude Law type who works for the Italian government and is one of the few gay Romans I met who has actually come out to his mother, says, 'I want to listen again and again to her stories, and the things about the war. Because one day she will not be here more. Living in her world, it's not a waste of time.' The tone is hushed, heartfelt, moving, and a little weird.
The typical Italian man, gay or straight, doesn't move out of his parents' house until he's in his mid 30s. 'We call that 'Mamma Hotel,' ' says Massimiliano Canneto, a diminutive 34-year-old gay tour guide with a broad, round face like a fava bean. The rainbow-bedecked Web site of his business, Roma With Pride, proclaims, 'I am happily out,' though not, he confesses over dinner one night, to 'Mamma.' With a wave of his hand, he says, 'She is old and don't know about Internet.' Then he turns serious: Although he's pretty sure his mother knows he's gay, he can't tell her because 'it could kill her, I think. Broken heart. I don't think that she could take it.'

Another day, at lunch, a young Sicilian explains, chuckling, 'They are always weak-hearted, the Italian mothers, for some reason. They could die at any moment.'
Scarcity of real estate also sustains the 'Mamma Hotel' arrangement. There can be no gay neighborhood in a city like Rome because salaries are too low and rents are too high for more than a small minority of young professionals to support themselves. (Scattered across the city, Rome has three gay saunas, one gay restaurant, and about 10 gay clubs. Garbo's yuppified atmosphere is rare. Most bars, like the twink-packed Coming Out or the harder Hangar, have a grittier edge.)
This economic stagnation creates domestic flexibility. Because the young have no place to go, their families can't throw them out, which makes families extremely resilient. It also makes dating all but impossible'which is why many Romans mostly make do with sex, often in dark rooms and saunas.
Compare 'Mamma Hotel' to America's urban gay culture'in which announcements of sexual orientation enlarge, for many, the distance that's created when we leave home. In our 20s and 30s, that distance grows larger as gay men join the upwardly mobile class of their peers, carving out individualistic identities based on economic consumption (and, often, some kind of therapy before finally beginning the lengthy process of reconciling with our parents). Which culture is more restrictive? Which is more free? For all its limits, Italian gay life safeguards something valuable that many in America struggle to find: a sure sense of involvement with family and community, a certainty that one is not alone in the world.
There's some fairly strong evidence that gay Italians could come out of the closet without jeopardizing their security. Polls indicate that 69% of Italian Catholics (in a country where well over 90% of the residents identify themselves as Catholic) support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. More to the point, the majority of Italians say they wouldn't mind if their children were gay. Which forces another question: Do Italian men carry their secrets around with them for no reason?
That depends on what you mean by 'reason.' If Romans tell themselves they choose the closet to keep their families happy, perhaps that's because it lets them understand the choice as something wholly under their control. They're also being swayed by at least two deeper influences. They talk about the first one incessantly: the much-reviled pope ('il Papa'), about whom more in a moment. The second, I think, is a particular experience of history Romans so take for granted that few could describe it, even to themselves.
In any neighborhood in Rome, you are liable to come upon a hole in the ground that's about 2,000 years deep. One day near the Piazza Navona, I walked out of a convenience store and looked down to ruins from Domitian's reign. If you lived here, you would see this kind of thing every day, which would make it just about impossible to trick yourself into believing the best, most productive, most inspiring American myth: that you can reinvent yourself. Most of the clean breaks and fresh starts that propel the plots of an American's coming-out story are not viable, or even imaginable, in a Roman's life. If you lived here, you would always know that you will always be what you always were.

'The holy papa do not shop at Prada,' the commander furiously insists.
This man, whom I'll call Carlo, is a commander of the Vatican, the scion of one of the handful of aristocratic Roman families who have kept the traditions of papal protocol for generations. He is gay, but he says that no one in his family or at his workplace knows. Charming, charismatic, and built like one of Michelangelo's Bible-boy fantasies, his poise falters only once, at the beginning of our conversation on a rainy afternoon in a caf' on the Via Veneto, because there must be no confusion on this point: The holy papa do not shop at Prada!
'But maybe Prada'maybe!'she make a gift to the holy papa.' His eyes flash like a little boy who thinks that because most of his body's hidden behind the sofa he is entirely invisible.
Gay Italians, almost to a man, talk about the pope's red shoes when Benedict XVI comes up in conversation, which is all the time. Everyone (except for the commander) says that Papa got his shoes at Prada, and when you ask why this matters, they say it proves he's hypocritically materialistic.
And gay.
This is one of Rome's biggest surprises: the ubiquity of rumors that the holy father is one of us. Gay and straight people alike will calmly assert this as a matter of fact, with none of the wishful overconfidence or nervous doubt that dogs West Hollywood gossip about the sex lives of movie stars.
Fabio Canino, Italy's most popular gay TV personality (a toothy, beefy Graham Norton), opened his show the day Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen pope with a shot of pink smoke emerging from a chimney. 'He loves shopping, and I love shopping,' Canino says with a smirk.
Casually, he adds, 'Everybody knows he is gay, and his boyfriend is his private secretary.' He Googles 'Georg + segretario di Papa' to show me a photo of the dashing blond Monsignor Georg G'nswein, a 50-year-old amateur pilot, tennis player, and former ski instructor, whom the Italian press has compared to George Clooney and Hugh Grant.
When I ask Carlo the commander about these rumors, he says, 'I don't know if the Cardinal Ratzinger was gay. Maybe, maybe no. I know the holy papa is not gay.'
What does that mean?
His eyes flash again; he speaks slowly, as if he is reading from a page, and his words curl like paper in fire: 'The holy papa is reborn in the Holy Spirit.'
Certainly the vast majority of people who repeat these rumors make an overly imaginative inference from the known homoerotic qualities of Catholic clerical life. Della parrocchia ('of the parish') is Roman slang for gay, and practically every gay man here has at least a few stories about dating, having sex with, or getting hit on by priests.

Fabio Canino says he received a mysterious invitation a few years ago to lunch at the Vatican with a cardinal. 'I walked in,' he remembers, 'and I thought the person in front of me was a drag queen, not a cardinal.' He flings his arms up in imitation and cries out, lisping, 'Hel-lo, sweetie!'
The prelate, he says, eagerly dished his Vatican colleagues, referring to one black cardinal as 'Naomi' (after Naomi Campbell). As Canino tells the story, he called the cardinal a hypocrite and asked how, as a gay man, he could serve this homophobic institution. The cardinal looked at him across the lavish table where they sat and said, 'I have everything here.'
Before Canino left, the cardinal'like a politician, or a parent'told him to get in touch if he ever needed help. Some time later, when Canino produced a play in Rome, the production was stuck without a rehearsal space. Canino says he called the cardinal in desperation and was immediately granted the use of a room in the Vatican. He says the cardinal also arranged for the Vatican printing office to produce, for free, the souvenir script that was sold at the play to raise money for a local AIDS foundation.
The title of the play? Making Porn.

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