When in Rome

12.11.2006

By Michael Joseph Gross

When Vladimir Luxuria began her campaign for parliament, Italians thought it was a stunt''like Cicciolina,'she says, referring to the porn star who served briefly in parliament in the late 1980s. 'Unfortunately,' Luxuria jokes, 'she is more beautiful than me.'
Alessandra Mussolini, Benito's granddaughter, attacked Luxuria on television, sniping, 'Better to be a fascist than a fag.' Luxuria fought back, debating her on national TV, and won public recognition and respect. Subsequently Luxuria was chosen for a leadership role in her party, and she has proved such a canny negotiator that she helped secure the country's first antidiscrimination and hate-crimes laws for gays.
The next fight is for civil unions, but she knows she's taking on a ruthless enemy. 'The problem is the Vatican,' she says. 'They don't want to acknowledge the right of gays to form a family, to be an atom of our society. But Article Nine of our constitution says the Vatican and parliament are distinct. And I am reminding my fellow senators of that.'
Luxuria, like most of the activists I met in Rome, says civil unions will have a better chance of passing if more gays come out. 'If you hide, then all the issues in society can be hidden,' she says. 'It's a political responsibility to be open about reality.'
Luxuria's words come back to me one sunny afternoon on a walk with an American who lives in Rome as an illegal alien, a gangly, erudite man who brings Ichabod Crane immediately to mind. Meeting him is, in several ways, an unexpected appointment with reality.
He prepares me for my visit to the Vatican by describing a few details that most tourists overlook. In the crypt of St. Peter's basilica, for instance, just down the hall from John Paul II's final resting place, lies the tomb of the 13th-century pope Boniface VIII, who may have murdered his predecessor, Celestine V, and who was tried posthumously for heresy. At his trial, Boniface's valet testified that the pope had sodomized him, explaining that he gave it up for Papa because it was a feast day. In life, the pope had publicly proclaimed, 'It is no more a sin to lay with women or with boys than to rub one hand against the other.'
After we laugh ourselves silly over this and other venal chapters of church history, Ichabod surprises me, saying, 'For all of that, it's hard for me to be cynical about the church.'
He has AIDS, and he does not have health insurance. His treatment, for free, comes from Gemelli Hospital at the Catholic University, which has a large clinic that cares for people with AIDS in Rome. When he first went there for help, he was concerned that he would be turned away because he is in Italy illegally. He is not sentimental, but his voice shakes when he recalls his physician's reassurance: 'Don't worry, we're doctors. We're here to take care of you.'
For no charge, he has been hospitalized at Gemelli. He has received chemotherapy and thousands of dollars' worth of prescription drugs for Karposi's sarcoma and other complications. The lesions on his face are beginning to fade.
He says, 'I grew up in the Bible Belt, with a great distaste for hypocrisy. The Vatican is one of the most homophobic institutions in the world and probably the most gay institution in the world, outside of gay nightclubs. And yet within that paradox there is actually a great deal of room for humanity and passion. For me, living in Italy has been about learning to live in paradox.'
I thought I understood. But I didn't, and I did not begin to understand my own ignorance until my last day in Rome. It was a rainy Monday morning when I walked into St. Peter's for the first time and, without warning, found myself crying softly but uncontrollably.
Sitting in my living room in Los Angeles one month later, I can still see the sanctuary, which, when I think about it, seems almost to verge on the miraculous. As if the vastness of that space were inside me. The gold and brown and red and white and light, arched and coffered rhythms carved in space, the endless dance of that distant canopy, an antlike priest pacing a railing high above. The Piet', its skinny dead Christ. What did Jesus have to do with this place? Almost nothing, I thought. Except: Human beings made this, and for most of these couple thousand years he has been the anchor of the story that provides a common sense of what it is to be a man. Yet that story is almost powerless to convey the human core of his significance in one way this place makes you imagine it: In spite of ourselves, we are immense. Even in our weakness, greed, rage, fear, duplicity, and resignation'all those forces that, at least as much as any virtue, created and sustain St. Peter's'we hold this kind of space in us. It can be found.
I don't know if he was talking about the Vatican in particular, or about Italian gay life in general, but the last thing Ichabod said to me before he disappeared back into the city was, 'Sometimes I think, if this is the closet, it's OK.' As cultural exoneration, the statement will not stand. Still, for that moment, in that place, there was no contradicting him.

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