“It’s better to go crazy over beautiful girls than to be gay” - (Silvio Berlusconi's wisecrack directed at his opponent for the Italian Premiership)
Nichi Vendola is the new star of Italian politics: young, confident, catholic, communist and gay.
He has a good chance of becoming Prime Minister of Italy in the 2013 general elections, if not sooner, replacing the clownish right wing Silvio Berlusconi who has ruled the country on and off for the last two decades, thanks in part to his ownership of a conglomerate of media networks combined with a charismatic appeal reminiscent of Benito Mussolini.
Nichi Vendola is the governor of Apulia, one of Italy’s poorest and most socially conservative southern regions. Last March he was re-elected by comfortable margins and a recent poll found him as the best-liked "politico" in Italy. He has more Facebook fans than any other politician in Europe, he podcasts, posts blogs, tweets, and in his spare time he writes poetry.
Vendola is also the leader of a “post-communist” party, vague and big enough to include greens, trade unionists, anti-mafia activists, feminists and of course gays. Born in Terlizzi, a province of Bari (Apulia), in 1958, he has been a member of the Communists Youth Federation since the age of 14. He studied literature at the university, where he presented a dissertation about the controversial gay poet and movie director Pier Paolo Pasolini. He went on to become a journalist for the communist daily L'Unita', which he would often read to the illiterate southern laborers.
He is a veteran founder of various civic associations – Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights groups; Lila, an AIDS awareness group, and Rifondazione Comunista, a loud and vocal defender of Italy’s social safety net.
Even if he doesn't become Prime Minister, Nichi Vendola is having a big impact on the country’s perception of homosexuality, equivalent to the Harvey Milk of the 70's. Italy lags behind almost all the other Western European democracies on gay acceptance.
Only in recent years has the subject been openly talked about but the Catholic Church continues to exert a tremendous influence on everyday attitudes even though Italians are not as religious as Americans and Church services are sparsely attended.
Another factor to consider is that Italy - and Mediterranean cultures in general - are family-oriented societies where the male-macho ethic runs strong. Under these conditions it's more difficult for gays to come out; many opt instead to lead a double life. But homosexuality is not illegal.
Italy is also one of the few western European countries without legislation on same-sex couples. The only attempt to rule on civil unions was a bill proposed by former Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s administration in 2007. It was never approved by Parliament amid opposition from Prodi’s own allies and the Catholic Church.
The latest legal battle stems from an initiative led by the “Certain Rights” advocate group and aimed at expanding rights for gay couples. Italy’s constitution and civil code does not explicitly ban gay marriages.
It is ironic because many of Italy's greatest and most venerated artists - Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Caravaggio among them - were homosexuals commissioned to produce stunning masterpieces for the Church itself. It is part of the Italian DNA to be schizophrenic in every aspect of their lives. There is a saying that wonderfully describes their character:
"Italians enjoy creating chaos, as it provides them with a challenge to restore order."
Having said all that, the continuous paradox is that Italy might become the first nation of Continental Europe to have an openly gay Prime Minister, and a communist one to boot.
Vendola's popularity stems from an unorthodox way of governing his region. He has shown, among other things, that culture and the environment have the potential to create jobs and allow young people to come out of unemployment. As governor, he created the Apulia Film Commission that has already attracted the production of over 150 movies in his region and by promoting the development of alternate means of energy Apulia has become one of the country's leaders in this field.
On several interviews he has stated that Italy is ready for a Prime Minister who is also homosexual. He does not believe that wearing an earring is a handicap: "Some people wear earrings others carry rosary beads in their pockets, what is the problem?"
He also does not find anything wrong with being communist and catholic, both have always been pillars and integral part of Italian society: " What's important are the decisions that have to be made regarding the economy, social issues, public education, dignity in the workplace, liberty, and the restructuring of the financial world”.
He refers to the past 20 years as lost decades, meaning the extinction of a vibrant and politically sophisticated civic culture, causing millions of people to be caught in the orbit of right wing politics. Vendola is more committed to stirring up mass participation in politics than in “normalizing” the system.
Some of his poems have been recently collected in a book titled L'ultimo mare ("The last sea"). His figure has already inspired a biographical film, Nichi. This charismatic scrapper has the Italian right worried, and the gay world buzzing, after all he is frequently referred to as "The Italian Obama": a politician whose candidacy has gone from impossible to compelling.
Go Nichi,Go !