Marco, The Closeted Soldier

(published 7th November, 2008 on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website)

Although there is no formal ban on homosexuality in the armed forces, Italy does operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, in conflict with its own constitution’s anti-discrimination laws. Now members of the police and military forces have got together to set up Polis Aperta, an association aimed at defending their right to be gay.

When I first spoke to Marco on the phone to organize our meeting, he sounded perfectly at ease with the idea of being interviewed. He said he enjoyed speaking English and was looking forward to meeting me and telling me more about their fledgling association, Polis Aperta. We arranged to meet at 5.30pm in front of Ferrara station. He’d pick me up in his car and we’d do the interview in his apartment. “You’ll spot me easily,” I told him, “I’m short, have long red hair and look unmistakeably English”. “You’ll spot me easily too,” he laughed, “I’ll be coming straight from work so I’ll still be wearing my uniform.”. Needless to say, we had no problem finding each other and I was confident everything else would go as I’d anticipated. But during the short journey from the station to Marco’s flat, he made two requests that took me completely by surprise.

The first was that I should only use his first name and the second was that I should describe him as ‘working in the military’, without mentioning which of the armed forces he is a member of. “Ferrara’s a small town and there aren’t many English speakers in the forces. I’d be too easily identified.” I was shocked at the unexpected revelation, “You mean you aren’t out?” “Absolutely not.”

This revelation and my shock are, I think, the essence of this issue and the need in contemporary Italy for an association like Polis Aperta. Marco struck me as somebody who was happy to talk about his sexuality, unashamed for me to know he was gay, proud to be part of this anti-discrimination campaign… yet, in the military context, things couldn’t be more different. Here was a man in his mid-thirties who had spent 15 years doing a job he really enjoyed, but a job in which he still felt the need to hide a fundamental aspect of his identity. His worry that I might unintentionally out him, thereby jeopardizing his career, made me realise just how far behind other countries Italy is when it comes to gay rights in the armed forces. I wouldn’t say Italy is any more or less homophobic than other European countries. In most professions here, the right to be gay is taken for granted. In the police and the military it is not.

Although there is no rule in Italy that explicitly bans homosexuals from joining the forces, there is a loophole in an old recruitment law about one’s ‘psychological stability relating to sexual orientation’. Marco says that new recruits who openly reveal they are gay will almost certainly be rejected on these grounds, no matter how at ease they may be with their sexuality. If you are already in the forces and are lucky enough to have an open-minded superior and colleagues, coming out need not be an issue, but discrimination is arbitrary and there is no unit or union to protect you against it. Covert discrimination might entail you being given the worst tasks, randomly transferred or even denied promotion… but never ostensibly because of your homosexuality. With no sexual discrimination laws to protect gay members of the armed forces, Polis Aperta was born of a genuine feeling of necessity.

The association began as an on-line forum back in 2005 – a way for people like Marco to vent their frustration and help each other deal with discrimination issues based on sexual orientation. The name Polis Aperta can be translated as “Open City”. Their aim is to achieve this. They say that being gay in many European forces is not just a right but a bonus. Being the best English speaker of the association, Marco usually represents Polis Aperta at international meetings of gay/lesbian police and military associations. In his experience, many countries now make positive practical use of gay members of their forces, getting them to train heterosexual officers in how to deal with homophobic hate crime. He’d like to see the same approach in Italy, though he thinks achieving it will be a long process. But if Polis Aperta is recognized by the government and given legal status as an anti-discrimination association, Marco believes the first major bridge will have been crossed. “When we feel confident that we can come out without putting our careers at risk and know there is someone who’ll fight for us and defend us if necessary, then I guess things will really change.”

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