Archive for the ‘Written Articles’ Category

Marco, The Closeted Soldier

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

(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.”

Silvana Fucito

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Silvana Fucito: leading the Neapolitan campaign to say “Basta Racket”.

(published 16th May, 2008 on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website)

Here in Italy, most people associate Naples with two words which are, ironically, almost identical: pizza and pizzo. While the former is a source of local gastronomic pride, il pizzo – the Italian word for protection money – casts a shadow of shame over the vibrant, southern city.

Il pizzo is the grass-roots manifestation of the insidious presence of the mafia: in Naples known as the Camorra. For shop-owners like Silvana Fucito and her husband, the Camorra’s existence was always tolerated, as long as it didn’t over-step the boundaries. A certain level of fear and intimidation was considered acceptable. Now Silvana admits this was wrong. She says there is no such thing as an acceptable level of intimidation. Nor should it be suffered simply because everybody else in the neighbourhood has to suffer it too. When Silvana Fucito took the extraordinarily brave step of standing up to her aggressors, she faced and overcame that intimidation.

Since Silvana won her case, she has been on a mission. When she decided to report and testify against the camorristi who burned down her shop, she saw how her personal story of courage inspired others. There are now about 1,000 members working for the regional anti-racket associations, all of whom are voluntary. Like Silvana, they help others going through situations similar to those they have experienced, and there’s a specialist group offering advice over the phone.

At the head office in chaotic, downtown Naples there are posters on the walls with large, white letters bearing their slogan: Basta Racket. Enough of the racket. Non sei più solo. You are no longer alone. Although the Camorra is still very much a part of the fabric of Neapolitan society, Silvana hopes that one day this will change, and there will come a time when her city will only be associated with la pizza.

San Rossore’s Antiracist Manifesto

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

A Letter from… San Rossore.

(Published in July 2008 in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper)

Human races exist. The concept of race is purely biological. Italians are of Aryan origin and civilization. A pure “Italian race” exists. The Jews do not belong to the Italian race.

Statements from a manifesto signed by some of Italy’s most respected scientists in 1938. Presented to Victor Emmanuel III at his Tuscan residence in San Rossore, the manifesto would form the basis of Mussolini’s racial laws. Laws signed a few months later by the king, once again here in San Rossore. Laws which sanctioned the persecution and later deportation of the Italian Jews.

Sitting under the pine trees in the idyllic park of San Rossore – a ten minute drive from the Leaning Tower of Pisa –  it’s surreal to think that this is where it all began on July 14th, 70 years ago.

Today the San Rossore Estate is owned by the Tuscan Regional Council. Every year, since 2001, they’ve held a meeting here dedicated to a globalisation-related issue. This year, to mark this 70th anniversary, they had no doubt choosing the theme: Against All Racism.

In memory of the terrible consequences of the original manifesto, a new Manifesto of Antiracist Scientists, was specially commissioned to be presented at this year’s meeting. The man who drew it up is Marcello Buiatti, Professor of Genetics at the University of Florence.

“It’s an apology. In the name of our country and in the name of our scientists. I think Italians have not been as good as Germans in apologizing for what they did.”

Signed by some of contemporary Italy’s most eminent scientists, anthropologists and psychologists – including Nobel Prize for Medicine, Rita Levi Montalcini – it disputes and disproves each point of the original manifesto.

“The first point said that human races exist. We say they do not. These so-called scientists wrote their claims before the discovery of DNA. Today we can prove that their concept of race has no genetic or biological basis.”

Other points state: An Italian race does not exist but an Italian people does. Jewish Italians are both Jewish and Italian.

For Marcello Buiatti, presenting this antiracist manifesto in San Rossore today is a poignant event: as a geneticist, as an Italian and as a Jew.

“My mother was born at the time of the pogroms. She escaped to Romania, was educated in Prague, then decided to come to Italy when Mussolini announced he would never behave like ‘the German barbarians’. Like many Jewish intellectuals, she came to Florence, where she met my father.”

Marcello was only five when his family went into hiding in a house in central Florence in September 1943. He still vividly remembers the year-long experience.

“I have been imprinted with sorrow, anger and a little fear. And I’ve been fighting these things with the ways my mother taught me. She would say, ‘We don’t have force, but we have brains.’ So I studied and now I’m trying to use my knowledge to avoid such things happening again.”

Marcello tells me he’s very worried about a new wave of racism in Italy against the Roma community. Recently, the government announced plans to introduce a law to fingerprint all Roma, including children. Last Friday, the European Parliament criticised it as an act of racial discrimination.

“This law reminds me of the beginning of racism in Europe at the time of the last World War. The first thing they did was to compile lists of all the Jews. What frightens me is that the reaction in Italy has not been stronger. There should have been immediate and widespread indignation because this is the very beginning.”