Archives for posts with tag: LGBT

While trying to make progress on my policy memo yesterday, I went out for a walk to get food from one of New Jersey’s prime gourmet retailers: Wawa market. On my way, a coursemate alerted me that there was some raucous action going on at the Seminary down the road. It turned out to be true. Much to my bemusement, they were dancing the night away to the tune of “Single Ladies”. I don’t know much about Presbyterians, but that is definitely not what I thought Scottish Protestants do at night.

Today it was the day of lawn parties, a local tradition whereby all the undergrads get dressed up, start drinking at 1 pm and invite some cool bands to play on campus. I decided to tag along, partly because I have not been to a drunken lawn party since 2005 and partly for the ethnographic value of witnessing the mis-education of America’s privileged youth first-hand.

After getting dolled up for the privilege of seeing drunk teenagers produce seizure-like body movements, I showed up with a group of friends after the main act had played. We were sober and five years older than the average. It was kinda anti-climatic so we ended up going back after a little bit.

On the way back, a Mexican friend and I followed the sound of salsa music to find out that the Seminary next-door was having a lawn party of their own, possibly to kick off the academic year. Said Mexican friend is a salsa pro and I am determined to get enough sunshine before the East Coast gives me a taste of the glacial era, so we decided to stay. It looked like a family event, so it was a very diverse crowd: babies, ethnic minorities (is this a PC thing to notice?), good dancers. There were booths of various student associations, including a LGBT society (where a clown made balloon animals for children. This would have not gone down well in a Catholic seminary). There was a BBQ and a popcorn machine, just in case I needed to be reminded I was in America.

I find many things in America odd in a European judgmental-kind-of-way, but one must give America credit for doing diversity very well.

Being raised a Catholic in a country where the Vatican talebans have a say in our internal politics and after living for 4.5 years in the Middle East I have come to realise the following:

clergy ≠ fun

Besides, the only free food I ever got out of the Catholic Church was tasteless wafers and a sip of wine (and that only if you did not misbehave since your last confession).

At some point two men pushing a stroller stopped to get some fliers by the LGBT booth. I felt like I was hallucinating. Someone has slipped a roofie in my Pepsi Diet, I remember thinking.

Not only the Presbyterians are fun and open-minded, they are also very friendly. We outed ourselves as party crashers to the people sitting at our table (as we were eating their BBQ food) only to be met by smiles and encouragement. It turned out our fellow burger-eaters were the Reverend and the Head of Admissions. Ooops! They seemed very pleased that we had stopped by. The Reverend produced a business card. The live salsa band had announced they’ll be playing a round of merengue. My Mexican friend was asked if I was her husband. I don’t know what she replied, I was gone for seconds of food. We both rejoiced that we had dressed up, so at least we didn’t feel like total party crashers. Occasionally we would look at each other with a puzzled look and say: “This is surreal”.

As we were leaving I noticed a very hot man, manning a booth calling for more missionary spirit and such things. I’ll spare you the obvious crass joke, but I still have a question: in America, is it politically correct to say a seminary student is a DILF?

PS: Totally irrelevant, but you should not miss this video. Do not try this at home.

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If there is one thing that I have learnt in the past ten years cavorting with the homosexuals, is that gay bars sort of look the same everywhere. Like entering a Mark and Spencer’s department store anywhere in the world, you can have some confidence about what you will find and what you won’t. Cheap-ish polyester and cotton clothes and huge snack selection shall be waiting for you regardless of whether you are in Milton Keynes or Kuala Lumpor (although I hope for you, dear reader, that you are not in Milton Keynes).

Stepping into a gay bar you can expect decent music (usually either 70s and 80s vintage disco or more contemporary pop beats, which nowadays will alas involve some Lady Gaga crap). Patrons will most likely fall in the either good, the beautiful and the bad type; there will be people that realised they were in a gay bar only after having been seated (and its corollary of straight men partly flattered by the attention and partly freaked out). Drinks won’t be too expensive, some guy will be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt even though it’s January and around midnight all the single men will turn into post-modern cinderellas waiting for a charming prince to take them home, for nothing is more bitter to a dapper gay man than enduring hours of bad pop music only to end up going home alone.

Save for a pool table (boy have I seen weird stuff in gay clubs, but a pool table??!), I didn’t feel like I was venturing out of my comfort zone. Weird if you consider that Luang Prabang is yes the tourist capital of Northern Laos, but is also in a place that until 1990 was linked with the outside world by unpaved roads. It was the only bar in Luang Prabang where there were as many locals as foreigners, maybe because the Lao customers were not expected to get a drink but could just hang out in a gay friendly space.

The owner, a very friendly Laotian in his 20s, explained to me that he had left his business in Vientiane to move to Luang Prabang because he liked the vibe. He said he expects to open a wine bar on the main street, a bar that would be ‘same same but spicier’. I looked around: a clingy couple holding hands and sighing at one table, a girl kicking everyone’s ass at the pool table and wondered how such a welcoming space could exist in a town of 26000 inhabitants, in one of the poorest Asian countries (Laos is supposed to graduate from low- to middle-income country by 2020, insh’allah). Laos simply defies all explanations I have for its tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. You tend to associate the gay rights movement with affluence (but some countries that are twice as rich as Laos are not nearly half as open), religion ( nearby China shares the same religion and even the same one-party communist system, but it is not a champion of gay rights), political pluralism (did I mention that Laos is a one-party state?) or social fabric (Laos is a multi ethnic society where ethnic affiliations can be important). Also, Laos is not a freewheeling place on the sexual side of things: sexual relations between a foreigner and a Lao can only happen through marriage and public display of affection is frowned upon. Laos does not seen to have as bad a prostitution problem as nearby Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand (and trust me, as a single white male travelling solo you don’t have to do much effort to find some ‘part-time companion’).

I cannot claim that my short visit allows me to speculate as to why Laos society is so accepting and where the exceptionalism comes from. I can only wish that more sleepy provincial towns (in developed and developing countries alike) had more places like the bar I went to in Luang Prabang.

Try growing up gay in small town Southern Italy in the late 1990s. When I came out to my parents almost 10 years ago I had never met a gay person in real life. The closest role model I had was this transgender woman who adopted the son of my neighbour because the biological father was in jail (yay!). The only gay themed movie ever to be shown on Italian public TV was Philadelphia. Do not get me wrong, it is always great to see Antonio Banderas, but it would have been even nicer if instead of one of the guys dying of AIDS the couple would have ended up buying a house in the suburbs, an SUV and maybe even have a dog. Although I guess it would have not made it one of the highest impact LGBT movies in history.

Now in my country and many others, teenagers see positive role models on TV, they can meet gay people in places other than public urinals (unless they want to), some work places mention in their vacancies that they are an equal opportunity employer etc… (I got a message from our legal department today about IDAHO, what a pleasant surprise!)

Still, if the quality of life for the average LGBT person has improved, we still have a long way to go:

  • Recently even the UN realised that since LGBT people are humans, LGBT rights are human rights (shock horror!). Yet, homosexuality is still illegal/punishable by death and/or imprisonement in a number of countries.
  • A lot of countries recognise some type of same-sex partnerships, mostly in Latin America, Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and most of Western and Central Europe except the Vatican Republic of Italy. My personal resolution is that if by 2014 Italy has not passed any type of law on civil unions I will marry the first national of one of the civilised countries above (Brazilians encouraged to apply).
  • Violence and hate speech (especially against gay teenagers and transsexuals) is still prevalent in environment such as schools, prisons and religious establishments (not making any value judgement by putting these places in the same category!). Just to throw in some random stats “lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers

Personally, my gay coming of age has been, all in all, a lot of fun. The big step I took some 9 years ago coming out has paid off and I know of a lot of people who took very risky and bold steps to live their lives the way they wanted, lost some friends and in very few cases family members for some time or indefinitely, but at least managed to lead happy and fulfilling lives as people and not as half-dead walking lies (sorry if this offends you, Mr/Miss closeted reader). I have taken some shit by some people, but by far and large I have had the fortune to be surrounded by amazing people that just see me as a person and not as a gay man (and yes, for some of the Arabophobes out there, that includes people from all walks of life I have met while living in Egypt).

So – I will go out to enjoy International Day Against Homophobia (aka I ain’t taking shit from nobody day). If any of you is contemplating suicide (hopefully not as a result of reading this blog) please watch this cute little video:

etc…

So, I have been meaning to write something about this before but never quite got round it. I have been leaving abroad now for 7 of the past 10 years. Inevitably, I have gone out with a number of people who are not Italian like myself (I’ll leave it to you to guess how many. If you get it right, I’ll buy you a yearly subscription to the Reader’s Digest. Hint: It’s less than a 3 digit number).

I am always slightly irked by the reaction of some gay people I have met and/or have gone out on dates with. Because Italian men are usually associated with a number of (positive?) stereotypes, I am often under the impression that I am being placed somewhere on the spectrum of potential Italian gay man stereotypes which spans roughly as follows: suave latin man with hairy chest and golden cross meets elitist european meets queer fashionista meets mama’s boy.

Of course self-righteous me is quite horrified at the idea of my ‘self’ being compressed and pigeonholed into a cliché, although I guess it is normal that people try to decipher your identity through some cognitive shortcuts such as stereotypes. I have actually done that to others a number of times without noticing.

Anyways, I was a LGBT mixer (or, as I like to call it, a fruit salad event) in the US last week. I had to go through a bit of the usual Italian Gay Manometer business but in addition, thanks to having survived the Egyptian revolution, I get to add an extra layer of revolutionary je ne sais pas quoi to the equation. At one point I felt people looked at me as if I am some kind of war veteran, almost asking me to lift my shirt so that they could behold the scars and shrapnel wounds. Maybe it’s just me reading too much into it but still I tried my best to explain to people that I witnessed 99% of the revolution watching Al Jazeera in my living room and that I am no suave latin lover meets Che Guevara meets Elton John.

When I feel like people fail to see me as a person and that I am being repackaged into a stereotype, I comfort myself by thinking that this stuff happens all the time to so many people (a friend of mine complains about the frequent emasculation of the Asian male – and do not get me started on the not so positive stereotypes some of my Russian girlfriends complain about).  In fact, I think this poem by Palestinian-American artist Suheir Hammad sums up what usually goes through my mind in such circumstances: