Homophobia: It Gets Better. 15 Stories of Hope from Italy
Article by Luca Maria Negro. Published in Riforma, weekly newspaper of Italy’s Waldensian, Methodist and Baptist Churches, Issue 45, November 29, 2013, p.11. Translated by Peter Luntz
“One day you think you’re ok… another you wake up and you have to start from scratch”. A year ago Alessandra Brussato and Manuela Vinay quoted a famous Edoardo Bennato song in their letter to the Consistory of the Piazza Cavour Waldensian Church in Rome, Italy. They wrote to request a blessing ceremony for their life together.
Alessandra and Manuela chose this quote because “it shows what daily life of a lesbian, gay or transsexual person in this society is like. You feel ‘ok’ about yourself, love your life, like who you are, love others in your way, do your best to be an active and attentive part of this world and thank God for this gift of being here just as you are.
Then you realize that this way of ‘being here’ with your way of ‘being’ is not welcomed by society. You often have to start all over again with each new person you meet and through the civil rights you are denied. This source of suffering makes our lives more difficult. You’re always having to explain who you are and prove that you are as valuable as anyone else.”
The struggle of being ‘different’ in a homophobic society becomes dramatically evident when we look at the frequent suicides among gay young people. The most recent young person to take their life [in Italy] was a young man in Rome who jumped from the 11th floor of a former factory in October. He left an accusatory note: “I’m gay. Italy is a free country but homophobia is everywhere. Homophobes need to take a close look at themselves in the mirror.”
This is not the first time the weekly newspaper of Italy’s Waldensian, Methodist and Baptist Churches, Riforma, has dealt with this issue. However, this time we want to approach it from a different point of view by sending messages of hope to the next generation.
The right way to do this grew out of a special project. At a recent REFO conference on ‘New Families’ we met Chiara Reali, who heads up the project with Linda Fava. ‘Things Change’ is a website (www.lecosecambiano.org) and a book (published by Isbn Edizioni, Milan 2013) that tells “stories of coming out, conflict, love and friendships that have saved lives.”
Chiara explains that “Le Cose Cambiano [literally, ‘Things Change’] is the Italian partner of the American “It Gets Better” project against bullying and homophobia. It’s a book and video library of “alternate endings for anyone who doesn’t know how to continue their own story. Stories do good to storytellers and those who listen. And these are not just any old stories.
They are told to people who don’t know what to do next with their own stories, people paralyzed before a blank sheet of paper. These stories are also for people who’ve never heard anything like this before, for people who only know gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people as stereotypes seen in the media.”
Along with REFO (Protestant Faith & Homosexuality Network) and the web portal on Faith & Homosexuality Gionata Project (www.gionata.org), we want to contribute to this “library of alternate endings” by documenting stories focused on how gay people are welcomed by churches.
Fifteen stories have been gathered so far. We have published short extracts from each here due to space concerns. The complete stories are available online (www.riforma.it).
We begin with the two couples who had a blessing ceremony following the decision of the Waldensian and Methodist Church Synod in 2010 allowing liturgical blessings for same-sex couples.
In the letter mentioned earlier, Alessandra and Manuela state that “our community, the Waldensian community of Piazza Cavour [in Rome, Italy], first welcomed us lovingly as individuals. For me, Manuela, it was much easier since our community is my family. I was born into this community and I couldn’t do without it even if I wanted to.
It’s in this community that I sought refuge when everything seemed wrong, when I thought I myself was wrong… it was in the embrace of God the Father that I found comfort. Since then, I have always found words of encouragement and love for a daughter who was never disavowed.
For me, Alessandra, it meant meeting Manuela and recovering my faith in God. I had always known God but I had distanced myself from God on and off. This double emotion has strengthened the presence of love in my life. I was falling in love with Manuela and my love for God was coming back. When we were getting to know one another early in our relationship, we began speaking of faith and God, especially of God’s agape [unconditional love]. In talking about our timid faith, we realized that our paths would become one and we felt that our love was blessed and welcomed by God.”
Ciro Scelsi and Guido Lanza had a blessing ceremony in the Waldensian Church of Milan in 2011. They said that “the chance to express our love for each other publicly and have members of a church community witness this was the destination – and also the new starting point – of a long process. This starts with the often painful process of coming to terms with who you are, your relationship with your family, the memories of our experiences and losses, our ability to meet one another…
Love allows us to breathe again, to open up our identity and renew it. Together we are a family; it’s normal for us to want to see it recognized and be overjoyed when this happens. There is no desire to expose ourselves; it’s that we simply don’t want to hide.”
Francesco Boschi, Waldensian from Milan, and Giorgio Rainelli, Baptist from Rome, are both members of the REFO organization. They are also both former Catholics. Francesco says, “My relationship with the Church has gone through various phases over the years. This is due to my own personal growth and to a specific event (leaving the Catholic Church and becoming part of a Reformed Protestant Church) which radically changed my way of living out my Christian faith and belonging to a faith community. Feeling that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with me being gay is a constant in my experience. It’s part of who I am and therefore it’s part of God’s plan for me since he created me…
Thank God, I never felt that there was anything ‘wrong’ with me but with the world around me (including the Church). They were not ready to accept the way God had made me.” After slowing moving away from Catholicism, Francesco’s turning point came “after getting to know the Waldensian Church. After getting to know it, I decided to join the Church. I (re)discovered a way to live out my faith that was in line with who I am and, in my opinion, more in line with the Gospel message.
I immediately felt ‘at home’ in the Waldensian Church, as if I had been Protestant all my life, without knowing it!” Francesco wants to make it clear that “the open position of the Waldensian Church towards homosexuality was not the main reason for my choice.
However, if I hadn’t been gay, I probably wouldn’t have had the desire to search for a faith experience beyond the ‘comfortable’ confines of my native Church. So, I guess you could say that being gay was an impetus for me to grow in my faith. I think that this too was a part of God’s plan for me!
Giorgio Rainelli tells his story which includes involvement in the Scouts, an encounter with a Jesuit who was the first to “offer me a new point of view on a feeling of sin that shrouded my homosexuality” and his encounter with the Baptist community in Albano Laziale (near Rome) where he was “welcomed with no questions asked, allowing me to break the chains of sin and be free.
Yes, that was the feeling exactly, breaking binds and ties that held me and didn’t allow to truly be Giorgio with my story, my way of being, my being gay. I was lucky to find this community. It has always defended my partner and I from any sort of absolute principle or inflexible ‘truth’ people used to condemn us, our choices or our way of being men.”
Giorgio goes on to say that not all his experiences in Protestant churches have been so positive. At times he found “fundamentalist interpretations of the Scriptures” or “formal ‘politically correct’ acceptance but no real involvement.”
We received 11 stories through Gionata Project. Some are ‘ecumenical’ while others reflect Catholic experiences more specifically.
The Kairos group of gay Christians in Florence tells their story of strengthening “relationships of respect and friendship with Protestant churches and Catholic parishes, even though the Catholic Church has not yet accepted to officially recognized us.” Michelangelo Cannizzaro tells of the welcome he experienced at the Waldensian ‘commune’ called the Lombardini Center in Cinisello Balsamo (near Milan) and at the Agape Ecumenical Center.
Gino Scarpelli speaks of her experiences with “priests and pastors who taught me how to reread the Word of God in a more critical way.” Stefano, who was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, tells a particularly touching story. Despite many difficulties, Anna Maria has not stopped “being part of a sister church of other churches that has the simple task of standing along side each and every person throughout their life. “With the help of Providence,” Emanuele “stubbornly searched out life experiences that allowed me not to feel alone, even within Catholic communities.” Filippo tells his story as a Christian scout and his encounter with a young priest who opened his eyes to the God’s mercy.
Carmen tells of her dialog with an elderly priest who had condemned her and subsequently realized his mistake. Roberto was able to speak to a Bishop about his homosexuality and he thinks “we need to help the Church along this path of knowledge and acceptance.” Domenico found a friend in a nun who listened and understood him. Lastly, Gustavo Gnavi, president of the ‘Ferruccio Castellano’ Study Center on faith and Homosexuality Turin, who has covered various positions of responsibility in parishes and the Diocese as a layman, without ever hiding his homosexuality.
* This “It Gets Better” special is a contribution of Riforma, the weekly newspaper of Italy’s Waldensian, Methodist and Baptist Churches, to an international project against bullying and homophobia. It features the stories of 15 Protestant and Catholic Christians who have come out and been welcomed by their churches.