Here are some of my publications on sexuality and gender.


  • ‘Italian medical and literary discourses around female same-sex desire, 1877-1906’. In  Italian Sexualities Uncovered, edited by Valeria Babini, Chiara  Beccalossi and Lucy Riall (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Babini Beccalossi Riall

  • ‘Queer Embodiments: Fluidity, Materiality, Stickiness’ in Silvia Antosa (ed.) Queer Crossings. theories, Bodies, Texts (Milan: Mimesis, 2012)

queer crossings

  • ‘Identità di genere e sessualità nelle opere di Goliarda Sapienza: finzioni necessariamente queer’ in “Quel sogno d’essere” nell’opera di Goliarda Sapienza. Percorsi critici nel caleidoscopio artistico di una delle maggiori autrici del Novecento italiano, ed.Giovanna Providenti (Rome: Aracne, 2012)

771-8 copertina

    • Co-edited with Daniele Albertazzi, Clodagh Brook and Nina Rothenberg, Resisting the Tide: Cultures of Opposition in the Berlusconi Years 2001-06(London: Continuum, 2009). I contributed the following chapters:
      • ‘Feminist Activism and Practice: Asserting Autonomy and Resisting Precarity’, co-authored with Manuela Galetto, Chiara Lasala, Sveva Magaraggia, Chiara Martucci, and Elisabetta Onori;
      • ‘Collective Association in the LGBT Movement’.

    Resisting the Tide

  • Co-edited with Susanna Scarparo, special issue of Italian Studies: Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Italian Culture: representations and critical debates, Vol. 65 No. 2, July 2010
  • Italian Studies

    Co-edited with Loredana Polezzi, In corpore: Bodies in Post-Unification Italy (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007). I contributed the chapter: ‘”Porno girl da fumetto”: Bodies and Sexuality in the Work of Isabella Santacroce’.

In corpore

Posted in Bibliographies and References, Feminism, Queer, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged | Leave a comment

Isabella Grassi and same-sex love

In England, as Laura Doan has observed, the 1920s was a period in which ‘[f]or lesbians in particular, the blurring of categories of gender and the greater dissemination of sexual knowledge made possible new paradigms for self-understanding that paved the way for subcultural formation’(2001 xix). In Paris, women who identified as lesbians were forming a visible alternative culture, exploiting the spaces of the developing modern city as a setting in which to explore and articulate their own identities (Winning 2006). This was not the case in Italy, where debates and representation remained extremely constrained. At the beginning of the decade, it appears that the socio-cultural taboos about lesbianism and female same-sex desire were functioning relatively well, constraining women who felt such desires to isolated anguish. One striking example is provided by the diaries of Isabella Grassi (1886-1936), later president of FILDIS (Federazione italiana laureate e diplomate Istituti superiori;  the Italian Federation of Women with Degrees and Diplomas) from 1922-1935. Isabella’s diaries and letters from 1920-21, when she was aged 34-35, indicate that she felt attracted to women, in particular to her married friend Tersilla Guadagnini, whose soul, she writes in an unsent letter, she felt perfectly reflected her own.[1] Isabella experienced a profound connection with Tersilla, and expressed a growing desire for increased intimacy:


voglio con lei legami non solo spirituali, ma affettivi, poichè così forse verrà un giorno in cui lei stessa mi comprenderà meglio e io e lei potremo fonderci assieme.[2]

[I want my connection with her to be not only spiritual but emotional, since perhaps this might mean that one day she will understand me better and she and I will be able to fuse together].


These documents chart an ongoing struggle, as Isabella attempts to come to terms with and to regulate her behaviour, to understand why Tersilla inspires such charged emotions in her, and to acknowledge that it is from Tersilla that she wants to obtain ‘la soddisfazione dei più intimi bisogni dell’animo mio, l’affetto personale’ [the satisfaction of the most intimate needs of my soul, personal affection].[3] I do not wish to impose anachronistic labels on Isabella or her feelings, and would certainly resist categorising her as a frustrated ‘lesbian’; it may be that she wanted an emotional, ‘intimate friendship’ with Tersilla that was not sexual. In her work on ‘intimate friendships’ between women, Martha Vicinus explores a range of ‘emotional, erotically charged relationship[s] between two women’ (2004: xxiv), and is careful to point out that while some women in previous periods may have felt unable to act on their desires, or simply preferred a non-physical relationship to a sexual one, other women might well have understood exactly what they were feeling but simply have chosen not to articulate it explicitly in words (2004: xix). It seems to me that Isabella is genuinely struggling to make sense of her feelings, and that she feels a need to articulate them in writing, in her private journals. Whatever the ‘most intimate needs of [her] soul’ may have been, her diary entries speak eloquently to us across time, of loneliness, incomprehension, and of Isabella’s difficulty in expressing her emotions. Reading her diaries today, it is heartrending to hear of her struggle, of her joy at feeling love, but then to read how she strove to stifle that love herself:


Strano destino questo mio! Essere giunta finalmente ad amare ed essere riamata e dovere io stessa colle stessi mani, coscientemente contribuire alla distruzione del mio amore per il bene della persona amata! Finora per di più non ho amato seriamente […] ed ora che l’ho confessato a Tersilla e a me stessa, deve finire proprio così?[4]

[What a strange destiny is mine! To have finally managed to love and be loved in return and to be compelled myself, with my own hands, consciously to contribute to the destruction of my love for the good of the person I love! Until now I have never loved seriously […] and now that I have confessed to Tersilla and to myself, does it really have to end like this?]


This statement is rather enigmatic, as are many of her entries, but it seems to indicate that she had confessed her feelings to Tersilla but had then decided to prevent things from going any further, perhaps because Tersilla was married.

As Fiorenza Taricone has documented, Isabella was inspired by progressive Christian values, and strove for women’s social, cultural and spiritual elevation (Grassi 2000: 40-46). She read widely, including the Italian translation of Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age (Grassi 2000: 40), which includes a sympathetic chapter on the ‘intermediate sex’, based on the German doctor Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s theory of ‘Urnings’ or ‘Uranians’—men or women who felt that their selves were in the wrongly sexed body, and who therefore felt attracted to people of the same sex. While Carpenter reinforces the maternal role as woman’s ultimate goal (Carpenter 1906: 54), he also cites a case studied by Krafft-Ebing of a woman who fell in love with a female friend; he discusses this sensitively and empathetically and comments that such passions are ‘intense’, may be ‘life-long’ and women who experience them may suffer severe depression if separated (1906: 125-26). However, it seems that despite access to potentially helpful literature, Isabella had difficulties making sense of her own feelings for women. Education and privilege alone did not guarantee that women would feel emboldened to act on their dissident desires, or would even have a vocabulary or conceptual framework through which to interpret their feelings, despite the relative increase in bio-medical publications, political debates on sexuality and literary representations of ‘Sapphic’ sexuality.

There is a happy ending to this story, although documentation to confirm the facts is scarce. Although it seems that Isabella never lived out her passion for Tersilla, Paola Guazzo writes that Isabella subsequently had ‘un duraturo legame’ [a lasting relationship] with Gabriella Spaletti Rasponi, President of the Consiglio Nazionale Donne Italiane (National Council of Italian Women; CNDI), until Spaletti Rasponi’s death in 1931 (2010: 116). I have not been able to find evidence of the kind of relationship this was and whether either woman would have identified as ‘lesbian’ in any way, but perhaps this special bond finally gave Isabella the love that she had been seeking in the past, but had not been able to experience fully.

N.B. I’ve not been able to find any images of Isabella. If anyone knows where I might find these, please let me know!


Carpenter, Edward (1906 [1896]). Love’s Coming of Age. A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co. Ltd.

Doan, Laura (2001). Fashioning Sapphism: the Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grassi, Isabella (2000) Diari (1920-21). Associazione femminile e modernismo. Ed. Fiorenza Taricone. Genoa: Marietti.

Guazzo, Paola (2010). ‘Al “confine” della norma. R/esistenze lesbiche e fascismo’. In Paola Guazzo, Ines Rieder and Vincenza Scuderi (eds), R/Esistenze lesbiche nell’Europa nazifascista. Verona: Ombre Corte, 104-126.

Taricone, Fiorenza (1998). ‘La FILDIS (Federazione nazionale laureate e diplomate) e l’associazionismo femminile (1920-1935)’. In Marina Addis Saba (ed.), La corporazione delle donne. Ricerca sui modelli femminili nel ventennio. Florence: Vallecchi, 127-69.

Martha Vicinus (2004) Intimate Friends. Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Winning, Joanne (2006). ‘The Sapphist in the City. Lesbian Modernist Paris and Sapphic Modernity’. In Laura Doan and Jane Garrity (eds), Sapphic Modernities. Sexuality, Women and National Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 17-34.

[1] Unsent letter, 8 January 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 116.

[2] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 136.

[3] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 135.

[4] Diary entry, 14 February 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 127-28.

Posted in Female friendships, Feminism, Posts in English, Same-sex desire | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sibilla Aleramo and Mura

1919 was a landmark year for literary representation of desire between women in Italy, since two important novels were published, Il passaggio [The Passage], by Sibilla Aleramo, and Perfidie [Perfidies] by Mura (Maria Volpi Nannipieri), the romantic novelist and journalist.

il passaggio                     perfidie

I’ve written about these texts in my book. They are highly significant publications since despite the potential threat of censorship, and of personal criticism that was often directed at women who wrote about same-sex desire at this time, they both tackle sexual desire and love between women directly. It is actually a central element of both texts.

In Mura’s novel, two women, Sibilla and Nicla, withdraw from high society in Milan to live out an amorous idyll by the sea. The relationship is doomed to fail, following a familiar narrative pattern in which same-sex relationships end badly, often leading to misery and death. What is striking about this story is the detail we are given of the relationship as it unfolds. The narrative focus is on the two protagonists, and even though their relationship breaks up, there is no happy heterosexual ending to cancel out the same-sex love and desire we have read about. Mura wrote many romantic novels, most of which followed the conventions of the genre, recounting the trials and tribulations of a young female protagonist who eventually marries her hero. Some of her novels are quite transgressive for the time when they were written, depicting adultery for example, but this is the only text of hers that focuses on same-sex desire. It wasn’t censored, and she wasn’t openly harangued by the critics; they made quiet digs at her, saying that it was not her best work, and calling it a ‘youthful’ mistake. We don’t know what conversations were had behind closed doors with her editors, and she did not return to the topic, but the book sold relatively well: at least 9,000 copies. Of course, these were insignificant sales compared to other novels she wrote later, but still, it confirms that the novel circulated relatively widely. One of the things I find most fascinating about the novel is something that she writes in the introduction: she talks about a type of woman:

‘la donna quale la società del secolo dicannovesimo ha sognata, e quella del ventesimo sogna […] che riunisce in sé le debolezze di ieri e le libertà di domani […ma la quale] non è ancora sorta, non è ancora e non può ancora esistere’. (Mura 1919: 14-15)

[the woman who was dreamt of by nineteenth-century society, and is dreamt of by twentieth-century society […] who unites within her the weaknesses of yesterday and the freedoms of tomorrow, but who has not yet risen, does not and cannot yet exist].

 Could it be that her protagonists are seeking to become this ‘dreamt-of’ woman? They haven’t quite managed it since she doesn’t exist at the time of writing, but it seems to me that Mura is inviting us to read the novel as a glimpse of a future of increased sexual freedom in which women are free to love whoever they choose; a time when relationships like that between Sibilla and Nicla may not be doomed to fail just because of their sex.

Aleramo’s Il passaggio is a different kind of novel since it has a strong autobiographical basis. It recounts a three-way relationship between Aleramo, Lina Poletti, a writer and scholar, who Aleramo met at the first National Conference of Italian Women in Rome, in 1908, and the poet Giovanni Cena with whom Aleramo was living at the time. The novel is written in a lyrical, poetic style, and imbued with passionate emotions. We hear how Aleramo fell in love with Poletti, who she calls ‘la favola’ [the fairy tale], and a ‘fanciulla maschia’ [male girl]. She talks about how the world seem ‘transfigured’ now that she has kissed a woman, and how their love is taking her to a higher plane of ecstasy. However, despite her eulogy to same-sex love, the relationship breaks down. This appears to be caused largely by the fact that Aleramo continued to live with Cena while she was involved with Poletti, and in the novel (as well as in her letters and diary from this period) seems to want them both to agree to a polyamorous relationship. As the text ends she is alone, but undaunted; she feels words dance out of her, drawing her on to new possibilities.

Aleramo’s novel is an unapologic celebration of unconventional desire that transgresses not only the categories of heterosexuality/homosexuality, but also of dyadic monogamy. It was well reviewed in France where critics applauded the quality of the prose and the emotional power of the work; in Italy, reviewers were less enthralled, and the novel did not enjoy the success of her previous autobiographical work, Una donna [A Woman] (1906). Yet like Mura’s novel, this text was not censored. As I explore in my book, Aleramo’s approach to same-sex desire was complex and often quite problematic; however she was a trailblazer who broke taboos and who narrated her transgressive desire and hopes for the future in a bold and compelling narrative.


Aleramo, Sibilla. 1919. Il passaggio. Milan: Treves.

Aleramo, Sibilla. 1999 [1906]. Una donna. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Mura, 1919. (Maria Volpi Nannipieri) Perfidie. Milan: Sonzogno.

Posted in Female friendships, Feminism, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eccentricity and Sameness: new book

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new book, which is the culmination of my research so far on this project: Eccentricity and Sameness. Discourses on Lesbianism and Desire between Women in Italy, 1860s-1930s (Peter Lang, 2015)


Dispelling widespread views that female same-sex desire is virtually absent from Italian literature and cultural production in the modern era, this groundbreaking study demonstrates that narratives of lesbianism are significantly more numerous than has been previously asserted. Focusing on texts published between 1860 and 1939, the author traces and analyses the evolution of discourses on female same-sex desire in and across a wide variety of genres, whether popular bestsellers, texts with limited distribution and subject to censorship, or translations from other languages. All the works are considered in relation to broader socio-cultural contexts. The analysis uncovers a plurality of different sources for these narratives of lesbianism and desire between women, showing how different layers of discourse emerge from or are reworked in and across several genres. From scientists who condemned the immoral and degenerate nature of «Sapphic» desire, to erotic publications that revelled in the pleasures of female same-sex intimacy, to portrayals of homoerotic desire by female writers that call (more or less obliquely) for its legitimization, these texts open up important new perspectives on discourses of sexuality in modern Italy.


«‘Eccentricity and Sameness ’adds a new chapter to the history of same-sex relations between women in modern Europe. Shedding light on Italy’s dark sexual past, Ross explores multiple discursive realms, including sexology and literature, to show convincingly why the study of lesbianism matters.»(Laura Doan, Professor of Cultural History and Sexuality Studies, University of Manchester)

«This is a much needed investigation into one of the least explored areas of modern Italian culture. It makes a significant and valuable addition to the broader field of queer, lesbian and gay studies, which is still too focused on the Anglophone experience. With impressive critical acumen, based on meticulous close reading and historical contextualization, Ross brilliantly details the complex discursive mechanisms through which female same-sex desire was made intelligible. This is an important book – original in its subject matter and sophisticated in its theoretical insights, offering a unique perspective on modern Italian culture.» (Derek Duncan, Professor of Italian Studies, University of St Andrews)

Posted in 19th century, Female friendships, Feminism, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Researching LGBTQ histories, cultures and identities in Italy

This is a post I wrote for a blog set up by my university for LGBT History month. See the other posts here:

This is my contribution:

I’ve been researching lesbian lives, experiences and stories in Italy for over ten years now and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that this research has changed my life. It has changed my ways of understanding feminist theory and of being a feminist; it has changed my engagement with the label ‘lesbian’, and how I feel about my own identity; it has opened many doors on a whole host of dynamic and fascinating Italian queer subcultures; it has led me to go on my own queer grand tour of Italy, making many wonderful friends along the way. It has been fun, frustrating, moving and immensely exciting, sometimes all at once.

I began my academic career as a scholar of literature, having had a solid, if rather conservative education during my BA degree and my MA. My first introduction to queer theory and theories of sexuality came about through friends and partners, rather than through seminars. At the time (the early 2000s) there was very little discussion of LGBTQ issues at Italian Studies conferences so I did a great deal of reading and thinking on my own and it took several years before I felt sufficiently prepared to begin presenting papers and publishing articles on this subject. It wasn’t a particularly easy route to take: there was relatively little published research to guide me (there were some very important trailblazing studies on male homosexuality in Italy, especially in literature, but very little on lesbians and desire between women); what’s more, every time I gave a paper in a new environment I was unsure of the reaction I might get, and it meant effectively coming out in the workplace once more. However, over the last decade the field of Italian Studies has developed in really progressive ways. Most subject-area conferences will now have at least one, sometimes more panels on LGBTQ issues and many interdisciplinary conferences have been organised in Italy; some fantastic, meticulously-researched articles and monographs have been published, both in Italian and English, which have enabled me to develop my own projects. I’ve been supported by colleagues and friends, and met many inspiring people in Italy who are gathering queer histories and campaigning to improve LGBTQ rights (Italy still lacks adequate anti-discrimination legislation and civil unions are not officially recognised, for example). I’ve conducted some interviews myself, and have been extremely moved by the generosity, honesty and friendliness of all those who have participated in my projects. Being ‘out in the field’ is an emotional experience, which may involve interviewing someone about their experiences of homophobia, learning about some of the fantastic socio-cultural and political initiatives that are going on, or going to Pride Parades and hearing inspiring speakers rally the crowds. Over time, I have become not just an onlooker but involved in the LGBTQ movement in Italy, in my own small way.


This photo shows the Pride parade held in Palermo, Sicily, in 2012 (source: The city’s first Pride parade took place in 2010, and it has now become an annual event.

It has made a huge difference to have been supported by my own institution, the University of Birmingham, both intellectually, through crucial dialogues with colleagues, and financially. I’ve also been lucky enough to win funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). During this time, I’ve become increasingly aware of the differences between the UK and Italy in relation to LGBTQ rights. I’ve spoken about this at length with friends in both countries, and shared some important Italian work on homo-lesbo-bi- and trans-phobia with LGBTQ communities in Birmingham, thanks to the Shout festival. In 2013 I hosted a screening of and discussion about the 2010 documentary Diversamente etero (Twisted Straight) by Elena Tebano, Milena Cannvacciuolo, Marica Lizzadro and Chiara Tarfano, which reflects on lesbophobia and lesbian invisibility in contemporary Italian culture, in particular on Italian Big Brother (

In the UK today, while attitudes and legislation have improved significantly in recent years, there is little room for complacency about LGBTQ rights, since homophobic attitudes still abound; sadly, there remains an enormous amount of work to be done in Italy, where queer individuals and families are not protected by law. But there are many things that make me hopeful: the swiftness of some of the changes I’ve seen in the last decade; the number of researchers now working on LGBTQ issues in Italy, in a wide range of disciplines and based all over the world; the sheer resilience of many of the people I’ve met. My research has never been ‘just a job’ to me and I hope it will continue to help me grow as a person. Most of all, I hope that my research is making a difference, and improving awareness of, critical engagement with and the ‘speakability’ of lesbian lives, experiences and identities in Italy, and beyond.

Posted in Contemporary Italy, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Goliarda Sapienza’s ‘French Connections’

See the link below for a video of a talk I gave at the conference ‘Goliarda Sapienza in Context’, held at the IGRS, London, on 1 June 2013. It was organised by Alberica Bazzoni, Emma Bond and Katrin Wehling-Giorgi. Thanks to everyone who made it such a rich and stimulating event.

Posted in Female friendships, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘I’m not a lesbo-feminist but…..’: forms of lesbian (dis)avowal in contemporary Italian culture

The post below is a slightly modified version of a paper I presented at the conference ‘Postfeminism? The Culture and Politics of Gender in the Age of Berlusconi’ [Postfemminismo? Cultura e politica di genere ai tempi di Berlusconi], held in Bologna, 7-9 June, 2012, organized by the Culture and Politics of Gender Research Group [Gruppo di Ricerca sulla Cultura e Politica di Genere]. My talk took place just after a screening of the brilliant documentary Diversamente etero, by Elena Tebano, Milena Cannavacciuolo, Marika Lizzardo, and Chiara Tarfano. If you haven’t seen it, go to the website! My discussion will make more sense if you have a clearer idea of what the documentary is about ( Comments welcome!

Download PDF of paper: I’m not a lesbofeminist but

Recent scholarship has discussed how, in a post-feminist age, explicit feminist declarations have fallen out of favour, as feminist principles have been mainstreamed and feminism is seen to have had its day. An ambivalent relationship to the feminist past has been identified amongst younger generations of women, crystallised in sentences beginning ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’, ‘Non sono femminista ma..’, which then go on to claim rights and freedoms that resonate clearly with feminist goals and achievements (see for example Williams and Wittig 1997; Cirant 2005). Statements like this are charged with multiple, contradictory connotations, with what Angela McRobbie has identified as an entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas. One effect of this entanglement is to disassociate the speaker from the stigmatised spectre of second-wave feminism that is perceived as ‘going too far’ (Gill 2007). Rosalind Gill has underlined the importance of analysing this melding of feminist and anti-feminist perspectives in relation to neoliberalist individualism (Gill 2007: 25)—that is, the replacement of the socio-political subject with the entrepreneurial, self-regulating, neoliberal individual, exemplified in the highly mediatised figure of the apparently ‘freely choosing, self-reinventing subject of postfeminism’ (2008). Scholars have questioned whether this subject really can make a ‘free’ choice, and the extent to which the mainstreaming of feminist ideas dilutes their political punch, leaving them ineffectively complicit with dominant discourses.

Taking the entangled instrumentalisation and disavowal of feminism as a starting point, I want to reflect on what happens when the term ‘lesbian’ is explicitly evidenced in the type of sentence I’ve just mentioned. Other examples might include the following:

  • I’m not a lesbian [although I would like to identify as one, if only I was sure that my mother/brother/boss/neighbour wouldn’t find out]
  • I’m not a lesbian, because I’m not like the stereotype of a man-hating, raving separatist [but I like girls, and have ‘friends’]
  • I’m not a lesbian, I just sleep with women [i.e. I’ll take advantage of the relative advances in sexual freedoms but won’t support political battles or challenge heteronormativity]
  •  I’m not a lesbian, I’m queer, but I support LGBTQ rights

These statements connote several different forms of disavowal, which in turn lead to different consequences, both for the individual involved and for society in general. They may be motivated by fear of reprisals, dislike of stereotypes, a desire for a peaceful life, or a much more radical form of political engagement. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but just some food for thought.

In my reflections, I want to think about lesbian disavowal in contemporary Italy. I became interested in this idea after watching the fascinating 2010 documentary Diversamente etero, by Elena Tebano, Milena Cannavacciuolo, Marika Lizzardo, Chiara Tarfano, which follows fans of Sarah Nile and Veronica Ciardi, starts of Grande fratello 10, and includes some particularly striking examples of lesbian disavowal, as I discuss below. I’ll consider this along with various other examples, drawn from contemporary Italian popular culture, literature and cinema. What I want to suggest is that:

1)      The form of lesbian disavowal evidenced in relation to Sarah Nile and Veronica Ciardi is not an isolated phenomenon. It is quite diffuse.

2)      It is a form of disavowal that is produced within, or even demanded by, the broader context of Berlusconismo.

3)      Rather than a ‘postlesbismo’ that transcends sexual categories, we see the spectre of ‘lesbianism’ being discredited;  like feminism, it ‘goes too far’.

I begin with the context. Building on persistent, entrenched homophobia, Berlusconi’s government and his media channels have promoted a form of sexualised heteronormativity. Lesbians, like other sexual dissidents, are, for the most part, invisibilised, demonised and discriminated against. As a result, many individuals who might wish to identify as lesbians refuse this term, refusing to be categorised as a deviant sexual other. In Erving Goffman’s terms (1963) this is a way of avoiding stigma by denying association with a discredited identity.[1] Simultaneously, Berlusconismo rewards women who perform female homoeroticism for the male gaze. Young women seeking a media career or financial gain are encouraged to connote through their actions: ‘I’m not a lesbian but I’ll perform erotic acts with women for male sexual gratification’. Here is one example:



However we wish to interpret this image, as sexual objectification or postfeminist sexual emancipation available to a queer gaze, it signifies within a broader, heteronormative realm, which casts self-defining lesbians as ‘unnatural’, while greedily consuming female homoeroticism that remains complicit with heteronormative patriarchy. Berlusconismo has established acceptable and unacceptable categories of female same-sex desire or practices—what we might call ‘real’ lesbians are unacceptable in mainstream discourse, while ‘fake’ lesbians are valorised.

One major problem here is the reinforcing of essentialist sexual categories through the construction of contrasting categories. On the one hand, there is the lesbian movement, for ‘real’ lesbians, that seeks to enable women who desire women to develop positive, autonomous forms of lesbian subjectivity. It has fought to open up spaces, even separating from the ‘movimento eterofeminista’ in the early 1980s, in order to articulate ‘uno specifico lesbico’ (AAVV 2008; Pomeranzi 2011). The notion of what lesbian subjectivity might be has evolved in productively rich and flexible ways in recent years, and a greater variety of ‘lesbian’ subject positions are visible. These developments have been captured and represented by texts such as I viaggi di Nina, the documentary series screened on La7 in 2006, by the journalist Giovanna ‘Nina’ Palmieri, updated and expanded in Palmieri’s recent book Ragazze che amano ragazze. Further texts that represent positive affirmations of lesbian identity are Maria Laura Annibale and Laura Valle’s two documentaries: L’altra metà del cielo e L’altra metà del cielo continua (2009; 2012).

However, these texts and attitudes are known to a minority of individuals. One indicator of the reach of these texts/figures is the number of Facebook fans they have attracted: In 2012, I viaggi di Nina had 2 facebook sites, with 1300 and 1900 fans. Sarah Nile had 33,000 fans; Veronica had 75,000; Sarah and Veronica had 16,000. And politically-engaged, out and proud lesbians in the public eye remain few and far between. Paola Concia comes to mind, but few other queer women in Italian public life have been as open as she has about their sexuality.

On the other hand, we have women in the public eye, models, actors, escorts embroiled in scandal, who market themselves as heterosexual but who engage in homoerotic activity either as part of their playful role, or for a paying male audience. The term ‘lesbian’ is very rarely used in relation to these women. They don’t identify as lesbians, and while to some extent their behaviour fits the socio-sexual category of lesbianism, they have been considered ‘fake’ lesbians; they engage in same-sex acts just to gain attention, thereby reducing ‘real’ female same-sex relationships and desire to a bit of fun to turn on male voyeurs. The ‘real’ desire of these ‘fake’ lesbians, it would seem, is for the men watching them. It doesn’t disrupt the form of heteronormativity privileged by Berlusconismo, and therefore doesn’t attract homophobic abuse—while gay men and figures like Paola Concia do. These women are also often seen to be complicit with neoliberal patriarchy.

These polarized views of ‘real and ‘fake’ lesbians raise important issues of human rights, and ethical citizenship; but they also risk reproducing the problematic, moralistic judgements that feminists have implicitly or explicitly directed at the veline, when they take up a position as ‘real’ women, reducing veline to mere ‘fakes’ (and I recommend Danielle Hipkins’ work on this issue). A perspective that contrasts ‘real’ lesbians with ‘fake’ lesbian performances risks imposing essentialist categories of sexual authenticity just when the notion of what lesbian subjectivity might be is becoming queerly fluid rather than exclusive. This type of categorisation narrows rather than increases women’s freedom to develop an autonomous sexual identity.

Having sketched some of the tensions and problems inherent in the context, I turn now to some examples of lesbian disavowal.

First, let’s consider the story told in Diversamente etero of Sarah, Veronica and ‘il sogno’. Viewers of Grande fratello saw declarations of love, physical intimacy, whispered confessions and extreme anguish when the two women were separated. On one level this phenomenon represents a significant disruption of heteronormativity. It was a sort of ‘coming out’ drama that unfolded, exceptionally, on live tv. It made visible the tip of an iceberg of a ‘realtà sommersa’—as the documentary shows, it touched a profound chord with thousands of young and not so young women, who were desperately craving, or already living an alternative to heteronormative patriarchy, and who wanted to enjoy, and have their identities affirmed by, a positive media presence. Only, perhaps crucially, Sara and Veronica didn’t actually come out. The Grande fratello footage, and subsequent interviews, reveal two women who seemed to want to be in a relationship but who dissociate themselves from the label ‘lesbian couple’. They also disassociated themselves from the ‘sogno’—a term coined by the thousands of fans who followed them around the country to refer to the ‘dream’ of their relationship. The term came to function as shorthand for a longing to experience, even vicariously, a positive love affair between women. Veronica made the following statement, after the end of Grande fratello:

‘Veronica: Il sogno di una coppia gay o lesbica non è e non è mai stato il sogno di Veronica e Sarah. E’ meraviglioso che in nome nostro e del Sogno tante ragazze gay si siano potute conoscere e che abbiano scoperto che amare una donna non è una cosa da tenere nascosta. Ma questo, lo ripeto, è il loro sogno, non il nostro’. (Tarroni 2010)

This seems to be an unequivocal lesbian disavowal; however our interpretation of this statement is complicated by the public professions of love and desire that Veronica and Sarah made, and their apparent desire for one another. Now, however, Sarah and Veronica are no longer ‘not a lesbian couple’. In a recent interview, Sarah spoke about her life today: she discussed the end of her relationship with Matteo Guerra, described as ‘amore’; she talked about posing for Playboy, a brand she professes to admire; she also mentioned her former ‘amicizia’ with Veronica which she characterized as a moment of excess that they have now managed to overcome:

‘Sento anche Veronica anche se con alti e bassi perchè in passato avevamo caratteri molto più irruenti ed istintivi di adesso, ora ci siamo tranquillizzate…però siamo buone amiche’. (Anon. 2012)

This is a neat realignment with neoliberal patriarchy, which narrates a provocative dalliance with same-sex desire that is then obediently repressed.

For many fans, Sarah and Veronica’s relationship seemed ‘vera’, as opposed to other ‘fake’ representations of female homoeroticism in the Italian media. But what was it, exactly? ‘Special friendship’, perhaps a postmodern version of the ‘romantic friendships’ of the 19th century? Do these disavowals show that the label of ‘lesbian’ remains as stigmatised as ever? Or do they reveal that it is too monolithic a term?

My second example of lesbian disavowal is Francesca de André and Chiara Giorgianni, participants on the tv ‘reality’ shows L’Isola dei famosi and Grande fratello. Chiara, 23, was eliminated from Grande Fratello 12, in 2012. Francesca, 22, is the granddaughter of Fabrizio de André, and therefore has a relatively public profile.


This image appeared in Vanity Fair in April 2012 (Pezzino 2012). Francesca and Chiara make some confused and confusing declarations that recall Sarah and Veronica’s declarations.

  • C: ‘Noi non siamo una coppia perché non siamo lesbiche’.
  • F: ‘Io credo invece che siamo una coppia’.
  • C: ‘siamo migliori amiche che hanno pero’ anche rapporti fisici.’

Are they or aren’t they? Is this a relationship or a publicity stunt? Is their postfeminist sexuality feminist or neoliberal? We learn that when this article was published they had both finished with their male partners. We are also told that they think gay men shouldn’t be fathers since they might psychologically disturb their children. What are we to make of these confusing signals? By calling their relationship ‘un’amicizia’, are they necessarily demoting it, or is this a post identity-politics queering of ‘female friendship?

My third example of disavowal is literary: the characters Anna and Francesca in Silvia Avallone’s novel Acciaio (2010). These 13 year old girls, best friends, kiss and dance together, shower together, reproducing and elaborating forms of female homoeroticism that are commonly seen in mainstream pornography but also on Italian television. They do this for their own fun, but also for hidden voyeurs that spy on them from the apartments opposite.

‘Sono nude. Quella specie di furia che c’e’ all’inizizio nel corpo, quando hai tredici anni […] C’e’ la tua amica del cuore davanti, che strofina la sua pancia alla tua […] Anna le posa le labbra sulle labbra’ (p.32).

However Anna then tells Francesca that this has to stop because they are no longer young, and their intimacy is now breaching a social taboo. It is unliveable: ‘forse ti amo. Ma non e’ una cosa possibile da vivere[…] mi vergogno da morire’ (p.150). We see Francesca battle with a desire to declare and live a same-sex relationship with Anna, and then slide into underage sex work; we see Anna involved with a man aged 23 (Mattia), angrily hurling the word ‘Lesbica’ at Francesca as an insult; but then she wonders whether in different circumstances, i.e. if they lived in Milan not Piombino, she and Francesca would have been emboldened to live out their physical and emotional bond: ‘Se fossero nate a Milano […] forse anche loro si sarebbero baciate davanti a tutti’ (p.327).

Strikingly, a further level of lesbian disavowal surrounds this novel—authorial disavowal. While asserting that of course readers can interpret the text as they choose, Avallone insists that this is not a novel about homosexuality, but the bond between the girls is really maternal (Marchetti 2010):

‘Non si tratta tanto di un rapporto omosessuale, quanto di un’amicizia che  […] è paragonabile a un amore. AMORE IN SENSO AMPIO, CHE SFUGGE ALLE ETICHETTE. Ho tentato di rappresentare un legame, un’alleanza, una complicità che rifiutano una definizione definitiva […] ho pensato più a un senso materno dell’una verso l’altra, che ad altro’. (Marchetti 2010)

A final example of diasavowal is Stefano Pasetto’s film Il Richiamo (2012), which depicts a sexual relationship between two previously heterosexual women. The film is bleak; it is pervaded by homophobia, female same-sex desire is associated with the cancer of one of the women, there is no glimpse of an affirming queer context anywhere, and the relationship is unsatisfying and doomed. One of them explicitly tells the other, ‘non siamo fidanzate’, before returning to her former boyfriend, getting pregnant and marrying him. The cancerous lesbian does recover, happily, ready for a new life, but her story is not told, and is eclipsed by the impossibility of lesbianism. Moreover, aside from the disavowals during the film, the actors who play the lead roles, Sandra Ceccarelli and Francesca Inaudi, also disavow their own, apparent implicit lesbianism by association. In an interview, they both declare that they have had sexual experiences with or feelings for ‘amiche’, but these were not ‘real’. ‘L’amore vero’ has of course, always been with men.[2]

What are we to make of these forms of disavowal?

One response to the media coverage of Francesca and Chiara, and Sarah and Veronica is that it doesn’t matter if they are ‘real’ lesbians or identify as such. They are perforating the heterosexual matrix. Their presence is filling a gaping homophobic media void, and obviously catalysing many young women to reflect on their sexuality, to socialise and gain courage from interacting with others who feel similarly, and to take the first steps towards autonomous self-definition. Of course, this doesn’t need to entail a ‘permanent’, monolithic lesbian identity. What matters is achieving the socio-cultural and discursive conditions in which women can define and determine their sexualities on their own terms.

But what disappoints me is that the stigma that still clings to a lesbian identity is all too palpable. Aside from some of the fans of ‘il sogno’ who claimed that they were not lesbians but they did want to go ‘oltre gli stereotipi’, many of these disavowals of lesbianism seem motivated not by a decision to remain queerly fluid, to transcend sexual categories, but by fear of being associated with a minority perceived as abject. We can see in the fandom around these relationships what Goffman notes in relation to stigma: When the stigmatised person meets his or her own kind, she or he can ‘neither embrace [the] group nor let it go’ (1963: 107-08). The entangled discourses of lesbian-feminism and homophobia that bubble out of these declarations speak volumes about the pervasively homophobic Italian context. We see an urgent need to associate with women who represent the possibility of lesbian desire, accompanied by a dissociation from what this is perceived to entail; through linguistic signifiers, or through the displacement of ‘real’ life into the realm of ‘sogno’.

We could read these situations as confirming women’s rights, in a postfeminist world, to choose male or female partners without feeling constrained by outmoded and problematic stereotypes of sexual categorisation. Post lesbismo. But doesn’t there have to be a more fully visible ‘lesbismo’ before we get to the ‘post’ phase? Rosi Braidotti has asserted that ‘one cannot deconstruct a subjectivity that one has never been fully granted’ (2011: 268). Does the example of ‘il sogno’ indicate that postlesbian subjectivity can pack a transformative punch even without the broader legitimisation of lesbian subjectivity?[3] Perhaps, but the impact of this transformation is limited. This is certainly not the politicised, self-conscious, ironic ‘postlesbianism’ of figures such as Sandra Bernhard. Moreover, what if Sarah and Veronica, or other women who experience temporary ‘amicizie’ of this kind, are no longer together, or were never a couple in the first place, because of homophobic socio-cultural pressure? I’m not saying it is necessarily the case for them, but many women still find it impossible to live the lives they desire because of persistent homophobia, both internalised and in the broader socio-cultural context. This seems to me to be what Avallone is narrating in her novel Acciaio.

And this is one reason why her dismissal of a homosexual interpretation of Anna and Francesca’s attraction seems so problematic to me. Avallone seems to assume a post-identity politics perspective on sexuality, but lesbian identity remains implicitly unspeakable, as though it needed to be diluted. The ‘amicizia’ she narrates is not to be considered as equal to ‘un amore’. Just ‘paragonabile’. Avallone, like Sandra Ceccarelli and Francesca Inaudi, is acknowledging an openness to non-normative sexuality, but simultaneously demoting lesbianism to a form of friendship and ensuring that the stigma of lesbianism doesn’t stick to her (Ahmed).


To conclude, then: These forms of disavowal leave me with many questions and frustrations. Why, when for a growing minority of women, such as those interviewed by Nina Palmieri, lesbian identity is a source of great liberation and affirmation, are there so many mainstream texts that insist on the impossibility of lesbianism; or evoke it just to discredit it? What is it about the movimento lesbico that discourages many women from joining it?

Valeria Santini, speaking in Diversamente etero, notes: ‘Se questa rappresentazione del lesbismo ci è insufficiente o non ci piace, ci dobbiamo interrogare noi’. Of course we should interrogate ourselves; but we should also interrogate the socio-cultural context that disproportionately rewards heterosexuality, and that greedily consumes female homoeroticism, as long as it is merely a transitory, audience-focussed performance that will be dissolved into Playboy iconography long before anything like a ‘specifico lesbico’ or ‘postlesbico’ becomes visible, speakable or liveable for the broader population.

And just to clarify, I am not arguing that erotic representations of female same-sex intimacy should be censored; but what is currently on offer needs to be supplemented by a more visible, broader range of representations, some of which are overtly targeted at female desiring subjects. To my mind, the ‘choices’ made by the women I have discussed, such as the choice to use the term ‘amicizia’, are not entirely free; and the pressures of neoliberal patriarchy are very present in these narratives of sexual emancipation. The implication that, for the neoliberal, self-regulating subject, sexuality is a choice, is problematic. This makes moments of contestation, and queer opposition all the more vital and necessary—but perhaps these moments won’t gain momentum until there is a significant number of lesbian-identified women in the Italian public eye who are prepared to say, openly, ‘Sono lesbica, e orgogliosa di esserlo’. If the stigma of lesbianism began to dissolve, a whole range of more fluid sexual subjectivities for women might also gain greater socio-cultural speakability and livability. It is not that Sara and Veronica, the non-couple of ‘amiche’  is ‘wrong’; indeed, they may represent a new form of lesbian ‘diva’; but in order for there to be any substantive choice in sexual self-realisation, this type of ‘non-lesbianism’ needs to be supplemented by many more representations of more explicitly affirming female same-sex desire.


AAVV (2008) Il movimento delle lesbiche in Italia, eds Monia Dragone, Cristina Gramolini, Paola Guazzo, Helen Ibry, Eva Mamini, Ostilia Mulas. Milan: Il Dito e la luna.

Annibale, Maria Laura and Laura Valle (2009) L’altra metà del cielo. Rome: Edizioni Croce

Annibale, Maria Laura and Laura Valle (2012). L’altra metà del cielo continua. Rome: Edizioni Croce

Anon. (2012). ‘Intervista esclusiva a Sarah Nile’, La Donna Leichic. 18 May:

Aronson. Pamela (2003) ‘Feminists or “Postfeminists”?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations’. In Gender and Society, Vol. 17, No. 6: 903-922

Avallone, Silvia (2010) Acciaio. Milan: Rizzoli

Braidotti, Rosi (2011) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. Columbia University Press

Cirant, Eleonora (2005) ‘“Io non sono femminista ma… Immagini di giovani donne nello specchio incrinato dell’identità di genere’. In Donne e uomini che cambiano, ed. Elisabetta Ruspini. Milan: Guerini: 91- 120

Gill, Rosalind (2007) Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2):147-166.

Gill, Rosalind (2008) Culture and Subjectivity in Neoliberal and Postfeminist Times. Subjectivity (2008) 25, 432–445.

Hipkins, Danielle (2011) ‘‘Whore-ocracy’: show girls, the beauty trade-off, and mainstream oppositional discourse in contemporary Italy.’ In Italian Studies, Vol. 66, No. 3: 413 – 430

Marchetti, Francesco (2010) Intervista a Silvia Avallone: acciaio e amore. Wuz. 15 February.

McRobbie, A. (2004). ‘Post feminism and popular culture.’ Feminist Media Studies, 4 (3): 255-264

Pasetto, Stefano (2012) Il Richiamo

Palmeri, Giovanna ‘Nina’ (2010). Ragazze che amano ragazze. Milan: Mondadori

Pezzino, Laura (2012). ‘Francesca De André & Chiara Giorgianni. Non siamo una coppia. O forse sì’. Vanity Fair, no. 13, 4 April: 158-62

Pomeranzi, Bianca Maria (2011). ‘Per una breve storia del lesbo-femminismo in Italia’. Le cinque giornate lesbiche in teoria. Eds Liana Borghi, Francesca Manieri, Ambra Pirri. Rome: Ediesse: 23-32

Schiavo, Maria (2006) Movimento a più voci. Il femminismo dagli anni Settanta attraverso il racconto di una protagonista. Milan: FrancoAngeli

Tarroni, Giulia (2010) ‘Veronica Ciardi: “Sarah Nile ed io non stiamo insieme”.’ Mondo Reality, available at:

Tebano Elena, Milena Cannavacciuolo, Marika Lizzardo, Chiara Tarfano (2010) Diversamente etero (

Walton, Jean (2005) ‘Sandra Bernhard: Lesbian Postmodern or Modern Postlesbian?’ in The Lesbian Postmodern, ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press: 244-262

Williams, Rachel and Michele Andrisin Wittig (1997) “I’m not a feminist, but…”: factors contributing to the discrepancy between pro-feminist orientation and feminist social identity.  Sex Roles Volume 37, Numbers 11-12, 885-904

[1] He speaks of discredited identities (e.g. visible disabilities) and discreditable identities, where the stigma relates to an ‘invisible’ condition e.g. (in some cases) homosexuality. (Stigma, 1963).

[2] Vanity Fair, 2 May 2012.

[3] See Walton 2005 for a discussion of Sandra Berhard, who does pack a punch and is much more explicitly politicised.

Posted in Contemporary Italy, Female friendships, Feminism, lesbian disavowal, Posts in English, Queer, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged , , | Leave a comment