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: http://www.regioni-italiane.com/Bologna_gay_pride_2008.html). 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 (http://shoutfestival.co.uk/Film/Twisted-Straight/148).
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.