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Friday, January 28, 2011

Italian University Offers Country’s 1st Gay Rights Course

By Colleen Barry -

Giacomo Moro wasn’t going to retreat in the face of a stranger’s piercing threats because he’s gay.

The 23-year-old biology major was hanging a flyer for a gay association event at Milan’s state university last summer when the man started hurling insults out of nowhere. Moro was alone in an elevator alcove on campus - but stood his ground.

"He insulted me, said that I was disgusting, that I was human feces," Moro said. Then the man added a threat: "If you hang another flyer, I will kill you."

Shaken, but unharmed, Moro decided to help turn that act of hatred, the first he’d suffered since he’d come out at age 17, into something constructive: Italy’s first accredited university course on gay studies on offer this winter at the Milan university school of political science.

"I didn’t seek charges against the guy," Moro said, who was the inspiration and one of the promoters of the class. "This person’s hatred was born of ignorance. This class is something of a response.’"

While gay studies courses are widespread in the United States and much of northern Europe, often under the heading gender studies to be inclusive of lesbians and transsexuals, such an offering in predominantly Roman Catholic Italy, where church teachings hold homosexual activity to be sinful, is something of a revolution - albeit so far confined to the halls of higher learning.

"In Italy until now, if you spoke of gender on campus, it was in regards to grammar," said Marco Mori, president of the Milan chapter of gay rights group Arcigay.

Gay activists say tolerance needs to start in cultural institutions like universities for it to take hold in society at large.

"Homophobia can’t be fought with laws. You do it through cultural institutions, through schools, educating teachers, and at public universities, to put people in the condition to combat discrimination where it arises daily, in families, at school and at work," said Arcigay national president Paolo Patane.

The course is being launched alongside other tentative steps of acceptance on Italian campuses. Some universities have recently allowed transsexuals in the process of changing gender to carry ID using their new name, activists say - so Mario may be officially called Maria. The example may seem banal. But in Italy’s bulky bureaucracy, a name as it appears on a birth certificate is all but set in stone from grammar school through working life.

Arcigay also has welcomed as an important victory a national statistics agency decision, pending final approval, to allow homosexual couples who live together to be counted in this year’s census.

But gays in Italy have a long way to go for full acceptance. Attempts at legalizing gay marriage, while gathering broad support on the left, have repeatedly failed. Hate crimes against gays go uncounted, as there is no statistical category specifying a crime against a homosexual.

"There is the silence of institutions. If a person who is black or Jewish is attacked physically or verbally, institutions intervene, quite rightly, and this intervention gives a signal to citizens that the gesture is not acceptable," Patane said. "This is missing for homosexuals."

Antonella Besussi, the professor who is coordinating the Milanese university class, said she got a flurry of attention when it was first announced, including some doubts on its merits. "This enormous media resonance has left me a little perplexed," Besussi said.

Still, the class was launched last week with little fanfare and scant media coverage. There also were no hecklers or detractors. Nearly 200 students showed up for the first day and 120 enrolled for credit.

"We are very satisfied," said Fabio Galantucci, who one of the students who helped design the course, seek out guest lecturers from universities throughout Italy for each of the 11 sessions, and get course work approved for credit. "We’re going to have to get a bigger room than we anticipated. People are responding very positively to the offer, to get the chance to see the world in a way different than presented by the media."

Course lectures are meant to stimulate "controlled debate," and each student is required to complete a paper elaborating on one of the subjects studied. It is only being offered this semester, though it theoretically could be repeated if there were interest.

Elisa Cutta, a 23-year-old linguistics major, joined the course after seeing a poster for it. "I don’t know if it can be useful, but it will be interesting," she said.

Because gay life is not part of everyday life for many, organizers say the course is very basic in its approach to the material and is aimed at discussing gender identity and what that means in an array of contexts, from political to judicial to literary.

Moro couldn’t hide his pleasure as the lecture hall filled up last week.

"He found the wrong person," Moro said of his attacker. "I have never had a problem speaking openly about these things. If it had been someone whose parents didn’t know, it would be more difficult. Where there is injustice, I try to face it."


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