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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Will Italy’s Next Prime Minister Be a Gay Man?

By Steve Weinstein -

Nichi Vendola
As Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fights mounting scandals in his personal, business and political life, the out-gay governor of Apulia has emerged as his principal rival and successor.

Nichi Vendola governs the region, which constitutes the "heel" of the boot-shaped Mediterranean nation. The agricultural region, rich in history, has one major city, Bari, on the Adriatic Coast. The region is traditionally conservative, but the left-wing Vendola is very popular there.

Berlusconi has survived several crises before, including a public and nasty divorce and allegations that he hired underage girls as prostitutes. But the latest scandals involve alleged orgies at his villa with underage girls and hush money being given to them.

"We are in the delivery room," Vendola said in a Washington Post profile, about the coming parliamentary no-confidence vote against Berlusconi. "I see in the belly of Italy the alternative creature ready to be born. And as an obstetrician, I want to deliver it."

Vendola has an ornate, baroque speaking style that is both admired and satirized in the Italian press, as is his lisp. He is also a natty dresser. He is a member of a communist party, which puts him to the left of nearly all other major politicians -- which is pretty far left in the volatile political state of Italian politics. (Even his first name harks back to the Soviets; he is purportedly named for USSR Premier Nikita Kruschev.)

His latest party -- which he formed -- is called the Left Ecology Freedom Party. Berlusconi is apparently taking him seriously enough so that he made a now-infamous response to his carousing with underage girls: "It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."

The statement didn’t win him many friends among voters, the press or even the Vatican, which still wields a great deal of influence over affairs in Italy despite being officially limited to the tiny Roman enclave of Vatican City.

"On the one hand, I thought it’s the usual Berlusconi, that slimy bottom-feeder of small bourgeois culture, who tells anti-Semitic and homophobic jokes and affects a rampant masculinity to connect with what he imagines to be the Italian everyman, because he is the monstrous and extreme version of the Italian everyman," Vendola said of the wisecrack. "On the other hand, I thought he chose me. It’s a joke aimed at an antagonist."

If Berlusconi, who is the major press baron of Italy (a sort of Italian Rupert Murdoch) represents the media establishment, Vendola represents the future of media. He is very active on social networks like Facebook, and his website There Is a Better Italy has promoted clubs around the country knowns as "Nichi’s Workshops."

In the Post profile, Vendola reveals that he partly broke with his close-knit family after he came out but had a reconciliation after he spoke to a huge crowd at a Gay Pride rally in Rome. His mother told him that his father wanted to him for forgiveness.

"I don’t think I ever cried like that in my life," Vendola recalled. "I think I cried for a couple of days."

Vendola doesn’t see his sexuality as necessarily presenting a problem for the Vatican -- or at least his sexuality may be, in the end, less of a problem for the pope and the cardinals than Berlusconi’s increasingly embarrassing escapades.

Vendola, who is 52, is also a published poet. There is a documentary, Nichi, based on his life. According to a profile in New York’s Gay City News, Vendola did his university thesis on the famous gay Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Vendola was a reporter for the Italian Communist newspaper after graduating from college. He was elected to Italy’s parliament before leading Apulia.

He’s also the only major Italian politician to wear an earring -- a large hoop that dangles from his left ear. If elected, he would be the second out-gay head of a European government, after Iceland.
EDGE Editor-in-Chief Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007). 

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