Anna Battaglia is a retired middle school teacher. She is the leader of the AGEDO chapter of Regusa, Sicily. AGEDO is the PFlag of Italy — an organization where parents and friends of LGBT people can support one another, network and do activism on behalf of the gay community. There are twenty AGEDO chapters throughout Italy from Milan, in the far north, to Regusa, in the southeast of Sicily.
Marina di Regusa, Sicily, Italy. by Rev. Stephen Parelli. July 14, 2016
Jose Ortiz and I met up with Anna in Marina di Regusa, Sicily, a popular beach town, where she lives.
“Parents are shy,” she begins in Italian. They don’t want their gay sons and daughters to “publicize” their sexual orientation or gender identity, she tells us. Parents feel they must “keep it quiet” because homosexuality is perceived by the general public as “not a good thing.” As young adults, the gay sons and daughters move out of town; when they return to town for a visit they will bring a “friend of the opposite sex, pretending to be straight.”
Sometimes the conflict is between the straight parents. For example, Anna tells us about husbands/fathers who refuse to talk to their gay sons.
Sons and daughters leave the home. Parents tell their LGBT sons and daughters that they will not give them any financial help. Because of the need, there are now shelters for homeless LGBT people. Anna tells us about one such shelter that was provided for by ties with the Mafia.
I ask Jose, who is my interpreter from Italian to English, to ask Anna to tell us her personal story.
She has a gay son, Stefano, she tells us. He is 32 years old. He lives in Norway with his partner, Fabrizio. They met while students at a university in Rome. They chose to live abroad where they could be free to live openly as a gay couple, unlike Italy where they felt even their careers could, one day, become jeopardized if it became known they were a gay couple.
When Stefano was 20 and a university student in Rome, Anna – his mother, who was teaching middle school at the time, went to the south of Rome, an area known for its thermal springs, for a training for teachers.
Stefano chose this time and this place to come out to his mother. He wrote his mother a letter, brought it to her in person, and stood there as she read the letter. He was certain his mother would “kick him out.” He stood there, “waiting for my reaction.”
“I hugged him,” she tells us. “First, I congratulated him and told him he would only find love.”
Anna said she knew that “if he was telling me this, then it was real.” She had always had good conversations with him as a school boy and teenager. She felt sad that for years her son was alone with this, his homosexual orientation, without any one with whom to speak.
She had observed, at times, a sadness about her adolescent son: “I would see him sad. But my husband died when he was ten. I never imagined it was this” – his homosexual orientation that made him sad.
Anna tells us that she grew up in a time when homosexuality “did not exist.” Now, her son, at age 20, was wanting help from his mother.
In high school, Stefano would help others who were having trouble with their studies. His classmates who thought he might be gay, mistreated him. Stafano “got a girlfriend and got into sports to protect himself and to be liked by everyone.” During his last year in high school, he broke off the relationship with his girlfriend because he felt he was being dishonest with her.
At the university in Rome, Stefano met a professor of anthropology who was informed on homosexuality. Stafano decided to study up on homosexuality for himself and subsequently came to accept his sexual orientation. It was then that he wrote the letter to his mom.
At this stage, after the letter to his mom, Stafano referred himself to a psychologist who helped him progress further as a gay man . After a while, the psychologist phoned Anna to tell her “Stafano was doing fine and that the mom didn’t have to worry about him.”
The psychologist told Stafano about a new Catholic group – gay Catholics. He visited the LGBT center in Rome where the gay Catholics met. Upon his first visit, at the entrance, he phoned his mom. He was hesitant to go in to the Center. She encouraged him, over the phone, to do so. He did.
He “used to have a faith,” Anna tells us. “He would pray to God to change him,” he had said in his letter to his mom. Today he is a self-declared agnostic, “he has left the faith altogether.”
When Anna would visit her son in Rome, she would attend the AGEDO chapter in Rome. At that time, parents in the AGEDO group were shy. There was psychologist who consulted with the AGEDO parents. She would tell her story to the AGEDO parents.
Stafno’s thesis was on homosexuality. The professor of anthropology at the university was writing and teaching about homosexuality. The professor was not popular with his colleagues. The president of the university shut down the professor’s department. His staff was now without work. The professor himself was about to retire, so no substantial financial harm came to him.
Stafno’s thesis was 500 pages in length. He interviewed different individuals including family members, an openly transgender member of Parliament, a priest who conducted “union blessings” (gay “marriages”), a female pastor of a Waldensen church, a lesbian couple from the “Communita di Base” – a religious group in opposition to the Catholic church’s traditional marginalization of certain minorities (divorcees, single mothers, LGBT people), an open minded Jesuit priest and an anonymous priest, who was interviewed with the condition of anonymity, who teaches anthropology.
As she discusses her son’s research paper, she sprinkles her narrative with a couple of personal comments. The church troubles her. It has been a lot of work for her to understand it. While attending church, a priest, at times, would refer to homosexuality as a sickness – that was “hard to hear.”
AGEDO works, now, with local parishes to start the dialogues.
“As a teacher,” Anna says, “I see students enjoying their adolescent years, being drawn by the opposite sex. For my son, however, his adolescent years had to come later in life.”
In 2004, Stafano and Fabricio found each other. Upon Anna’s first visit to Rome, the couple introduced their families to each other. In Rome, the couple could not show any signs of affection in public. In 2012, they moved to Norway.
Our time together is coming to an end. Anna cares for her aging parents, a fact of life that limits the time she has for general activism. She wishes she could do more activism.
I ask Jose to ask Anna, “Why is there so much homophobia in Italy?” She tells me Fascism and the Roman Catholic church, years ago, laid the foundation for homophobia which Italy has yet to shake off. She says the Italian emphasis on masculinity is a factor, too.
I ask her what changes she sees in society. The young people, she says, used to laugh about homosexuality. Now, they want to know more about it.
There is the reaction from the conservative sector, both within the churches and in government. They are creating a “hatred,” she tells me. Recently, the conservatives blocked a law against hate speech. The public protest consisted of standing in silence and holding “books” in their hands in protest.
There was a priest in Ragusa who openly attacked gays on his Facebook wall. The Bishop publicly corrected the priest.
“The church has two ends,” she tells me, concluding our interview at the table where we were sitting, “administrative and pastoral.”
I was left with my own thoughts as we walked together to the point where we would part. Apparently, these two ecclesiastical ends – administrative and pastoral, in matters of LGBT concerns, are, in general, in opposition.
This interview was conducted in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily,on July 14, 2016. Jose Ortiz translated as Steve Pareli took copious notes.
Parelli, referring to his notes, wrote this blog on Tuesday morning of July 19, 2016, and published it to the Internet on July 23, 2016.
Photo at right: Jose Ortiz at Donnalucata beach, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, July 14, 2016. On our way to Marina di Regusa for our interview with Anna.