Internationally renowned as the romantic setting of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the formulation of ‘love’ the city of Verona has come to champion is premised on traditionalist heteronormative scripts. But maybe something is going to change

The city of love, beyond
the anti-gender movement

di Ipek Demirsu Di Biase

“For Forza Nuova, Verona represents itself as Europe’s Vandea, and is a candidate for the near future to be an authentically revolutionary laboratory in the fight against the enemies of the People of Europe, liberticidal laws against the family, and against life.” (Roberto Fiore, national leader of Forza Nuova, Verona 22 November 2018).[1]

Internationally renowned as the romantic setting of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the formulation of ‘love’ the city of Verona has come to champion is premised on traditionalist heteronormative scripts, where the ‘natural family’ between ‘natives’ is espoused as the panacea against the ills of a globalizing society. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Verona was the choice of venue for the World Congress of Families in 2019, as the city administration has been historically pioneering anti-gender policies backed up by local far-right movements that have been relentlessly contested by local feminist and LGBTQ+ groups. Hence, in order to unpack the making of this anti-gender stronghold one must understand the turbulent past of Verona and the everyday struggles it has been accommodating in its shared urban spaces.  

Verona has been historically distinguished in the post-war period by the cultural homogeneity of traditionalist Catholicism in its territory, characterized as ‘white’ referring to its adherence to the Christian Democrat party. Yet, such religiosity also manifested in more radical variants upholding illiberal values, with local religious associations such as Famiglia e Civiltà, dividing the image of the city into those who support ‘homosexual immorality’ and those that defend traditional values.

Certain discourses among non-institutional actors were eventually carried within the city administration through a ‘holy alliance’ between ultra-Catholics, far-right groups, and the Lega party, whereby the anti-gender political stance constituted a central pillar. Such political configuration gave way to instances where a councilor from Lega Nord could suggest the castration of gay men in the city council in 1995, during the discussions of a landmark motion passed by the city council (motion no.336, still in force)[2] bringing Verona on the international stage as the first and only European city negating the A3-0028/94 European Parliament resolution which recommended member states to implement equal treatment for individuals of different sexual orientation.[3] 

The EU resolution was rejected by a majority in the Verona city council on the grounds that it could invoke ‘promiscuity’ against the ‘fundamental tenets of the family order’.[4] The fact that the Municipality was financing ‘pro-family’ groups composed of ultra-conservative associations the same year that the notorious motion was passed, followed by other two motions consolidating the official stance on the ‘traditional natural family’ (motions no. 361 and no.393) filled local LGBTQ+ activists groups with a burning sensation of injustice.

The latter thus launched what would become a national mobilization of rewriting citizenship to include equal recognition of sexual minorities, under the slogan Citizenship Is To Be Written: “At that point our struggle was born to put the term ‘family’ in discussion. We departed from this conception and initiated a legal battle with ultra-Catholic groups and city councilors that were involved. These battles had one goal, that goal was to get justice, to become a legal subject as homosexuals, so that one could not attack a person because they are gay, because that gay person was now part of a legal subjectivity.” (Interview with C. Z., a local LGBTQ+ activist who has preferred to remain anonymous, February 2021).

Throughout the years, successive city councils continued to pass controversial motions that consolidated the image of Verona as a stronghold of the transnational anti-gender movement, while the city hosted numerous Family Day and anti-abortion rallies hosting European counterparts, as well as anti-Pride protests with the participation of an ex-mayor.

In 2018, the city officially declared itself ‘Verona città in favore della vita’ (Verona the city in favor of life), paving the way for the public funding of anti-abortion groups amidst the silent protest of feminist activists from Non Una Di Meno Verona who showed up at the city council dressed as handmaids. While the group had utilized this new global symbol in the fight for women’s bodily rights borrowed from the tv series The Handmaid’s Tale, their protest was met by the scandalous fascist salute of a councilor who is under trial for the gesture.

The motion worked as a precedent for other cities around Italy, being justified by its creator on nativist grounds of promoting Italian birthrates against the threat of Muslim minority taking over the ‘homeland’. Two years later, the city administration passed another anti-gender motion against the draft Zan-Scalfarotto bill presented in the Italian parliament, backed up for defending the nuclear family “as the last refuge of Man in a disintegrated and globalized society.” (Online ethnography fieldnotes on Facebook, 17 July 2020, public post on Facebook by a far-right Veronese politician).

It is in this political setting that Verona became the perfect choice of venue for the World Congress of Families, uniting the universe of anti-gender actors around the world in its historical center.

Such sociopolitical positioning of Verona has been accompanied by everyday forms of boundary-drawing through systematic monitoring and threatening of sexual minorities. As lucidly explicated by a prominent LGBTQ+ activist: “For us, it was almost dangerous crossing the bridge and going to the city center because it was controlled by the far-right. I remember the years when we had our office in via Scrimiari, we would go out in groups, we couldn’t go out alone.” (Interview with C.Z., 10 Feb 2021). 

Another practice of every day boundary-drawing in Verona involves markings over material reality through textual graffiti, posters, stickers and other forms of street art. Above is a striking example found in a park which has been historically used as a safe meeting place for gay men at the southern borders of the city in the early 2000s. The poster is signed as ‘Verona’ claiming to speak on behalf of the city, with a symbol uniting the neonazi Wolfsangel sign with the traditional Veronese coat of arms scala sign. The poster reads: “Warning, the area is highly polluted by garbage and infested by faggots and molest. Keep the environment clean, defend the nature!” Hence, the ‘protection’ of this green area is used as a metaphor to invoke the ‘natural sexual relationships’ against what is considered as homosexual promiscuity, and thereby territorializing the area with scripts of heteronormative righteousness.

Notwithstanding the hostile social setting of Verona for sexual minorities and women’s rights, the protracted struggle grassroots movements have been undertaking throughout the years against such powerful alliance of anti-gender network has been finally paying off. One notices a breath of fresh air in the city after the local elections last June, where an alliance of leftist actors with the leadership of the new mayor Damiano Tommasi has won with more than 53% of the votes. His main opponent and ex-mayor Federico Sboarina warned the citizens of Verona against the possible repercussions of the city becoming a ‘transgender capital’ if Tommasi were to win, due to his open exchanges with local LGBTQ+ and feminist activists throughout his campaign.

This plea was backed-up by the bishop of Verona, a central figure in the anti-gender alliance, calling voters to choose ‘traditional family’ in the elections in what has been a heavy blow to the principle of secularism. Hence, the victory of Tommasi’s list has been a landmark result bringing a leftist mandate in the city council for the first time since 1994 (except for the 5 years in office by Paolo Zanotto who refrained from approaching issues related to sexual rights and gender identity), with an immediate impact for the recognition of sexual minorities in the city.

Damiano Tommasi became the first ever mayor of Verona to attend Verona Pride 2022 immediately after coming to office, an unprecedented move in the ‘model city’ for the anti-gender movement.

Notes

[1] “Per Forza Nuova Verona si presenta come la ‘Vandea d'Europa’ e si candida per il prossimo futuro ad essere un laboratorio autenticamente rivoluzionario, per combattere i nemici dell'Europa dei Popoli, le leggi liberticide e contro la famiglia e la vita". L’Arena, 22 November 2018.

[2] Consiglio Comunale di Verona (1995) Mozione no. 336, Unità Affari Consiglio (14 July1995), Verona. Translated from the original Italian text.

[3] European Parliament (1994) Report of the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs on equal rights for homosexuals and lesbians in the EC, A3-0028/94 (26 January 1994), [Accessed on 23 September 2020] Available at: http://aei.pitt.edu/49350/1/A10612.pdf.

[4] Consiglio Comunale di Verona (1995) Mozione no. 336, Unità Affari Consiglio (14 July1995), Verona. Translated from the original Italian text.

This article is a short version of the speech that the author gave during the Weaving the Transnational Anti-Gender Network conference, which took place in Florence in May 2022.

 


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