Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Suddenly, Last Winter": Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi on the Resurgence of Homophobia in Italy (and the Role of Liberals in the Resurgence)

Steve and I watched Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi’s award-winning documentary “Suddenly, Last Winter” last night, and it depressed us. That’s part of the reason I haven’t yet posted anything on this blog today: as I may have hinted on these pages, we struggle with strong feelings of worthlessness, given our experiences as theologians seeking to be true to God’s plan for our lives, but finding one door after another slammed in our faces by a church (and world) that can’t put God and gay into the same sentence without oppression.

As I’ve thought about it today, I found “Suddenly, Last Winter” depressing for a quite specific reason: the story it tells is so ominously close to one now unfolding in the U.S., vis-à-vis gay rights, that it’s impossible not to be depressed. It’s impossible not to be depressed when you see in a carefully documented film how astonishingly easy it is for a few malicious folks and lots of spineless, morally obtuse ones to stop what seems to be ineluctable movement to grant rights to gay citizens, and so wreak havoc in the lives of gay persons.

Gustav and Luca document what happened in Italy when a center-left coalition came to power in spring 2006 and promised civil unions to gay couples in Italy. As they note, Italy is an exception among western European nations in its refusal to provide legal recognition of gay marriage or gay civil unions. That fact alone seemed, in the spring of 2006, to argue for the inevitable opening, even in Italy, to full recognition of gay rights, including gay unions, when the center-left parties came to power.

This is not what happened, however. The film carefully tracks what did happen instead, when the center-left coalition failed to deliver on its promises about civil unions, played ugly games with the gay community, and then fragmented, paving the way for the return to power of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government—a political event in which the Vatican apparently played a key role (see also here and here).

The period in which there was an opening to a different political (and cultural and religious) possibility in Italy, and then the door slammed shut again, is, in the way Gustav and Luca tell their story, eerily like the period through which we are now living in the U.S. As their documentary shows, a number of factors coalesced to stop the movement to civil unions in Italy in its tracks—seemingly for the foreseeable future.

There were, first of all the empty promises (and the moral vacuity) of many center-left leaders who rose to power touting a human rights agenda (including gay rights) that they ignored, and even stalled, when they attained power. Gustav and Luca interview many of these folks. They show us their faces. They highlight their antics in government hearings about civil unions and on Italian talk shows.

These are not admirable characters. They say one thing and do another. They bend over backwards to find ways to justify any nonsense that spews out of the mouths of the political and religious right, when that nonsense is about gay and lesbian persons. They talk about the need for pragmatic caution, for coalition-building that will include even the far-right fringe and certainly include the church, though Italy is ostensibly not a theocracy.

They keep telling Gustav and Luca, every time the two ask about movement on the civil unions initiative, that it has neither been shelved nor is a priority. More studies need to be done, more coalition-building undertaken. We haven’t forgotten you or your needs, but please understand that you and your needs are not our priority.

In the final analysis, then, the center-left “supporters” of gay rights are part of the problem, and not part of the solution. They are a huge part of the problem. As the political right and the Catholic church craft a tremendous backlash against the proposed civil unions legislation, the center-left political leaders who had brought the proposal to the table suddenly display a large appetite for appeasement—of the very folks whose power they had trumped when they gained control of the government, but whom they will not challenge openly. Not when it comes to gay rights.

Gustav and Luca document the astonishing way in which some former “supporters” of gay rights suddenly find it possible to spout the same nonsense the right is spouting, in the period of intense homophobic reaction after the civil unions idea is floated, about gay people, gay lives, and gay rights: gays are an infection in healthy societies; openness to gays causes the downfall of society; homosexuality is not natural, and what is unnatural has no rights; gay men assume women’s roles and gay women want to be men; gays corrupt children; children raised in gay homes will grow up warped and perverted; we would be better off if gays simply disappeared.

Watching the capitulation of the liberal political elite to far-right nonsense, even when those capitulating have to know they’re dealing with toxic ideas based on no rational analysis at all, is fascinating. And frightening. One concludes, in the end, that either these people never had any real moral commitment at all to gay and lesbian rights, and so they find it easy to shrug their shoulders and do what serves their own interests (the “pragmatic” thing) when there's a price tag attached to their progressive agenda, or they know very well that they are behaving immorally, but since there is no price to be paid if they cave in and their own ox is not being gored, they do not care that they have talked out of both sides of their mouths, broken promises, and hurt supporters hopeful for substantive change.

The second fascinating way in which the story told by “Suddenly, Last Winter” parallels what is happening in our nation now is the way in which the moral cave-in and the insincere dilly-dallying of leaders of the progressive coalition that had gained power in the country facilitated the rise of a backlash that astonished not only the center-left leaders of the nation, but even those on the right who had thought that the back of their power had been broken when the center-left coalition came to power.

In the period in which the center-left leaders continued promising gay civil unions, while warning that such unions were not a priority, the right re-configured its base and made powerful breakthroughs. Gustav and Luca interview people on the streets as this cultural shift is occurring. What folks tell them is interesting: it’s a mishmash of half-digested religious ideas and bogus science re: gender roles, sexual orientation, family life, and natural law.

The two filmmakers also capture political demonstrations by right-leaning groups who want to capitalize on the homophobic backlash to reassert their power as fascist watchdogs controlling the pace of progressive movement in Italian culture. As Gustav and Luca talk to and film members of some of these groups, the men to whom they speak tap sticks they happen to be carrying on the ground, itching for the return of the kind of social order in which they could bust a fag’s skull (or a Jew’s, or an African’s, or a Muslim’s, or, most of all one suspects, a woman’s) with relative impunity.

And there, in the middle of it all, is the church, feverishly organizing huge, well-funded, high-tech “pro-family” demonstrations in which the faithful recommit themselves to a family-centered society, in which smiling sisters in habit suddenly scowl when asked if the Christian obligation to love one’s neighbor extends to loving one’s gay neighbor and supporting her right to marry. Participants in these carefully staged demonstrations make it plain to the gay reporters interviewing them that being pro-family is about more than strengthening the supposedly threatened family: it’s about being anti-gay, about making it impossible for gay couples or their families to live together as a family with any public recognition, support, or protection.

The role the church plays in this period of backlash is shameful. While helping return to power a man who divorced his sacramentally married wife after having had children by another woman, and then having several more with the second before marrying her, the church defiantly proclaims its commitment to family values and its opposition to recognition of any rights for gays, since that recognition will inevitably undermine real families. And though some church officials now claim that the Catholic church has never opposed civil unions for gays—only marriage—the film clearly documents the intent of the Vatican and the Italian bishops to oppose not only civil unions but any legal recognition of or protection for the rights of gay persons.

And how is this like what is happening in our country today? I think the parallel on the religious front is obvious. Rev. Mike Huckabee has just reminded us that we are a nation specially blessed by God—an exceptional case among all nations in the world. Italy is an exception, as well. Like the U.S., it is an exception among the developed nations of the West in its religion-fueled resistance to gay rights. And like the U.S., it allows communities of faith wide latitude in determining secular policy, even when both countries claim to value separation of church and state.

But another parallel is even more important to me: this is the parallel between the behavior of the center-left party when it came to power in Italy in the spring of 2006 and our current administration, vis-à-vis gay rights. In key respects, our leaders are behaving today precisely the way the progressive leaders in Italy behaved in the 2006-2008 period—ignoring the promises they have made to gay citizens and their progressive supporters, seeking to assure us that gay rights are on their agenda but are not a priority, and bending over backwards to find ways to include (read: appease) a small but loud and potentially dangerous (as an impediment to progress) right-leaning faction allied to many churches.

In assessing the behavior of many of our political leaders today, when it comes to gay rights, I have no choice but to conclude, sadly, that these leaders have never recognized the moral claims of gay persons on their lives, even when they espouse gay-friendly rhetoric. Or they are people of conscience who, unfortunately, choose to dull the voice of their conscience when it comes to the moral claims of gay persons, because they can do so, with relative impunity.

If Gustav and Luca are correct, the lack of moral courage of the center-left coalition in Italy in its dealings with the gay community led to the fragmentation and then demise of that coalition. More importantly, it led to a resurgence of right-wing homophobia that surprised even those on the right, who had thought the movement of history was clearly not towards such a resurgence. A resurgence that is in some ways fueling the rise to power of the right all over Europe now . . . .

History may point clearly in one direction, but human beings often choose to move in another direction altogether, even when it is clear that the direction to which the movement of history points constitutes a moral arc, one we have no choice except to follow if we expect to live together productively and peaceably as a human community. History is the story of occasional breakthroughs to more humane social arrangements, and constant reversions to barbarism. It is the story of rare, surprising moral courage, and predictable, deadly, widespread moral obduracy.

I am convinced that the arc of the future—the moral arc—points to recognition of the human rights of gay and lesbian persons. I am not convinced, however, that the many liberals who refuse to stand in solidarity with gay and lesbian persons or to recognize the moral priority of gay rights at this point in history will move us along that arc, even when they have the power to do so.

And I am convinced that when liberals appease the right and cave in to its demands, allowing it to continue its gate-keeping status even when its power has been decisively checked, liberals create the conditions for a resurgence of the power of the right—even when that resurgence will effect the downfall of the same liberals who have risen to power when a popular majority repudiates the power of the right. A majority who expect progressive moral leadership once they have placed progressive leaders with claims to moral awareness in power . . . .