“Kissed by Kylie!” proclaimed the T-shirt Marco was flaunting as he pushed through the revolving door of the mini-mart. A week earlier, at the Milanese concert of his number-one music idol in the world, while he had been waving his arms in front of the stage, the miracle occurred that he had been waiting for his entire life (God!—his entire life?—let’s say, since the time of the release of “I Should Be So Lucky”). Kylie Minogue, during the performance of “Your Disco Needs You,” standing only a few steps away from him, suddenly knelt and, with a gesture of absolute, non-diva-like spontaneity, grabbed Marco’s bottle of mineral water, drank a long swig from it, then gave it back to him with a smile. The event paralyzed him. Still hardly able to believe the gift that fate had chosen to grant him, he had brought his mouth to the rim of the bottle where Kylie’s lips had pressed some seconds before, and taken a drink in turn, imagining the chemical mixture of his molecules with some residue of the singer’s. It was kind of a kiss once removed; but it was unequivocal, and completely real. No creature on earth could have been happier than he was in that moment, and he understood this perfectly from the envious looks that the people standing around him started throwing his way. That was when the inspiration to make the T-shirt had come to him. He’d been kissed by Kylie! He couldn’t imagine a greater declaration of gay pride than to unfurl it at the Pride of Padua parade the following Saturday.
Today he was even more convinced than ever that his intuition had been correct, and he was happy, as he wandered among the shelves of cheese, cookies, and Michelin street guides, to notice glances converging on the writing, surrounded by flame-red lips, that he had personally drawn on his T-shirt. And this was only the prelude! he thought, as he returned to his car. Who knew what might happen during the parade?
As they gulped their coffee, Luca, Davide, and Andrea watched the other guys who were eating pressed sandwiches, asking themselves which of them they might run across again an hour later at the rally. Some gave out obvious signs, like rainbow bracelets, or the American T-shirts with the slogan (much overused) “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.” A saucy boy was wearing a Kylie T-shirt with the imprint of a kiss hand-drawn on it. Others were less unsubtle, but it only took one look to understand, to break the ice. “Excuse me, do you know which exit to take?” “I think Padua west.” “Thanks, bye, see you later.”
At the cash register, all three of them bought novelty chewing gum that came with a prize of inflatable plastic lips. They imagined themselves walking in the parade with their gigantic PVC grins, but an hour later, when they reached the parking lot for the rally, they were so eager to join the protesters immediately that they forgot about the lips and left them in the car. They would have to come up with natural great big smiles on their own.
* * *
The Gazzetino newspaper that morning had run a lengthy, detailed article. Everything was prearranged: the start-off point for the rally, the distance to be covered, the piazza where the marchers were supposed to end up, alternative routes for traffic that citizens could use. Rosa had read the articles one by one, and now held in her mind the exact diagram of how the parade would proceed. Or rather, of how it ought to proceed, given that some extremist right-wing militants had threatened to interrupt it with a disturbance. The paper had reported this news as well, and while she was still on the train to Padua, Rosa felt a shudder of fear for a moment, a glimmering of second thoughts. To participate in the march at all was an act of folly, and now it was beginning to look like joining it might be not only absurd, but risky. Still, she thought again, the element of danger had its fascination. Her sense of her own presence was mounting. The fact was that she—who hadn’t gone on even one strike when she was a young factory worker; who had not voted for at least fifteen years; who hadn’t gone on vacation since her husband died, and who had only traveled on her own to visit distant, faded relatives—she was nearly becoming intoxicated by the thought of immersing herself in the tumultuous throng; of being lost and out of place in a crowd to which she had no social, sexual, or official connection at all.
The idea of participating in a gay pride rally had come to Rosa in 2000, when she was watching a television news report from Rome. The sea of colorful people laughing in front of the cameras had caught her fancy—as a spectator. Up until the moment when a journalist had begun to talk to the marchers; and, among the boys in each other’s arms and the men in circus wigs, he had interviewed a sixty-year-old lady, who had gray hair, a white shirt, and a headscarf. The lady said she had come to accompany her son on this special, never-to-be-repeated occasion. And that she was proud and happy to be there. Rosa had felt an irrational, stinging envy of this woman who, rather than being sunk in a sofa in the provinces like she was, drinking in images from the television, was personally experiencing this explosion of collective enthusiasm. For a second, she remembered the pilgrimage her country priest had arranged for the Church’s Jubilee (train fare, one week’s stay at an inn, with lunch—eight hundred and ninety thousand lire, all-inclusive), which she had turned down. She pictured her friends Giacinta, Iris, and Carluccia, who at that very moment were probably kneeling in St. Peter’s, and regretted not having gone with them. Certainly, if she had known that there was also going to be a party in Rome, she would have gone. She would have looked at the Pope for six days, if only she’d been offered one free afternoon to join the rally. Or maybe not; she wouldn’t have had the courage to ditch her group to roam about a city as vast as the sun, in search of a parade. No, no; she had done the right thing, staying at home. She could content herself with watching it on TV.
For a while, she’d thought no more of this, but then, the next year, when the television news had run another report, this time on the gay pride rally in Milan, the irrational desire to take part had returned to her. Again, only for a moment, again only just to see it. And that time, once again she had let the idea drift away like a buzzing mosquito you bat away from you.
But a few days ago, when she had learned (at the market! from her fruit vendor!) that a rally would take place only twelve miles from her own house, she had taken it to be a sign of destiny. She told herself: “Rosa, you must go.”
She had organized everything with care. She had called her son and told him she was going to see Aunt Adele the next Saturday. Then she had called Adele and told her she would be spending the Saturday with her son and grandkids. Then she had called the station to get the timetable for Padua.
Everything had been so easy.
The first pride Rosa felt on this day was for herself. For being there, on this train that was rolling into the station; for having really, seriously done it.
* * *
At two in the afternoon, the city seemed empty and deserted. At least, it did in the streets on the edge of town, which Andrea, Davide, and Luca were wandering as they tried to find the meeting point. Just then they glimpsed a group of five people with a rainbow banner, a hundred meters away—that was it. Davide asked, “Is anyone going to be here?” “Well . . . yeah, sure,” the other two responded. “Not like Rome or Milan, the past few years, maybe, but someone will be there, you’ll see.” And such was the pull of the imaginary vision they were building that, when they rounded the corner and found themselves facing a giant crowd, they were almost alarmed by the surprise of it. It was a good surprise.
There were thousands, tens of thousands, this time, too.
The three of them began to slowly work their way into the fringe of the parade, which was preparing to move. They scanned the participants to see who was there. And they were all there.
There were assorted groups: Gay Rainbow Padua, Gay Rainbow Bologna, Gay Rainbow Milan, Gay Rainbow Pisa, Gay Rainbow Rome, Gay Rainbow Aosta, Gay Rainbow Syracuse, Gay Rainbow Bari, Gay Rainbow Rocca Melata di Sotto, Gay Rainbow Everywhere. Along with the Lesbian Rainbows from the same places. There were the national organizations and the regional ones. There was the “Mario Mieli” group from Rome; and the Agedo group—the association for parents of gay sons and daughters.
There was the burly, hairy group, the Italian Bears. There were the motorcyclists of the Leather Motor Club astride their Harleys, and the transvestites mounted on their high heels. There were the jocks: the swimmers of the Pisces group, the tennis players of the Atom group, the forwards of the basketball group, the volleyballers of the “Thank You Volley Much” group. There was the association for the fight against AIDS. There were the stringers from the area magazines. There were the cameras of Gay TV. And then there were all the others.
The little factions who had come together, and the friends who had summoned themselves from the farthest corners of the peninsula. A smattering of skinhead types, in their white T-shirts, ripped jeans, and black boots, sitting on the ground with beers in their hands and dogs by their sides. The professionals with their jackets and ties, dressed as if they were going to bank jobs, with signs that announced: “I’m your adman, I’m your lawyer, I’m your teacher, I’m your financial advisor.” The transvestites, dressed like Oba-Oba, glitter all over their bodies, with plunging décolletages, full belted skirts, and platform heels. Young lesbians got up like schoolgirls, walking hand in hand, in flouncy miniskirts and tight T-shirts. As the parade got going, the groups began to form a line. Andrea turned toward his two friends and asked, “Where do we belong?” Davide shrugged his shoulders, unsure. Luca had no doubts. “Smack in the center,” he said.
* * *
Cell phone reception was terrible. There were too many phones, all of them turned on at the same time in a half-kilometer radius. Marco pushed through the crowd, shouting into the receiver, “Where are you? I don’t see you . . . Huh? What??? I said I can’t see you!” but it was useless, you couldn’t hear a word, and to find anyone amid this frenzy was quite an undertaking. He shoved, he begged pardon, he glanced at the bare-chested hunks on motorcycles (he’d always gone for that type), waved to a TV camera that was shooting the rally, and all of that without ever removing his ear from the cell phone. He began to fear the worst, because without telephone contact, in a moving parade, he would never run across anybody he wasn’t already staring in the face. But finally he found his friends from the chat room Gay-Teen; they had a poster written in blue ink that seemed definitive, and were standing near a car that was playing dance music. Approaching them, Marco realized that the bug painted with psychedelic flowers, its doors and trunk flung wide open, was a mobile unit for a local radio station, a kind of Radio Uproar. At the moment, it was transmitting at maximum volume the song “Be Chic,” by Marcella Bella, and he suddenly thought that, yes, that was in fact a very chic song to be listening to during the march. Then he threw himself into the arms of his new friends and everything was a tilt-a-whirl of shrieks and kisses.
Rosa had not been expecting all these people. On television it had seemed like a lot of people, but not this many. She had waited for the throng to move on ahead of her at the station (they had taken almost an hour just to cross the Via Scrovegni and the Via della Pace, but she had been patient.) At first, as she watched them all arrive, she had been as excited as a little girl, but then she had begun to ask herself how she could fall in behind the group without calling too much attention to herself. She let them all pass without having the courage to speak to anyone. Until, toward the end of the procession, the ranks of marchers got more disorganized, and tangential, confused groups began to pop up, without the appealing banners and pennants. With a step, she entered the street and began, calmly, to follow the marchers.
It seemed to Davide that Padua was the city with the biggest number of spectators on the sidelines. At the Pride rallies in Rome and Milan, there had been onlookers on the sidewalks and in the balconies, but here, it seemed as if the entire population of the city had spilled out into the streets to join in the event from up close, live. A shapeless, pushy throng thrust itself into the march, fingers pointing, heads jutting out, one after the other trying to see, trying to take it all in, so they would be able to recount everything to the minuscule number of people who had not been there to see it for themselves. When had Padua ever seen something like this, Davide asked himself. Thousands of gay men with their heads held high who laughed and kissed one another and danced in the street? He turned to mention this to Luca, but realized that his friend was distracted, lost in his own tribulations. So he kept quiet and kept looking ahead, following the nape of Andrea’s neck. As usual, Andrea was walking a few steps ahead, to keep himself in motion, and to assess the situation, as was his habit.
Luca’s situation at home was not so great. His father had split a couple of years before, and his mother had recently found out that not only her first son, but his younger brother, too, was gay. Not that this really should have needed explaining, Luca thought, considering the kid’s flamboyant personality. The other morning, at breakfast, his mother had burst out crying for the millionth time.
“Two boys, and both of them gay. Why did it have to happen to me?” she wailed, blowing her nose and drenching her handkerchief with tears.
Luca, by now accustomed to such scenes, continued sipping his caffe latte and watching the portable mini-television, trying not to show his emotional prostration.
“Really, Luca, do you know a family unluckier than ours?”
“Yes, Erika and Omar,” he had responded, pouring himself more coffee.
Hearing this example, the woman turned up the volume and intensity of her sobs. These exaggerated outbursts bothered Luca not so much because of his mother’s pain—not that he didn’t care about her—but because she was mistaken about what the real source of her grief ought to be. The tragedy, he thought, wasn’t the sexual orientation of her sons, but the fact that his little brother Giampiero (who had rebaptized himself Jamie) was a total and complete fashion victim, a slave of the plastic images of beauty put forth by fashion magazines. The previous year, Jamie had had his lips done—at the age of nineteen. By thirty, what would he have done to himself? Sometimes Luca was unhappy that he’d been born into a wealthy family. If they had been less fortunate, Giampiero—now “Jamieeee”—would have had to stick with the lips, the hair color, and the rags that he was born with. He wouldn’t have been able to change them with the seasons.
“Mamma, instead of crying, why don’t you console yourself with the thought that at least there’s only one cretin in the house.”
“Are you calling me a cretin?” she retorted, furious.
“I wasn’t referring to you, or to me,” Luca assured her, then got up and left, misunderstood in a microcosm of misunderstandings.
The parade was now moving past a building whose windows were crammed with scores of tenants. Some waved, some laughed, some just watched, retreating into their houses whenever the boys returned their stares. On the third floor there was a hair salon. A group of women were joyfully waving their arms. These were the stylists, the hairdressers, with hairbrushes in their hands, whose clients still had wet hair, or curlers on their heads. They all waved. Marco returned their greetings, then turned toward Chris, his best friend from Gay-Teen, and commented, “Ten blondes and not one of them natural!” Chris, who had an expert eye for dye jobs, nodded confirmation.
The thing that Andrea liked the most was to find examples of individual initiative. To read the slogans that somebody had thought up in his own house, and to listen to the songs and shouts that rose above the surge. For example, there was that adorable little group of young lesbians, who were chanting a slogan at the top of their lungs that Andrea found delightful, because it appropriated a statistic from an ad campaign for Kinder children’s toy eggs: “There’s a surprise in one in five! The surprise in one of five will be one of us!” Looking around him, he spotted a towering tranny, with trampoline heels and ripped fishnet stockings, who constituted a demonstration in herself. Followed by a photographer, she would approach people on the fringes of the parade and ask, “Can I kiss you?” She would ask anybody—tough guys on motorcycles, shy boys who were holding hands, musclemen, slender freaks, elegant ladies, ancient wrecks. Some of them were surprised, and backed off in irritation. Most of them, marvelously, accepted. The photographer immortalized tens, hundreds of kisses. She was a love machine that needed no words to send the right message—a kooky will-o’-the-wisp who darted about within the rally, not quite taking part, but not quite withdrawing. When the march crossed in front of a church that a wedding party was leaving, she rushed toward the couple to kiss the bride. Seeing the tranny approach on her bouncing trampoline heels, the married couple, the guests, the priests, and the faithful all took a step back as one, horror painted on their faces. It was a collective rebuke for which the kiss distributor was unprepared. Infuriated by the situation, she stopped, glared at her enemies with a defiant air, and raised the tight shirt that encased her, deploying her pointy breasts as if they were an invincible scientific weapon. That was that. They were hit and sunk. Then she returned to her mission with regal indifference.
At that point, Andrea wanted to run to kiss her, but he held himself back. Today the territory of kisses was her dominion. He felt he should not invade it.
The previous year, in the march in Milan, the best part of it for Marco was the moment in front of the Palazzo Marino, when the parade had stopped to hurl abuse at the mayor, Gabriele Albertini, whom they nicknamed “Albertina.” A spontaneous chorus of ten thousand people had shouted “Repression!” Marco had shouted too, crying with laughter. As they drew away from the seat of city government, he had heard a man who was marching next to him say to a friend, “Our screaming is pointless, all the same. Albertina isn’t even here. He’s at the seaside with his lawyer fiancé.” And Marco, who had never heard the story of the lawyer fiancé, had retained this precious morsel to pass on to his friends who had stayed home. Maybe it was made up, as is the nature of most gossip, but who cared? Like the one about Mariah Carey being left by Luis Miguel, which was a complete fabrication. But his tidbit had been a crazy success when he told it later. It seemed that, at Padua, there would be no tasty scoops on that level. At least, nearly at the end of it, he decided this was the case and resigned himself to it.
The parade’s end was at Insurrection Square (the name was ominous).
To Andrea, it seemed too small a space to contain the arriving throng, especially considering that the piazza was already teeming with waiting people. He turned back to look for Luca and Davide, and tried to find a place where they could sit down before the invasion made all movement impossible. They sat on the steps of a building where various other people had already assembled, and sat for a few minutes in silence, watching the parade pour in, and listening to the first closing remarks from the stage.
Luca was the first to open his mouth again.
“Saturday in the village,” he said, slyly.
“What village?” asked Andrea. “Padua is hardly that small.”
“No, I was thinking of the poem. From high school, remember? . . . That you get so excited all Saturday before the festival, then Sunday comes and nothing happens at all. And so, every time I join in a pride march, I have the same feeling: while we’re marching through the streets of the city we feel exalted, and happy, then we gather in the central square, which should be the day’s climax, and instead, at that point, nothing seems to matter to me any more. The speeches of the politicians, the thanks to the organizations, the endless self-congratulation: ‘We did it!’ ‘There are so many of us!’ ‘We’re the greatest!’ They can see that there are so many of us, do we need to lay it on with a trowel?”
“God, you’re being negative,” Davide said.
“Are you trying to tell me that you give a damn about anything that they’re saying?” Luca retorted.
“Maybe not, no, but it seems important to me all the same that somebody say something. Not for us, but for everyone else. For the people in the town, for example, so they understand what happened today and what our motives are . . . but are you listening to me?”
No, in fact, Luca was no longer listening. He had gotten distracted. He had noticed a strange movement in the crowd, a TV camera aimed at them. And he had the impression that a woman with bouffant white hair was pointing at him.
Marco was so weak from exhaustion that he couldn’t drag himself into the piazza to listen to the speeches. He was so sweaty that the red print of Kylie’s lips seemed to be drooling on his T-shirt (gross!) and he just had to go back to the car to change. He asked Chris to come with him. Before leaving his friends, he turned back and double-checked the time that the Rainbow Party would begin. He wouldn’t want to miss that for anything in the world. He was still waving to everyone when he noticed a curious thing. He had the impression that a lady with bouffant white hair was pointing at him.
How well they speak, Rosa thought, as she listened to the organizers who were drawing their conclusions from the day. Her feet hurt, and she had a slight headache, but she was pleased, really pleased, to be here. She had withdrawn to a corner by a column and stayed there, leaning, so she could see the different guests who appeared on the platform.
At some point, she felt a hand on her back, turned around, and found a TV camera from TGL pointed full in her face. A microphone was held to her lips, and a journalist with short hair and glasses was asking her, “Signora, tell us, what do you think of the demonstration?”
Oh God, what now? She wasn’t ready for this. To have to speak to somebody, to answer questions! She felt agitated, and for a moment she quickly thought back to the other woman, the one she had seen interviewed two years before, and imagined herself now as she was then, retired, resting in her easy chair, watching the television. Who would have thought it? The roles had been reversed, now here she was, in the thick of the action. Incredible, it seemed really incredible to her.
The journalist, who had no time for her indecisiveness, pressed her, “So, Signora, why on earth are you here?”
As if it was an easy question, as if she could explain in words. She realized that she didn’t know what to say. Then, on impulse, she resorted to the words of the woman who had preceded her, who had planted in her the desire to come here.
“I came . . . for my son . . . on this special, never-to-be-repeated occasion. I am proud and happy to be here.”
She saw that she had said the right thing. The interviewer liked her answer very much, he seemed to go into raptures.
“Ah, your son is here? Really? Can you point him out?” he asked, and then, turning back to the cameraman, said, “Try to get him in the frame.”
Rosa had no hesitation. She looked into the crowd and pointed out a tall boy sitting on the steps of a building among his friends. “There he is, that one there.”
“Get him!” the man said to his colleague with the camera.
Then Rosa pointed to a boy with a T-shirt with a big red mouth on it and writing she couldn’t make out.
“That one is my son!”
The journalist was surprised, but reacted rapidly. “Get the other one—she must be confused,” he told the cameraman.
But Rosa didn’t stop. She moved forward. Pointing a finger toward a young man in a jacket and tie, she said. “That is my son!” Then she pointed to a boy with a pizza and little eyeglasses: “It’s that one!” Then toward a boy who was waving a banner: “There is my son!”
The journalist looked at the cameraman. They exchanged perplexed glances. He shook his head. “Let it go, picked a crazy one.” They left, snorting in derision.
Rosa didn’t even see them. She continued singling out sons among the thousands in front of her: “He’s that one there! And that one there! And that one there!”
Each one, when he saw her pointing, smiled and waved Hi.
Translated from “Orgoglio materno.” Published in Benedetta Centovalli, editor, Patrie impure. Italia autoritratto a più voci (Milan: Rizzoli, 2003). Copyright © 2003 by Matteo Bianchi. Translation copyright © 2005 by Liesl Schillinger. All rights reserved.