You might be excused for not knowing who Ignazio La Russa is. I'd rather not know myself, to be honest. But as an Italian, I need to know – whether I like it or not. As the Senate's president, La Russa is the second most important person of the Italian State; as a founding member, he's a top figure in Brothers of Italy, the same far-right party to which prime minister Giorgia Meloni belongs.
La Russa made headlines last week for taking part in a popular TV programme; upon being asked what he'd feel if he had a gay son, he replied: “I'd be very displeased to hear that, because any heterosexuals like me want a son resembling them.”
Perhaps vaguely aware of the crassness of his utterly homophobic comment, La Russa tried to make a joke of it by adding that “it'd be like him supporting AC [instead of city rivals Inter Milan].” Resorting to a football metaphor must have seemed to him the perfect way of making his remark sound acceptable. The subtext was clear, though: relax, let's all take homophobia lightly, there are more worrying issues in society; and hey, a joke is a joke.
As if that wasn't enough, another dubious comment came out of his mouth moments later when the Belve programme's host Francesca Fagnani asked La Russa when, in his opinion, gender equality will finally be achieved in Italy. “[That'll happen] when a fat, ugly, dumb woman will play an important role. Because there are ugly, fat, dumb men who hold important roles. I'm paying women a big compliment, I think.”
The face Fagnani pulled on camera said it all – La Russa's comment was nothing but cringeworthy.
Once again, we're reminded of how hatred can more or less subtly manifest itself – often, as the two faces of the same battered coin. Homophobia on one side, misogyny on the other. The two always go hand in hand. So, why is it important to report on what's happened on 21 February at 8.30 p.m. on RAI 2, the national broadcaster's second channel funded by taxpayers? Because after two days of media attention the matter has already been forgotten. No one's talking about it any more. It's already become yesterday's news – literally. This is a lot sadder than it sounds.
The very next morning, an interview with the Senate's president – La Russa is 75 years old and has had a number of high-profile political roles including the Senate's vice-president – appeared on the website of Corriere della Sera, Italy's most influential newspaper. The Sicilian lawyer-turned-politician said: “Am I a homophobe? Quite frankly, I thought the news I got rid of my Mussolini's bust would've sparked more interest.” Another clever attempt at brushing his deep-seated hatred towards society's minorities under the old, smelly, threadbare carpet of insensitive and chauvinistic humour.
La Russa's careless behaviour is in line with that of many fellow parliamentarians. Too many. In October 2021, the so-called “Zan Bill” (Ddl Zan), a law draft by the left-wing deputy Alessandro Zan against homotransphobia, misogyny, and ableism – which was passed by a whisker in the lower chamber – was ultimately rejected by secret ballot in the Senate with 154 votes in favour, 131 against, and 2 abstentions. Efforts by Brothers of Italy senators to ditch the bill against hate crimes proved crucial.
Not long after, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Bazzi denounced an episode of homophobia; he took it to Twitter: two men taunted him and his partner as they walked through the streets of Todi, Umbria. The Strega Prize finalist (Italy's most important literary award) also explained in an interview with Corriere della Sera that he decided to bring up the ugly episode on social media because “these are dynamics that keep coming up” and because, he further explained, “a certain kind of insensitivity is about to become institutional.” Bazzi was in all likelihood referring to the general elections which took place a month later, on 25 September 2022, when La Russa was appointed Senate president.
Recently, the writer and his partner, a film director, were again verbally abused and subsequently assaulted, this time in Greater Milan. In a country that often seems stuck in the past, even State homophobia is perceived as hardly newsworthy.
- Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here. Twitter: @co1onne11i.