Eating the Moon


 

Mainstream media broke through the gay glass ceiling (“Will & Grace”), but portrayals usually erred on the side of comedy.
By: Mark Campbell/The American in Italia

Living in Italy, I’ve discovered the English-speaking expat community contains lot of writers, both amateurs and professionals. Maybe it’s because making do in a foreign culture creates a unique perspective that outsiders are eager to express and describe. This magazine is an example.

A number of years ago I was lucky enough to join an English-language writing group composed of Americans, Canadians and Brits. It’s still going strong. We meet once a week in Milan to criticize each other’s writing. The only rule is to bring something you’ve written. Criticism is rarely easy to accept, but we’re always serious, direct and honest. We all share the same goal, wanting to make the story better. But in the end, the author has the final word.

The group’s contribution to my writing has been immeasurable. The experience has allowed me to reach a level of competence I couldn’t have achieved alone. Though I’m the only gay member of the group, and I write gay literature, I’ve always been treated — and my work has always been treated — with dignity and respect.

Like expats, LGBTI+ people can feel like strangers in a strange land. We’re often socially alienated or isolated and as such possess a slightly different perspective on daily life (essential to a good story). That may be why literature is such a strong aspect of Queer Culture.

LGBTI+ readers are generally drawn to queer literature through affinity. The hetero-normative perspective — transmitted via books, TV, radio, advertising, the internet — can be like an oppressive tsunami that drowns out everything in its path. For me, reading a queer novel feels like poking my head out of deep water and taking a breath of fresh air. All too often, gay stories and LGBTI+ experiences are censored or edited out of the mainstream, or made palatable to heterosexual sensibilities. At best our stories appear as titillating or humorous sidelines embedded within overwhelming heterosexual romantic experiences. How many times is the funny, lovable gay character the only one in the story who never even gets kissed?

We’ve fought hard to claim our place in history and our right to love. To me, the gay or LGBTI+ romantic genre represents far more than just entertainment. It’s at the core of our struggle for identity and legitimacy. After all, gay people are defined and marginalized largely based on they love.

Mark Campbell’s “Eating the Moon” is published by Florida-based DSP Publications.

In 1992, during my first Gay Pride parade in Toronto, I was watching throngs of people marching when a friend posed a rhetorical question, ‘What if it were the other way around and gay people were the norm and straight people were on the periphery?’

It hit me that gay people don’t really have a gay Shangri-La or utopia. My friend’s comment inspired me to try to write a book with a fictional society in which almost everyone was queer. My training in anthropology helped. More than a critique of society, I wanted my story to represent a “safe place” where LGBTI+ people could go to dream and fanaticize about other possibilities for living and loving.

On Aug. 29, DSP Publications will release my latest novel, “Eating the Moon.” Shameless self-promotion, you say. Not really. I’m just proud. It’s a gay adventure story about a young man, Guy, who washes up on the shores of an uncharted island in the Bermuda Triangle, where he and his best friend Luca discover a society that’s almost exclusively gay and lesbian. On the island Guy learns to love and accept himself. After numerous trials and initiations he eventually wins the love of a local man.

Although the island is a gay utopia, both Guy and Luca soon discover that even paradise comes with a cost.

For gay readers, a sexually open society of homosexual men on a tropical island is a paradise-fantasy come true. But my homosexual society is an imperfect one, with many flaws and injustices of its own. In fact, the society is threatened by its inability to accommodate and accept heterosexuality and bisexuality.

Just as gay people embrace and hold dear stories of straight romances, many straight people, both writers and readers, recognize that gay/LGBTI+ stories of love and romance, be they sticky sweet or rough and tumble, are an intriguing and important part of the human story. For straight readers, let this column serve as a challenge to enter into the world of our fantasies and reexamine what society might look like from our side of the fence.

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Ripples in the pond


 

Jamaica’s LGBT community is still drowned out by colonial-era legislation.
By: Mark Campbell/The American In Italia
Persecution can be long and persistent but change toward better human rights can start like a ripple in a pond. Though their efforts and successes may go largely unnoticed by global media, individuals in smaller countries, in particular former British colonies, are taking bold steps toward improving life for LGBT citizens, who in many places still bear the full brunt of social exclusion and personal risk. Some live in states with colonial-era laws that criminalize homosexuality. England once did, setting the tone for its colonies.

Persecution of LGBT people in England appears to have begun, at least officially, with the 1533 introduction of The Buggery Act during the reign of King Henry VIII. After the separation of the Church of England from Rome, punishment for homosexual, previously under the jurisdiction of church law, became a civil matter. The Act made sex between men, and also men with beasts, punishable by hanging, a penalty not lifted until 1861. During the Victorian period, homosexual relations between men were punishable by imprisonment and hard labor. One illustrious victim was Oscar Wilde, who was jailed for two years in the 1890s for sodomy and gross indecency.

As the British Empire grew, its legal system spread to its colonies along with anti-homosexual legislation. It wasn’t until 1967 that England and Wales decriminalized homosexual acts. South Africa, Canada and New Zealand did the same.

Throughout the British Commonwealth, however, homosexuality remains a criminal act. Archaic anti-sodomy laws, vestiges of colonial rule, still govern the lives of LGBT people. India has actually regressed. In 2013 the Indian Supreme Court overturned a previous Delhi High Court ruling decriminalizing homosexual acts. In 2014, Singapore’s top court upheld a law criminalizing sex between men. In former African colonies, wanton disregard for human sexual rights is commonplace. Nigeria, Uganda and Gambia have all recently passed new and tougher anti-homosexual legislation (Uganda’s was later annulled by that country’s Constitutional Court).

Jamaican lawyer and activist Maurice Tomlinson says the English-speaking Caribbean remains “in the grip of powerful right-wing fundamentalists who [control] all levers of power.”

Anti-sodomy laws in some former British Caribbean colonies still carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. There are also laws prohibiting homosexuals from entering these countries. Trinidad and Tobago is one of nine Caribbean countries with criminal statutes against homosexuality. In 1991, the Bahamian parliament decriminalized homosexual sex. Since then, however, no other English-speaking country in the Caribbean has followed the Bahamian lead.

More onerous perhaps is a general and widespread culture of homophobic violence. In 2006, Jamaica was dubbed, “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth” by Time magazine. The image of love that Bob Marley’s music conveyed to the world has been destroyed by Jamaican “hate rappers” whose blatantly violent lyrics encourage “correcting rape” (to cure lesbians) and murder. It’s not uncommon for police to use “anti-homosexual” laws to entrap and extort money from LGBT people.

Maurice Tomlinson, a lawyer and human rights activist, has filed a claim in Jamaica’s Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of sodomy laws that ban anything interpreted a “gross indecency” between men. The Anglican Church, Catholic Church, and above all evangelical Protestant churches, many based in the United States, vigorously resist any reforms. At least eight religious groups will oppose the Tomlinson challenge, stating that the law is necessary to preserve the population from imminent moral collapse.

An earlier challenge to the law initiated in 2013 by another Jamaican was dropped due to fears for his safety. The English-speaking Caribbean world, says Tomlinson, remains “in the grip of powerful right-wing fundamentalists who [control] all levers of power.”

In 2010, a young man from Belize, Caleb Orozco, and his senior attorney, Lisa Shoman, challenged Belize’s anti-sodomy law. On Aug. 10, 2016, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin of the Belize Supreme Court ruled that the section of the Criminal Code that criminalized consenting intercourse between adults of the same sex contravened rights granted by the Belize Constitution.

“We won on all grounds,” Orozco said of the verdict, “dignity, right to privacy, right to freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression and the equal protection of the law.” Shoman spoke of “huge ripples in our small Caribbean pond.”

Along with numerous messages of support, Orozco has also been inundated with death threats. Evangelical church leaders have accused Orozco and Shoman of promoting immorality, pedophilia and rape.

Caleb Orozco challenged archaic Belize sexual laws, and won round one.

The trail of persecution is long and the fight for human rights and dignity is slow. Haters, often claiming God’s mandate, will say and do whatever they can to stall the progress towards dignity, protection and full social participation. In the end, the fight often comes down to a few brave individuals willing to risk it all in the hope of creating a collectively better human future.

 

The Leopard’s Spots


Left-wing progressives have stopped well short of fully embracing gay rights.

By: Mark Campbell/The American-In Italia

Valeria has been a close friend of mine since I first came to Italy. She was raised a Catholic by a domineering mother and an irresponsible father. As an adult, she tried rejecting religion in favor of a more secular viewpoint.

Valeria and her husband lean politically to the left, more specifically toward communism. She embraces ideas like solidarity to the point where a simple invitation for a beer in two quickly morphs into a collective event. She’s also a strong supporter of community-based programs and she is always organizing cultural tours to museums and galleries. She is a font of information about community organizations and has been involved with a group that provides support to families of children with disabilities. All the same, I’ve heard friends make little quips about Valeria’s inability to distinguish between the hammer and sickle and the crucifix.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of watching Valeria’s daughter Alba go from diapers to university. Even as a little girl it was clear that Alba was a strong and independent person with above average intelligence. I remember Valeria telling me about one of Alba’s grade school projects in which the teacher had asked the children to make a poster-size collage about their ambitions and desires for the future. The morning the assignment was due Valeria and Alba met the other mothers and their children gathered outside the school. Each child carefully held up a poster with images of what they hope for. Not surprisingly, the boys were plastered with pictures of racecars and football players while the girls’ posters were filled with fashion models and designer labels. Alba’s poster, however, was fill with images of scouting and environmentalism.

As Alba grew, she remained dedicated to scouting and rose to the level of Scout leader. Consistent with the values of social justice and collective action that her parents had instilled in her, as a teenager she attended many protests for human rights. Along with one of her best friends, Giorgio, who is gay, they started a gay student association in their high school.

Many times I’ve listened to Valeria’s concerns about typical problems, the kind that all parents face. I’ve heard about Alba’s acne crisis, I’ve listened to the right time to let Alba have her own smart phone/tablet/computer, and at what age should she be allowed to meet friends at night, and what curfew hour is reasonable. I’ve always suggested Valeria take a soft line rather than an authoritarian one.

Valeria and her father Claudio also did their best to ensure Alba received a global education. When Alba turned 16 they spent a summer in New York City. When she turned 18 they vacationed in London. One friend suggested that maybe the time had come for Alba to be more independent. “What 18-year-old wants to spend their summer vacation with their parents?” Eventually, Alba decided to study architecture at university. Alba’s entrance exam scores were very high. She’d grown up to be a very remarkable young woman and a daughter to be proud of.

Last month, Alba told her mother and father that she didn’t really have any interest in boys but she liked girls, even though she had only ever shared one kiss with another girl.

After a lifetime of preaching social equality and justice both Valeria and Giorgio responded very negatively, though I was told that Giorgio was far less severe and argumentative. Valeria reportedly refused to speak to Alba for more than a week. At work, Valeria repeatedly burst into tears and proclaimed how disgusted she was by the idea of two women kissing.

Left-wing progressives have stopped well short of fully embracing gay rights.

 

I didn’t see Valeria as this drama unfolded. I was updated their friends. I soon received an indirect message from Valeria that she didn’t want to talk me about the “issue.” The bearer of the message suggested Valeria believed I couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to be a mother.

In the meantime, Valeria has talked and cried to anyone willing to listen about how she’s been made into a victim. This has included seeking out the expert advice of the closeted homosexual director of the family with disabilities group.

As time passes, fewer and fewer people are willing to listen. Some friends criticize her outright. She’s apparently seeing a therapist to help her through her self-inflicted pain and suffering. I’m concerned that any intervention on my part would only fuel the fire, though I’m tempted to call her out. “Look at the damage your bigotry and intolerance has caused,” I would tell her. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

And what about Alba? This young woman has just taken one of the bravest steps of her life only to discover that the two people she most trusted have pulled the rug out from under. She has probably been left to question the system of values and beliefs she was taught. I suspect this will have negative ramifications for Alba for the rest of her life. From a distance, I can only hope she finds people to guide and support her during this epic experience.

Getting underneath


By Mark Campbell/The American in Itala

Long before I even understood such things, I remember my mother berating my father because her brother always returned from his business trips with a gift of underwear. “See, he knows what makes a woman feel appreciated, ” my mother would say (sexy was not a word in her vocabulary).

Underwear seemed to me at the time a gift that wasn’t really a gift, more like socks. I should also point out that once my mother learned that her brother was also buying lingerie for another women during his “business trips” she never brought up the subject again.

Recently, my friend Laura headed for Montreal for a medical congress (and a shopping spree). Before leaving, she asked us what we wanted. Sexy underwear was my reply, and gave her the address of the “Chez Priape” store in Montreal’s Gay Village.

She returned to Italy the following week bearing gifts. Clearly her concept of what constituted sexy was miles from mine. While I was thinking a black jock by “Nasty Pig,” she presented us with something in sparkling neon colors that should have died during the Disco era.

Oh, the horror!

I later learned (through exhaustive surveys conducted in my gym locker room) that many men don’t actually buy their own underwear. Underwear purchases go straight from mommy to wife.

There’s always the sports option.

Okay, I get it: it’s one of these weird heterosexual things — though the word “infantalization” does come to mind.

What’s still not clear to me is just what constitutes sexy men’s underwear. At least my friend Chicca was honest. “I don’t know,” she told me. “Boxers? Sip? [Italian for jockey shorts]. Men’s underwear isnot sexy!”

But Christmas is looming. That means many men are likely to find underwear under the tree. With that in mind, here’s a list of considerations for anyone who wants to buy their favorite guy a pair of sexy underpants. I’m no expert, of course, but when did that ever stop anyone?

First, some ground rules. What goes around comes around. If your special guy ever gave you a frying pan or a crate of motor oil as a romantic gift I recommend buying him a five-buck three-pack of blue boxers or Jockeys and consider your Christmas shopping done. You can go home now.

Second: size matters. Underwear is usually sized small, medium and large (S/M/L), but waist size isn’t enough. You need to factor in booty and balls. If you’re not sure if he’s a S/M/L up front or out back, it might be time to do some research.

Third: support. Boxers are cool in the summer and great if you’re eager to increase your sperm count. Other than that, they offer little support. As larger women discovered when they burned their bras in the 1960s, gravity can be a cruel master. While stretch boxers offer greater support, jockey style keeps the boys in place and looking young.

Fourth: quality matters. A classic problem with sexy wear in general is low quality and the use of cheap synthetic materials. Generally speaking avoid self-styled sexy shops and polyester specials. Unless of course “tacky” is his turn-on.

Fifth: comfort rules. While women have been known to torture themselves stilettos, thongs and push up bras, most men won’t tolerate uncomfortable underwear. Just because they’re expensive doesn’t mean they’re comfortable. And if they’re not comfortable, he won’t wear them. I recently bought some Armani briefs with a brand tag at the back that feels like sand paper. How could a top designer put a tag there?

Sixth: style. No matter what marketing labels suggest, no underwear will turn him into something he’s not. Take a look at the kind of guy you have. Is he a classic Hugh Hefner silk boxers kind of guy, or a sporty David Beckham jockey shorts type? Jockstraps are generally suit hard-core types. As a rule fishnet usually doesn’t work unless you want him to look like an octopus fisherman hauling in the day’s catch. Thongs and T-bars may be standard issue for professional ballet dancers and strippers but for the rest of the male population they’re usually in the no-go zone. Which brings me back to the comfort rule. I can’t understand the concept of underpants deliberately designed to give you a wedgy.

Finally, you’re unlikely to go wrong with cool solid colors. In Italy, red underwear is a New Year’s Eve good luck tradition. But you can also go for the colors of his favorite team (the blue and black of the Inter soccer team, say) or a super hero motif (Superman, cartoon characters, the Tasmanian Devil or even camouflage). Steer clear of rubberized iron-on designs and embossed sayings such as, “Home of the Big Banana.” They broadcast insecurity and overcompensation.

Though designers work hard to convince us how to dress, underwear is something more intimate. If you know your partner you’ll probably know what works for him.

Incidentally, the Italian word for underpants is mutande, which literally means, “that which needs to be changed.” So consider clean and fresh as sexy — at least most of the time.

 

Lorenzo’s plight


Too often, 21st-century discussion of HIV gets lost in the shuffle.
By Mark Campbell/The Americans

The European economic crisis has made it very hard for young Italians to find jobs. The few available opportunities offer poor working conditions and awful pay. Independent of their educational background, Italy’s youth justifiably feels that there’s little future at home and many are fleeing the country in search of greener pastures. They leave behind an aging devitalized population to wallow in the ongoing political and economic mess.

Lorenzo is 24 with a high school education. He’s a stocky little guy with a permanent sparkle in his eyes. He’s bright, energetic and capable. But for the past few years the only work he could find was as a coat-checker in a mega-disco on the outskirts of Milan. One evening over dinner he asked us if we thought it might be a good idea for him to go job-hunting in the Canary Islands.

“Why not?” Alberto said. “What have you got to lose?”

I said more or less the same thing: “You certainly don’t want to spend the rest of your life in the coat check room.”

Before heading out on his big adventure he earned a pizza chef certificate. In the Canaries he met a number of other young gay men from Italy and elsewhere in Europe, many, like him, looking for work or escaping repressive home lives. Lorenzo could only find a part time job. He did, however, enjoy a very active sex life. Six month later he returned to Italy and again faced with the uselessness of the job hunt.

Italy’s youth unemployment rate is at an all-time high, pushing 45 percent.

After a couple of futile months back, a Spanish friend he’d made in the Canaries – now in London – invited him north. In England, Lorenzo landed a job as a dishwasher in a large Italian restaurant working 12-to-14 shifts. In his rare off time, he took English classes. The most difficult part, he told us later, was enduring the continual homophobic harassment and insults from Italian managers who didn’t seem to care about English labor laws protecting gay people. He and other staff were too frightened and uninformed to report them. Things were tough, but he was still living his big adventure.

Then things got worse. A regular lover from his days in the Canaries, who had assured him he was HIV negative, was not. Now Lorenzo was positive too. While in England his health began to decline quickly. He went to the hospital and was placed on a drug treatment program. But kidney problems produced an adverse reaction to the treatment. After six months we got word that Lorenzo’s big adventure was over. He was back in Italy.

In Milan, Alberto helped him find a specialist. Now, he’s again living at home, looking for work, and doing his best to manage his new health condition and the depression that has come with it.

A few weeks ago Alberto and I were sitting around the kitchen table, joking and laughing with Lorenzo about growing old. I made a quip about hair growing from places it has no business growing from and Alberto described the body parts that now jiggle whenever he moves. I placed my hand on the table next to Lorenzo’s and said, “Just look at my skin. I’m beginning to resemble a spotted lizard.”

Lorenzo pinched the taut skin of his own knuckles, then mine. He said nothing. He just stared while he continuing to pull at the loose skin of my knuckles.

When I was young, I felt invincible and getting old was the furthest thing from my mind. I came to terms with my sexuality in the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, I felt as if I had two choices: I could remain in denial and never have sex or I could have sex and most probably get AIDS. I chose risking death rather than being one of the living dead. Luckily, in one of the first gay bars I went into I met a wise old drag Queen (she’s come up before in my writing) who told me, “Honey, assume every sex partner you have, including your regular one, is positive and allow them to assume the same about you.” She’s probably the reason I can now laugh at getting old.

While it’s true that HIV no longer casts the deathly pall it once did, many young people are behaving as if HIV and AIDS are no longer a concern. I’m sure Lorenzo would tell you otherwise. He no longer feels invincible and at this point getting old is only something he can hope for.