Let Me Be in My Queer Italianx Feelings for a Minute

Most of the time, I’m only Italian-American on main to make jokes and laugh at how strange it is to be Italian-American in the first place. It’s easy to position us in that way, whether you’re actually Italian-American or not. The stereotypes about who we are do ring true in most circumstances, and I feel like we give into the caricature to exploit it for laughs — either for ourselves or for other people. I’ve even taken to jokingly calling myself “Italianx” as a riff on both my ethnic identity and my gender identity. I use old-timey anti-Italian slurs to refer to myself, my family members, and famous people who are also Italian or Italian-American. When I find out someone I like or respect shares this part of my identity with me, I call them my “paisan.” I have a tattoo of two Italian clowns with the words “avere la vespa” which translates to “have the wasp,” an often derogatory way of speaking about queer people in some parts of Italy. It’s all very absurd, and I’ve never taken myself or my heritage that seriously, so I don’t really expect others to. But, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get into my extremely Italianx feelings for a moment.

Last week, I was minding my Italianx business when I saw fellow Autostraddle writer Niko Stratis share a post in support of trans people from the very important Italian-American actor (and my paisan) Michael Imperioli in her Instagram story. Like most of my people, I’m a big Imperioli fan. I remember the first time I saw him as Spider in Goodfellas when I was too young to be watching Goodfellas with my family. I’ve watched The Sopranos from beginning to end about six times in my life now, and his performance as Christopher “Chrissy” Moltisanti is still one of the most emotionally impactful performances in television history to me. I always thought it was pretty dope that he went on Chopped. He loves Japanese Breakfast as much as I do. And it was so great to see him in the second season of White Lotus, a show I’m not really sure I like but have trouble looking away from for some reason. But listen, I don’t take the social justice musings of celebrities very seriously anymore, because my general feeling about the relationship between celebrity and social justice activism is that it sucks. I mean, if they really wanted to do something, they’d redistribute their wealth, am I right? However, when I clicked on the post to see what he was saying, I was deeply and sincerely moved.

It was a simple post. Just a picture of a digital trans flag with the caption, “dear brothers, sisters and siblings. fear not, be strong and don’t let the bastards grind you down. love you.” So simple and, in the grand scheme of it all, not super meaningful, and yet, I teared up. As is sometimes the case, I was confused by my emotional reaction to this. Why did it feel so heartening to see this? Why did I immediately utter the words “real paisan shit” out loud to no one but myself upon finishing reading the caption? Why did this matter so much to me?

Well, as I’m sure some or most of you are aware, it’s not looking too good for wide-scale Italian-American representation when it comes to the support of trans people right now. In my own state of Florida, two of the most destructive and powerful men in the campaign against trans lives are fellow Italian-Americans Ron Desantis and Blaise Ingoglia. Nationally, there is also that weasel Christopher Rufo working to make everyone’s life a living hell. And despite the fact that radical leftist Italian-American organizing is part of our history, Italian-Americans have been part of the larger conservative and reactionary political movement for quite some time in this country. If I’m being completely honest, this is something I’ve only been reckoning with fairly recently in the history of my own life.

The politics of the two Italian-American sides of my family are different, but mostly, their thoughts on how other people should live their lives are basically the same. Both the maternal and paternal sides of my family are very “This is America and people have a right to do what they want here” in regards to how people choose to live. Many of my family members, especially my paternal grandparents and my father, were/are staunch Democrats who believed/believe that workers should be protected in their workplace, that people deserve to be helped when they’re struggling, and that everyone deserves to succeed. They’re Catholic, sure, but everyone knows that a lot of Catholics in the U.S. are a little wishy-washy in their political standings. They weren’t/aren’t going to purposely make anyone’s life harder than it has to be, even if they don’t fully agree with or understand someone’s choices. This is obviously not a proper response to the injustice that exists in the world, but I always felt — and honestly, still do feel like — this is a much better response than hatred and persecution. Growing up with this and in the other communities I was part of woke me up to the fact that “living and letting live” doesn’t actually change anyone’s material reality, and I began organizing for social justice when I was a teenager. As a result, the Italians and Italian-Americans I spent most of my life caring about — Angela Bambace, Father James Groppi, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Vito Russo, to name a few — were radical leftists who stood up against injustice and, in some cases, died for their causes. As I’ve aged and developed my politics more, I’ve also come to revere the lives and works of leftist Italians like Antonio Gramsci, Silvia Federici, and Amadeo Bordiga.

More broadly, though, no matter how radical a lot of our history in this country is or how radical our actual brethren in Italy still are, radicalism and leftist politics currently aren’t things that are widely embraced by Italian-Americans. I feel like it’s tempting to blame it on Catholicism, because it’s easiest to blame it on religion and leave it laying there. But the answer is actually way more complicated than that. Like everyone else who immigrated here at that time (and now), Italians — especially poor Southern Italians — who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries technically shared the same rights as white American-born people but were discriminated against, taken advantage of, and even killed for being who they were. As it happened with many of the European ethnic groups who immigrated to the U.S. during this period, eventually Italians and the new, growing group of Italian-Americans were reluctantly welcomed by American society to the top of the white supremacist racial hierarchy here and have done what they can ever since to retain that power. Of course, this wasn’t a quick or simple process, and I don’t mean to give off that impression, but those are just kind of the facts of the matter. Italian-Americans were granted their way into American whiteness and, essentially, turned their backs on people who weren’t.

The conservative Italian-Americans in power right now are also using their powers to push white supremacist agendas. Gender, like so many other aspects of people’s identities, is highly mediated by white supremacy. The gender binary is an essential part of structuring a white supremacist society because white supremacist society wants to ensure people meet specific expectations and fulfill specific roles within it. Its existence is dependent on subjugation and subordination, so it’s no surprise then that conservatives and reactionaries have made anti-trans legislation their new weapons in the battle to retain control. For me, watching this play out as a trans person, a person with Italian-American ancestry, and a person born, raised, and living in Florida — one of the states leading the now widespread movement against trans people — has been jarring. I know that sharing certain identities with people doesn’t mean you’re on the same team, so I can’t say I feel betrayed, but I’ve just felt very unsettled by it all. There just aren’t a lot of cis people who share that aspect of my identity with me speaking up for trans people anywhere publicly, and the only people who are speaking about it are fascist assholes looking to score political points with their bases and retain the control they so desperately want to hold on to.

Imperioli’s position, like many Italian-Americans working against oppression now and in the past, is directly at odds with the larger culture that doesn’t care how imminent the threats to our elimination are. When I saw his post last week, all of this came rushing to the forefront of my mind very quickly. I don’t know if he’d be up to throwing down for us the way some of the Italian-American activists I look up to were in the past, but it feels good to know not all of us are completely lost to the lies of fascism and white supremacy. Sure, it wasn’t some large gesture of solidarity, but it was a small thing reminding me there is another side to this. It isn’t just my guido ass dad who thinks people should mind their business and leave trans people alone. It reminded me of the possibilities that exist in a community of people who seem too far gone for us to even do anything about it. If there are Italian-American people out there who view Imperioli as a beacon of Italian-American masculinity and excellence, then maybe, just maybe, it’ll get them to rethink their repressive political beliefs enough to stop following and celebrating men like Desantis, Ingoglia, and Rufo. Or perhaps it’ll give someone the courage to speak up against those in their community who do. You never know. As unlikely as it seems, it feels good to hope. It feels good to have a real paisan on our side.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. I went to college / was friends-of-friends with (like we had beers together sometimes because my good friend lived in his dorm) Michael Knowles, an Italian-American who has become, like, the face of right-wing millenials saying trans people shouldn’t exist at CPAC. Literally that guy. And I truly don’t know what to do with the feeling of “wow I thought that guy was kinda cool at one point”.

    But I do appreciate this article!!

  2. i love this, thank you for it! ok, so, apologies in advance for a long-ass soapbox comment but its bc this piece is so insightful and brought up a lot <3: ok so, i work in both italian politics and US politics with cool progressives fighting fascism. These are movements led by queer, trans, and gender non conforming ppl, and Black and brown people, and immigrants and refugees, and young, working class people – and while there's a lotta differences (i.e. Italy's got multiple ~functional parties, universal health care, & free university, unlike us, they don't really mess with voter suppression or mass incarceration at the scale and scope we do here, etc) – there's so, so much we can learn from one another about how to meet this moral moment! esp from the bold, grassroots, leftist traditions and lineages you named, around trans justice and liberation, and on interwoven struggles re: immigration, on racialized capitalism, on making an economy that doesn't just literally murder working people for profit – all of it!

    if trump is berlusconi (i.e. a garish reality tv rapeclown underestimated by neoliberal elite) their new prime minister giorgia meloni is not totally unlike our FL disaster-governor, ron desantis (i.e. bannon-trained Christian ethnofascists scapegoating immigrants and queer people for the economic pain they themselves have caused) – she's just scarily BETTER at it than he is. Like, some extremely effective girlboss Mussolini shit. Pretending to care about working people, while skillfully enforcing white womanhood purity tropes *for the flag*. (Her party's literally called "the brotherhood"!) and imho, her political ascent is a harbinger of whats to come if we don't get our shit together. Because whether it's in Southern Italy or in Florida – centrist Dem parties pandering to the populist right on these core fights is not just terrible, harmful policy – it's trashola politics! Like, it is not six-dimensional chess to cede the terms of debate to these motherfuckers. it IS in fact a great way to get your asses electorally beat by fascist weirdos. (This is not the most important part, obviously; the most important part is governing in life-enhancing ways, as though your constituents are worthy of love, care, safety, and protection – but its predictable that centrist, conservative-leaning Dems pretend that throwing queer people or immigrants under the bus is somehow politically savvy, innovative and necessary, when its actually a) dumb and b) literally the oldest, mustiest trick in the book.) (The Italian Democratic Party's ruling faction predictably tried that path in the fall; they earned a truly measly 19%.) But also, just like here, there's tons of emerging leaders and candidates proving we can and must do better – that actually fighting unapologetically for the rights of trans people, for immigrants and refugees, for working people, is not just morally good but extremely popular! Folks like Elly Schlein (a queer progressive young woman just elected Chair of the Italian Democratic Party last month) and Ouidad Bakkali (community organizer, Ravenna Councilwoman,a young Muslim woman elected to legislature) are proving it in Italy just like Rep Pramila Jayapal (Progressive Caucus Chair) or Mayor Regina Romero in Tucson (and too many more to name) are proving it here. I could talk about this for a long time obvi, but – I so appreciate this piece, and the Italian-American lens on whats happening right now. And this: "It isn’t just my guido ass dad who thinks people should mind their business and leave trans people alone. It reminded me of the possibilities that exist in a community of people who seem too far gone for us to even do anything about it." its so real! this white supremacist, gender-violent, anti-trans political project is deeply globally networked – which means those of us building and organizing towards justice and liberation must be networked and in community as well. because those possibilities exist. Especially when we actually talk about and organize around our true values, with courage and conviction, people love us, people will fight alongside us, and we can win. p.s. white lotus stressed me out but valentina spinoff when

    • AMW, thank you for all of this!! I really appreciate your perspective! Obviously, I’m with you on everything you said, and I’m so grateful you shared it here. (I agree we need a show just for Valentina. She was my favorite character and she’s so damn hot!…need her back so bad!!)

  3. I’m not Italian, but one set of my grandparents were in the “came to America a few generations ago as a poor and somewhat stigmatized European ethnic group, which then gained access to whiteness and has been clinging to it ever since” bucket (Irish, for us), so I really appreciated this piece!

  4. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS WE NEED A LOT MORE REAL PAISAN SHIT!!! (i’m not italian, my euro roots are irish, and also on one side one scottish dude who effing took the British crown’s bloody bribes and gave up his scottish name and then terrorized and stole land from irish people, some of whom then came here and terrorized and stole land from indigenous ppl. do not trade your real name & community & land for guns and money and fancy documents and invitations to tea folks. it’s a bad bad deal. your ancestors will NOT thank you if you take it, they will be cleaning up your shit.)

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!