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 “Italianxwp_postsas 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.wp_postsI have a tattoo of two Italian clowns with the words “avere la vespawp_postswhich translates to “have the wasp,wp_postsan 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 “Chrissywp_postsMoltisanti 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.wp_postsSo 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 shitwp_postsout 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 herewp_postsin 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 livewp_postsdoesn’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.