“Anything that is not tradition is the plague.” So reads an inscription in an old European church, referenced in one of the fifteen remarkably intimate essays that make up Our Naked Lives. With a message of dogma so precisely articulated, and its teaching variously manifested through Italian American tradition, it is easy to empathize with the complex challenges faced by the writers of these essays. The problems of belonging, and the conformity traditional belonging demands are themes every gay man can relate to.
In a rich spectrum of emotional and intellectual perspectives, these fifteen essays explore the multi-layered forces of what it means to be gay and Italian American — or, as some of the writers specify, Italian American and gay. This is not a frivolous distinction.
As Frank Anthony Polito in his essay “Italian-American Reconciliation” concludes, “I hate to think of [my grandfather] leaving this world without knowing who I truly am. And yet, I can’t bring myself to broach the subject. Is it because I’m ashamed of being gay? I don’t think so. I think it’s because I’m proud of being Italian American.”
The recurring themes of cultural insularity, family obligation, and religious paradigms serve as landmarks in the individual journey recounted in each man’s words, from declaring they never had any influence at all, to cautious confrontation and all the way to successful integration.
Understandably, the authors often rail against stereotypes (which every ethnic group existing in a different culture as strangers in a strange land must experience), while their stories recount personal struggles with the very forces that feed the stereotypes: Catholicism, culture of southern Italy, food, Sunday dinner, the roles of father, mother, and extended family, the neighborhoods of eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia.
The essays are educational in the way education often comes best — through first-hand stories, acquired knowledge imparted by one to another. I’d never heard of the sovversivi, activists of the late 1800’s, mentioned by Tommi Avicolli Mecca as heroes, part of his radical lineage. In a brief online search, the only English language entries I found were about the 1967 film of the same name.
The difference between the cultural template as articulated in these essays and the essentially western American paradigm that I grew up in was illuminated in a passage in LoGiudice’s essay, “My Identity Is Lavender, So Am I Italian American?” when he addressed a core premise of American individuality: while the range of acceptable individuation within any society has distinct limits, within a strong ethnic community those limits are narrower by far than outside one:
“A man would work for his father’s business, get married, purchase a house in the neighborhood, have children, and behave according to the religious and cultural beliefs […] Object Relations theorists posit that separation and individuation are vital for healthy development, but for Italian Americans, no such a theory of development existed for them. To separate from their family, create their own value system, and generate new norms and behaviors was unconscionable.”
And yet cultural evolution is inevitable. When George De Stefano visited Italy to reconnect with his cultural homeland, he found insight into differences between Italian-American gay men and Italian gay men. In his essay an Italian man’s framed picture of Pope Benedict symbolized his host’s apparent ability to hold certain cultural paradoxes that Stefano was not willing to accommodate.
In spite of the differences, after several readings of these highly personal and compelling pieces I came away with a sense not of difference, but of our commonality, of the unique challenge being gay poses to any traditional community that offers no place of honor for it. When a godfather-uncle never speaks again to his nephew because he’s gay, that’s a profound loss. Sadly, risking such loss is still woven into the fabric of LGBT experience in most tightly-knit communities.
I strongly recommend this collection, a nourishing, thought-provoking, and deeply emotional exploration of exclusion and inclusion, structure and obligation, love, fear of losing love, the withholding of love — the nourishment and danger of extended family relationships seen through a gay and uniquely Italian-American lens.
That lens is in clear focus at the conclusion of Frank Spinelli’s essay “Sunday Dinners,” when his mother informs his partner Chad that having reparative surgery is not negotiable: “You think my son and I intend to live each day worrying you might have another stroke? Not on your life. That’s it. End of discussion. Now let’s eat.”
Spinelli whispers to Chad, “That’s how Italians say welcome to the family.”
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker