Queerness between colonialism and migration: intersecting voices and experiences

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Report by Riccardo Bulgarelli and Chiara Lacroix on a public discussion at Libri Liberi on 28th April 2023, organised by the Queer and Feminist Studies WG, with the collaboration of FIG. Gruppo di lavoro di intersezionalità e genere at Scuola Normale, Azione gay e lesbica Lgbtqia+ community, IREOS comunità queer autogestita, EUI Public History WG, Centro di Documentazione Aldo Mieli, EUI Library.

This year marked the second edition of LGBT+ History Month Italia, an initiative that aims to promote the history of the queer community, which is only marginally taught and discussed in Italy. In honour of the first public demonstration organised by the Italian group FUORI!, which took place in Sanremo in April 1972, activists and scholars have chosen April as the month to celebrate queer Italian history. As members of the Queer and Feminist Studies Working Group, we wanted to participate by organising an event that would not just be of interest to an academic public, but also involve people living in Florence or working in local LGBTQ+ associations, reflecting the aim of the History Month to make LGBT+ history known to all.

As a theme for the event, we decided to pair queer history with another aspect of Italian history that often gets little attention: Italian colonialism. The inspiration for this theme came from a recent article by two Italian researchers, Nicola Camilleri and Valentina Fusari, titled “Queering Italian Colonialism”. In this article, the authors point out the many meeting points between queerness and colonialism: the existence of queer sexualities before colonialism, the European portrayal of other societies as “perverted” (or on the contrary, as relatively free from modern perversion, as an Italian physician in Eritrea argued), the queer liaisons between Italians stationed in the colonies and people native to Eritrea, Ethiopia, or Libya. Our aim was to involve the public into a discussion on these meeting points and make a connection to the present. One of the most heatedly debates topics in Italian politics is the migration of people from the Mediterranean. Part of the people who migrate are motivated by discrimination against their queer identity – discrimination which can in part be traced back to the colonial imaginary. Addressing the history of Italian colonialism also allows us to better understand otherwise invisible aspects of migration in the present-day.

Even before the event started, we already begun to learn about the relationship between Italian colonialism and queerness when we realised that it was difficult to find people willing to lead the discussion we had in mind. Valentina Fusari, one of the article’s authors and a lecturer in African history at the University of Turin, had kindly agreed to join us, but finding other participants proved a challenge. Luckily, Dany Carnassale, who teaches Cultural Anthropology at Ca’ Foscari, and deals with LGBT+ migrations both as researcher and activist, also accepted our invitation. Our third guest was Denise Maria Eken, a translator, mediator, and social worker from the “Sportello Migranti” of the Movimento Identità Trans in Bologna. During the event, we asked them questions on the history of Italian colonialism and its legacies in current debates, on the situation and the services offered to queer migrants arriving in Italy, and on methods to approach those histories and experiences. Still, putting voices together does not just mean inviting people from different backgrounds. On the day of the event, we found it challenging to integrate our usual “academic” way of thinking about current issues with the crucial work done by Denise and other social workers, who care for non-binary migrants in practice. This led us to reflect on the way we approach topics such as migration or collective memories: perhaps finding a vocabulary and a sensitive approach to listen to migrants’ needs is more important than having yet another intellectual discussion.

Nevertheless, we still believe that holding a discussion on these themes with people in Florence was productive, in part because, as Valentina pointed out during the event, several among the audience had a family connection to a person involved in Italian colonial realities, and in general, people living in Italy inevitably end up meeting Italy’s colonial heritage. Memories about colonialism flow and re-emerge continuously in family stories, in the topography of our cities, in the vocabulary we use.

In order to queer the history of Italian colonialism, we also tried to queer the format of our public discussion. The beautiful garden of the Libri Liberi bookshop in which the event took place helped to break the “fourth wall” between the speakers and the audience. For people to participate in the discussion and ask questions as much as possible, we decided to try a different event structure in which the speakers would answer questions for a few minutes before leaving the floor to the public. The central moment of our event was studying some historical materials together by working in small groups, under the guidance of the speakers.

These historical sources were provided by the Centro di Documentazione Aldo Mieli and consisted of excerpts taken from three ethno-anthropological books about the Italian presence in Libya, all dating back to the first half of the 20th century: the touristic guide Tripolitania e Cirenaica (1911), Luigi Salerno’s essay La polizia dei costumi a Tripoli (1922), and Giorgio Prosdocimo’s etno-criminological book Tra i Libici del Sud Tripolino (1954). During the discussion, the three groups focused on different aspects of these sources. One group looked at the language and the terms used in the three texts, underlining the continuities between the early and the mid-20th century, and actually the language used in present-day debates about migrants from Africa. The other groups explored the racial and gendered representation of Italian and African people, and the shifts in sexual stereotypes attributed to people coming from different contexts. For example, the earlier sources identified homosexuality as a legacy of Ottoman rule over Libya, whilst the later source considered it as innate to Libyan people.

The discussion on primary sources underlined how people approached themes, texts, and experiences about colonialism and migration according to their different backgrounds, interests, and knowledge. A queer approach helped to challenge an approach tending to observe phenomena as independent and unconnected. The dialogue with the guests, the engagement with historical materials, the questioning of current narratives about migration led us to explore a variety of points of view, which helped us to shape a more nuanced understanding about the connections between queerness and Italy’s colonial past, and about current debates on migration policies and realities. Thanks to the dynamic form of the event and the active participation of the people involved, we came to understand the importance of addressing historical and current topics as intertwined phenomena that should always be observed and discussed from different perspectives. Therefore we want to make the plurality of voices visible here. These are some of the thoughts that participants wrote down after the event:

«Today more than ever it is urgent to talk about colonialism, post-colonial and neo-colonialism in relation to “old” and “new” issues, perceived both as “close” or “distant””».

«The reciprocal exchange rewards the organizational effort, as well as the choice of focusing on (dis)connections and (dis)continuity which characterize the encounter with otherness and the classification and stigmatization that usually follows […]. I also found that the debate showcased the importance of women and activists in their work of recovery, excavation and preservation of memories, and the urgency of an academy more open to the demands that come from civil society».

«Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a famous Nigerian feminist writer, in an extremely topical essay warns us of the “danger of a single story”, of the danger of looking at history from a single point of view, to simplify it, and consequently the danger of silencing the multiplicity of stories related to a certain place, considered “inconvenient” by many. The event “Queerness, between colonialism and migration” brought to light stories that challenge this danger, and stories where Italian colonialism, queer and migrations intersect. I had the opportunity to dialogue with the other participants and speakers, in a safe space, on these issues mainly from a historical point of view, but without losing sight of the continuity of colonial narratives, Eurocentric, homophobic and sexist used in the past, which unfortunately are continually reproduced in the present».

Public history is a craft that never ends: our aim is to take these provisional results to keep this debate alive with new events and initiatives!

Categories: EUI Events, LGBTIQ WG