UNSETTLED SUCCESS: GROWING UP GAY IN A CONSERVATIVE ITALIAN HOUSEHOLD

UNSETTLED SUCCESS: GROWING UP GAY IN A CONSERVATIVE ITALIAN HOUSEHOLD

Disclaimer: This article uses the abbreviation LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit). We recognize that this term is not universal and some people may use a different term.

Content warning: This article contains discussions of religion, mental health, and homophobia.

Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of death by suicide, attempted suicide, and self-inflicted harm that may be triggering for some readers. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Author’s Note: The author would like to acknowledge and make it known that these are his personal experiences. The author would like to recognize that other people have other experiences and that no two people are the same. 

I grew up in a very conservative Italian household. My parents, Nonni, Zia’s and Zio’s, would always tell me how lucky a beautiful Italian woman would be to marry a man like me. Whenever I go to visit, there are steps I always find myself taking. I pack a more neutral and less gay set of clothes: shorts with inseams longer than 5”, fewer skinny jeans, and more stereotypically masculine tops. I slap on my chain my Nonna gave me, a symbol to declare my masculinity, (as this is some sign of masculinity?). I take my pride pin off of my backpack. I refresh my memory of the straight vocabulary that I can use to talk about women with my Nonno every time I visit.

Almost 5 years ago, I came out and began a journey to become the best and truest version of myself. Coming to terms with your sexuality is not easy. It is made even more difficult when your growth is contained by the walls of heteronormativity, and anything else is sin. 

In the five years before I came out, my mental health was deteriorating. As a 12-or-something year old, I had no conception of what mental health was meant to look like, and I didn’t know how to grapple with this decline, mainly because I did not recognize it as my mental health. Mental health doesn’t exist in conservative Italian households. I didn’t know my mental health was bad until hindsight kicked in. This was the most I had ever questioned my self-worth, self-love, and self-acceptance in my life. I also didn’t feel like myself. I walked to reconciliation at my church for weeks to pray the bad feelings away. I forced myself to look at naked pictures of women and tried to trick my brain into having the same attraction to them as I did to naked pictures of men. And in 2013, I bet you my top google search was something along the lines of “Why am I attracted to boys, and how do I make it stop?” 

People at school would whisper about me being gay. They were so sure of it because I dressed nicely was a good person, and was friends with every single girl. They all knew before me and made it clear that I couldn’t have crushes on girls like all the other boys because I was gay… even though to myself, at the time, I wasn’t.

I didn’t think my mental health could get worse than it was before I came out, but it did. After I came out at age 16 I began believing things about myself that no one should ever think. The first time I experienced imposter syndrome was when I started to engage in advocacy work. During my time in University student leadership roles, engaging in queer advocacy felt wrong and any work I did felt intellectually fraudulent. My reality of not being able to get married until my grandparents pass away began to bother me more and more. I became extremely bothered when people interpreted me being nice to heterosexual men and women as me flirting, having a crush on them, or trying to steal your significant other. News flash: just because I force myself to wear 8” inseams with my Nonni doesn’t mean I want to date your boyfriend who wears them! And just when I thought I was going to a “progressive” country for school, I get called a faggot walking home at 2 am by a group of guys I cross paths with on Division Street.

To this day, beyond all of my friends, I have only told my immediate family and a couple closer cousins about being gay. To me, it is easier to be visibly out on my Instagram with over 1800 followers that I may or may not say hi to if I saw them on the street than to tell my extended family. Since coming out in 2016, I have found myself in shitty homophobic situations. One day I remember putting up Christmas lights with my Nonno and he referred to queer folk as “mice” when he told me that “God created men, not mice.” I didn’t know what to do; I froze. Another time at Christmas two years ago, I overheard a relative expressing how they would never touch, let alone hug, a gay person if they knew one. They hugged me on the way in and nothing about them changed after embracing a homosexual… if only they knew. I felt the need to remain silent the rest of the gathering. I’ve been mocked by family even closer to me for the “man purse” I bought one day, and they have threatened to cut the straps off ‘all in good fun.’ I no longer use the bag at home. I can’t even fathom coming out to my Nonni…I think our relationship would change forever. They would never look at me the same — even though nothing would change except the “straight” outfits I pack when I go and visit them. Even on the parental level, I remember overhearing conversations about it being a ‘phase.’ I felt this utter sense of disappointment and wanted to do everything in my power to fix it all — even though I didn’t know where to start with ‘fixing.’

Not everyone will survive this difficult stage of becoming who they are. There are kids who were in my shoes and did not make it. There are kids who are still in these shoes and might not make it. And as I engage in more research and advocacy work, I have come to realize that my resiliency and support system is a privilege. My incredible support system of friends who have become my chosen family have helped me build this resiliency that has saved me in many ways. My experiences are a shallow glimpse into the struggles that many individuals face.  

Content warning: The following content contains discussions of death by suicide, attempted suicide, and self-inflicted harm that may be triggering for some readers. 

In their 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ+ mental health, The Trevor Project found that half of youth respondents said their school was not affirming of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The survey also revealed that LGBTQIA2S+ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth, and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. 42% of LGBTQIA2S+ youth, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The Trevor Project’s research also cited race as a major factor in attempted suicide rates. Indigenous, Black, multiracial, Latinx, and Asian & Pacific Islander youth are nearly twice as likely as white youth to attempt suicide. An episode of queer victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behaviour by 2.5 times on average — in many cases, standing up against homophobic rhetoric is literally a matter of life and death. 1 in 3 youth found their home affirming of their identity, and 13% of respondents were subject to conversion therapy at an average age of 15 years old. Conversion therapy on minors is legal in 30 states.

This leads me to the importance of Pride month. While it is important that corporations jump on the pride month marketing bandwagon and promote love and inclusivity, it is paramount that they prioritize making a genuine impact on the LGBTQIA2S+ community. It is great to see rainbow storefronts, pride apparel front and center in stores, and round up charity campaigns. Although, we must question and challenge the motives behind this “progressive” marketing. In our interactions with Pride marketing campaigns, we must hold corporations accountable. Are they supporting the LGBTQIA2S+ community, or are they just rainbow-washing to virtue signal and collect consumer dollars? We must understand the innate purpose (which might be a tax break), and not allow ourselves to be blinded by the rainbow washing that we see every June with corporations. What are these initiatives accomplishing? 

We need to ensure that companies are pushing and funding change, funding accountable spaces and support systems, and educating stakeholders. We also need to ensure that corporations, alongside everyone else, understand the celebration of queerness that is marked by the sacrifices of QTBIPOC folk that led and continue to lead the queer and pride movement. 

We know that respect for pronouns, and allowing name changes and gender markers on legal documents for transgender and nonbinary youth lowers rates of attempted suicide. We know that when given access to spaces that affirm their sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQIA2S+ youth have lower rates of attempted suicide. Respect shouldn’t need to be earned, it should be a given with no questions asked.

Riley Hadley (12), Tyrone Unsworth (13), and Nigel Shelby (15) all took their own lives after years of being bullied for their sexualities. Riley kicked in the hallways and into the roads, afraid to go to school, and told by bullies to “do us all a favor and slit your wrists.” Tyrone was bullied for his fairy costume during book-week, his love of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and playing with the girls at recess. Nigel, a ray of sunshine, was adored by his family for his identity, but tormented by bullies at school. School officials ignored Nigel’s pleas for help. All three, gone far too soon. These are just three of many youth whose lives have been stolen by homophobia. 

I have first-hand experience that support systems work, which demonstrates the influence that you can have as an individual on someone who may be struggling. On the outside, I did not look like someone who was struggling to the degree that I was, but the biggest struggle comes from the truth. I saw the gap between my external facade, and my internal reality, and that is what hurt the most. Every person and organization has a role to play– whether that’s in education, creating accountable spaces, or affirming an individual’s identity. Let’s commit to ensuring that every child feels that they matter, they are supported and loved, and that they belong.

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HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: MATT D’ALESSANDRO

Matt D'Alessandro

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