‘We were revolutionaries’: Angelo Pezzana, founder of Italy’s first LGBT movement
Gay Italians gained a voice in the early 1970s thanks to FUORI!, founded 50 years ago in Turin – though struggles for rights continue
“Would you mind if we sat down? If I stay standing for too long, I feel dizzy,” Angelo Pezzana asks calmly, and with a smile. It’s a weekday in October and he’s just turned 81. Despite his fatigue (the consequence of a recent illness), he moves with a composure and an elegance, emphasised by his smart suit, that seem immutable.
We meet at a museum hosting an exhibition dedicated to the movement that he founded, where he has just filmed part of a documentary about this history. He talks slowly and quietly, weighing each word but still conveying the energy of his vivid memories. What he’s lived through, and what he’s done, would be hard for anyone to forget.
In the early 1970s, gay Italians began to raise their voices and start participating openly in public life thanks to Pezzana’s activism and his creation: FUORI!. The first national LGBT rights movement in this conservative Catholic country.
FUORI! (meaning ‘OUT!’ in Italian), which stands for Fronte Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano (Italian Revolutionary United Homosexual Front), was founded 50 years ago, in December 1971, in the northern city of Turin. This is when it published the first issue of its historic magazine, which would mobilise a generation.
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Known as ‘Italy’s Detroit’ for its car manufacturing and industries, Turin has also long been a hub for progressive action – from labour unions to anti-fascist movements.
Pezzana’s story also resonates with contemporary themes. In early 1971, before FUORI! was founded, an Italian psychoanalyst published a book promoting treatments for homosexuality similar to ‘conversion therapy’, which is now recognised internationally as a threat to human rights and has been banned by several countries.
Pezzana – who ran a bookshop in Turin at the time – decided with friends to protest against this book and the idea that homosexuality is an illness to be ‘cured’. They wrote open letters that were published in national newspapers, and began to gather allies to launch what would become their countrywide movement.
‘We were revolutionaries’
FUORI! spread rapidly across the country “because in Italy there wasn’t a homosexual movement like this before,” Pezzana explains. From the start, one of its key strengths was its international connections, he adds, describing early trips to the UK.
In 1978, Pezzana co-founded ILGA ( International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), known around the world for its advocacy for and research into the rights of sexual minorities. The same organisation that today describes Italy as western Europe’s least hospitable country for LGBT people.
FUORI!’s early influences were intellectual and literary. Pezzana gives as examples the US Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who came to Turin in 1967, and Fernanda Pivano, the Italian translator of Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and many others, who, he says, was “the intellectual who has contributed most to change in Italian society”.
It was Pivano, he explains, who introduced him to Ginsberg and told us about “this new culture, the Beats, putting us in contact with a lot of these American intellectuals, most of whom were homosexual too”. Their demands for freedom and embracing of non-conformity changed “our point of view”, Pezzana says.
These exchanges showed him that “we were revolutionaries because we wanted to transform society, not destroy it” – despite and in contrast with left-wing politicians of the time who “considered us like a middle-class superstructure” in Marxist terms (gender and sexuality issues were deemed separate from the class struggle).
“But we weren’t a superstructure, because sexuality is common to all human beings – it doesn’t matter if you are an artist, a manual worker, a teacher,” Pezzana insists, smiling because this is an argument that is now commonly made and understood.
We only wanted to be human beings and part of a society that was striving to be ‘modern’
FUORI! was founded in a different time – before divorce and abortion were legalised in Italy (in 1974 and 1978, respectively), before openly LGBT people graced TV sets and films, and decades before same-sex civil unions were allowed (in 2016).
Pezzana describes how his bookshop became a sort of informal meeting place and safe space for gay people – its name, Hellas, served as a subtle reference and homage to the Ancient Greeks’ open-minded attitude towards homosexuality.
“At that time,” he says, “we [gay people] were invisible, and society often referred to us in very offensive ways and with slurs. We were forced to live only at night, and we couldn’t establish strong and long-lasting relationships because of discrimination.”
FUORI! struggled for “respect, not tolerance”, he adds. “We only wanted to be human beings like everyone else, and part of a society that was striving to be ‘modern’, including other fights for abortion, divorce, etc.”
Despite the challenging context, FUORI! instantly found supporters, and success in making LGBT Italians and their demands visible on a national level for the first time.
Within two months, Pezzana says, they had 40 active members and copies of their magazine had been read nationwide. Their first public demonstration came in April 1972 – a counter-protest against an international congress discussing “sexual deviances” in the seaside town of Sanremo.
It was a historic moment, not only for FUORI!, but because it was the first public protest against anti-gay oppression and for the liberation of LGBT people.
Another turning point came in 1974, when FUORI! started to collaborate with the Radical Party, a small left-wing political party whose leaders included Emma Bonino, “Italy’s pro-Europe, pro-immigrant conscience”. In the 1970s, she helped lead campaigns to legalise abortion and was jailed for ending her own pregnancy illegally.
FUORI! distributed its materials through the party’s national network of offices, which, Pezzana says, “helped us to win visibility”. This was essential, he explains, to pierce the silence around gay lives and to support LGBT self-awareness and communication.
The group’s protests won national recognition, appearing on TV news programmes and the front pages of newspapers. “The revolution started. We worked in several fields, like cinema, music, literature, politics and many others,” Pezzana recalls.
FUORI! dissolved in 1982, because its members disagreed about the extent to which they should engage with political parties and institutions. The Italian LGBT rights charity Arcigay was founded in Sicily in 1980, becoming a national organisation a few years later. Pezzana briefly entered parliament, wrote books and later became involved in political debate about the Middle East, as a staunch supporter of Israel.
The movement’s story remains “the most important chapter of homosexual history in Italy,” argues Marizio Gelatti, who co-founded (with Pezzana) the Fondazione Sandro Penna Fuori in 1980. Also based in Turin, this is the main archive for FUORI!, and the most complete one about LGBT activism in Italy.
“A lot of young people don’t know this history,” Gelatti continues, “even though the reformist and peaceful revolutionary thrust of FUORI! led to the foundation of current rights movements.” This is why the Fondazione is working to open a new museum dedicated to LGBT lives and rights in Italy, “to fight discrimination, make known forgotten battles to new generations, and consolidate the fame of Turin as the capital of rights”.
FUORI! opened the way for all the things we can now fight for
At an LGBT bookshop and café in Turin called NORA, 35-year-old Denise Cappadonia says FUORI! “was so important, because it opened the way for all the things we can now fight for”. But it wasn’t as inclusive as current movements, she adds.
“I can understand why, at the time, the male presence was so strong,” Cappadonia continues. That was the “privilege, the fact that men were allowed to be outside more than women and to fight openly, even if they were homosexual: they were men, after all”.
This is also part of the movement’s history that, she believes, must be learned from and changed – in favour of more inclusive, less institutional campaigns that also forefront the experiences and voices of queer and trans women.
“We saw some problems in the museum exhibition for the 50th anniversary of FUORI!, which totally cancelled the presence of women in the movement,” Cappadonia says. Women “were certainly part of it”, but “relegated” to the sidelines.
New grassroots movements
She agrees with Pezzana and Gelatti, however, that Turin is an important hub for progressive rights struggles. She points to the Non Una di Meno movement, which is active in the city, and emphasises that it is transfemminista – unlike some feminist campaigns in Italy, which, as in the UK, are not always inclusive of trans people.
However, the everyday struggles facing gay people, even in Turin, are made clear at another LGBT-friendly café, Pausa, which hosts drag shows every Sunday.
When we ask one of its owners about the significance of FUORI!, he shrugs and describes what has happened recently to him and his partner, at their apartment building north of the centre: threatening notes, homophobic insults and damage to their car from neighbours who called them “a cancer” and are demanding that they move out.
He shows us a video of his partner talking on national TV about these attacks, followed by a newspaper article about a new ‘School for Drag Queens’ in Turin, led by one of the performers from his café’s Sunday events.
He sees, like Denise, such self-organised, less institutional activities as a counterweight to oppression. Hand-made banners and colourful, cultural events. Not so different, perhaps, from the spirit of Pezzana’s revolution, 50 years ago.
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