Gay killings raise spectre of homophobic, macho society


Four summers ago, on a warm balmy July evening, Lou Inturrisi and some friends dropped by for a chat and a late night glass of wine in the garden. Lou was a university colleague of my wife's and someone I had never previously met.

Within minutes of arrival, Lou had started to nose about the garden, identifying plants that for us had been nameless and, in time honoured horticultural fashion, offering instructions as to how best attend to this or that garden problem. Lou was a gentle soul, someone who occasionally took to print (in the New York Times) on subjects such as Mediterranean gardens, Roman cloisters, the evening passeggiata (evening stroll) and even the flora and fauna that sprout from the cracks and crevices of Rome's Coliseum.

In occasional meetings with Lou over the last four years, he came across as good company - witty, intelligent, interested in matters of the mind, always ready to poke irreverent fun at the Catholic Church and someone who made no secret of the fact that he was gay.

One morning last summer, Lou's friends were horrified by the news, carried in the pages of the national dailies, that he had been found dead, murdered in his Rome apartment. Police investigators were and are convinced that Lou's killer(s) had known him personally and had actually sat down at his kitchen table with him to eat some ice cream before killing him by smashing him over the head with a large, heavy object.

Lou was a reserved, circumspect person. In no sense was he "camp" about his homosexuality nor did he ever seem the sort of person interested in "one night stands". For that reason, most of his friends tended to agree with the police in their conclusion that his killer(s) was a trusted acquaintance.

On a private level, Lou's death and the manner of it were deeply distressing for his friends and colleagues. On a public level, it begged questions about the difficulties of being openly homosexual in a Mediterranean, macho society where homophobia never seems far from the surface.

Lou was the 18th gay to have been murdered in the greater Roman area since 1990. Many of those killed seem to come from a similar, educated, middle-class milieu - TV director Vittorio Meloni, in October 1992; seer and fortune teller, Walter Heymann, in December 1993, and theatre critic and university teacher, Dante Cappelletti, in October 1996. Lou was not the last gay to be murdered in Rome since early this month: Enrico Sini Luzi, a gay and also a Gentleman of His Holiness (Papal chamberlain) was found dead in his Rome apartment in circumstances similar to those of Lou's killing.

He, too, appears to have known his killer since there were no signs of a break-in. Furthermore, a porno video-tape was found in his video recorder, while tape marks on his wrist and neck indicate he may have been involved in some sort of sexual play shortly before his death. Like Lou, he was killed by a heavy object, smashed onto his head.

The fact that Mr Luzi was both gay and a Gentleman of His Holiness inevitably aroused media attention. The Catholic Church, of course, under Pope John Paul II has several times in recent years reiterated traditional church teaching that homosexual practices (although not the homosexual condition itself) are sinful.

The media fuss created by Mr Luzi's murder prompted authoritative figures in the Italian gay community to voice their concern about homophobia in Italy, in particular pointing at the "discriminatory" teaching of the Catholic Church. Gay rights campaigner, Franco Grillini of "Arcigay" spoke of a "national emergency", suggesting that up to 200 people are murdered annually in Italy merely because they are gay and adding that the deaths were the result of social violence generated by homophobia - a homophobia to which Catholic teaching greatly contributed. Another gay rights campaigner, Massimo Consoli, was even more specific, saying: "The Pope should call for a halt to this murder of innocents, he should assume responsibility for the fact that the Catholic Church is in the vanguard of discrimination (against gays) ..."

Forty-year-old Alfredo Ormando seems to have agreed with those sentiments. One week after the murder of Mr Sini Luzi, he climbed onto a train in his native Palermo, Sicily, and travelled to Rome, arriving in the capital early in the morning. He went straight to St Peter's Square where he poured petrol over himself and set himself alight, provoking 90 per cent body burns which caused his death 10 days later.

Alfredo left a note in which he explained that his suicide was motivated by the "incomprehension" shown towards his "homosexual condition" both by his family and by the society around him. His choice of St Peter's Square speaks for itself.

Not surprisingly, Franco Grillini this week called Alfredo, "The Jan Palach of Homosexuals" - in reference to the young Czech who burned himself alive in protest at the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague.

Alfredo's suicide, Lou's murder and all the gay killings that have gone before them are a vivid reminder that to be gay in Italy is not as socially acceptable as in Northern European or North American culture.

To be gay in Italy is to be forced to "live underground".