So I’ve moved to Italy. Not to Milan or Rome, not even to the rolling hills of Tuscany. No, to Bari, a southern seaport that’s now doing a roaring trade as a university city, despite its previous moniker of ‘ghetto’ of the south. The sun isn’t baking this mixed old city yet. February is bringing lacklustre showers, tufts of grey cloud and windy evenings, my scarf blowing madly about my head. Erratically driven cars appear out of nowhere and aim straight for my solar plexus, and I look totally out of place in my pressed work shirts amongst the plush sportswear sporting, puffa-jacketed locals.
I’m sharing a new apartment with a straight guy. Italian, quite handsome, an interest in football. I was hoping to get a new apartment just on my own, but apparently this is impossible for only four mouths, so after some persuading I decided to give it a go. In the past I’ve only shared with friends or people I’ve met through work. This time it would be different. This was a complete stranger, who wouldn’t speak the same first language as me, and who would be entirely unaware that I’m gay.
In the UK I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, the last time I came face to face with a vocal homophobe was quite some time ago (despite this ending with me being punched repeatedly in the face). As I’ve moved into my mid-twenties I’ve found that nearly all the people I’ve worked and socialised with have been very laid back about the whole thing. The older I get the further away that playground atmosphere of my early years seems. It can be difficult to remember exactly what it felt like to go to a school where homophobic insults were traded so regularly that they formed a constant background hum and where even a whiff of difference was enough to make you a social pariah. These days though I’m always pleasantly surprised by how open people are. Despite this, by no means have I felt felt it wise to be out with everyone I’ve ever come into contact with.
Even though many people still maintain a belief in gaydar, people are not able to smell the queer in you as you stand before them, and because the majority of people in society are straight, sooner or later you will probably have to clear up the gender of your preferred partner. This is a three stage process. The first is the time you spend loitering around the door of the closet, wondering whether it’s wise to march out or not. It’s the evidence gathering period, teasing out someone’s attitudes and degree of open mindedness. The second is the actual ‘surprise, I’m gay!’ moment – your choice whether you slip it in subtly or rainbow style. Ideally the final stage will be a blissful feeling of clarity and openness, shortly after which we can all get on with living our otherwise commonplace lives.
I am stuck in the first stage with my flat mate now, and until he knows I’ll feel slightly uneasy about his tendency to walk around with his trousers undone, his conspiratorial comments about girls and his invitation to walk through his room at anytime to use the en-suite shower. It’s difficult to know whether my uneasiness in the situation is due to my own insecure worries, or genuine concerns. We often think about how we identify other gay people, the dubious notion of ‘gaydar’ but the other kind of radar we regularly use is that which alerts us to homophobes. We become hypersensitive to conversations that turn towards any LGBT topic. We watch out for reactions to newspaper articles and items on the radio and TV. We mention gay friends, and duly record all comments and facial expressions.
Historically a lot of the queer experience has been about reading subtle clues, looking out for people like us and for those who are on side. Abroad, however, those signs are much more difficult to look out for, and if you’re speaking in a language you’ve only studied for a month it’s nigh on impossible. Home or away, a lot of mental graft goes into all this analysis and it can build up to general state of over thinking. Before long, we too are making dubious assumptions about others and their attitudes.
One benefit of the unprecedented acceptance and support for LGBT people has been the reduction in the atmosphere of paranoia and judgement that used to surround us. But there are still times when we end up in less than gay friendly situations. After all, it’s not as if homophobia has disappeared from our world. In some countries it’s on the rise. Many of our judgements are only successful depending on how adept we are at reading our own culture’s clues. In another European country, on the face of it quite similar to the UK, it’s difficult to know whether my occasional paranoia is justifiable or self-instigated, whilst at home I still sometimes completely misread situations, presuming homophobia where there is none, or finding it hiding under an otherwise friendly face. My moral instinct says be out and proud, no exceptions! But a small part of me still says no: bide your time. Watch from the margins and wait till it’s safe.