The Rainbow Over Rome


Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?

If you are a Muppet fan, you heard that line inside your head, sung in Kermit the Frog’s familiar croak. I have always wanted to answer the little green guy’s musical question. We sing about rainbows because they have always been a symbol of better days ahead – a time in the future when our troubles are finally behind us. That optimism,universally associated with rainbows, is one of the reasons they make the perfect symbol for the LGBT struggle.

The rainbow transcends cultures. It is where Irish leprechauns hide their pots of gold.  It is the way the Christians believe God promised Noah he would never again wipe out humanity by flood. And this Christmas, it is the way Ignazio Marino, the mayor of Rome, the very seat of Christianity, reassured the doubting gay community that he has not forgotten his promise to fight for their equality.

The LGBT community of Rome has had a difficult time since 2008, when Mayor Marino’s predecessor, Gianni Alemanno, was elected mayor, the first right-wing mayor since World War II.  Alemanno is the founder of the National Social Conservative caucus within Italy’s right-leaning National Alliance Party. The night he was elected, groups of skinheads stood among his supporters welcoming Alemanno with raised fists and cries of “Duce! Duce” Add to that the relentless verbal attacks by Rome’s most famous citizen, noted homophobe Pope Benedict, and you can see why the gay community in Rome felt under siege.

But 2013 brought a wave of liberal victories.  The center-left Democratic party elected gay-friendly mayors in 16 of Italy’s largest cities. Gianni Alemanno was defeated in a landslide, by a truly unique candidate, Dr. Ignazio Marino, who campaigned on a promise of passing a civil unions law that would give same-sex couples all the same benefits of marriage.

Before you grumble about Mayor Marino promising civil unions and not marriage equality, remember where the Vatican is. Marino didn’t promise what he knew he couldn’t deliver. But legal equality? That is a political promise he just might be able to keep.

ignazio marioIgnazio Marino (left) has an interesting past, including an American connection. He is a transplant surgeon, who studied in Italy, but who, in the early 90s, pioneered baboon to human liver transplants at the University of Pittsburgh. After almost a decade here in the states, Dr. Marino returned to Italy and opened Sicily’s first liver transplant center in Palermo. Dr. Marino’s Wikipedia bio says he has performed over 650 transplants in his career, but there’s one you’ll be especially interested in.

Dr. Marino performed the first organ transplant in Italy on a man with HIV. It was not illegal to do so, but it did go against established medical practice, and he endured much criticism for his decision. Dr. Marino says he was persuaded to perform the kidney transplant surgery after the patient and his father, who was the donor, made a personal plea to him. They had been turned down by every transplant center they had contacted because of the son’s HIV status. Dr. Marino performed the surgery, which was a complete success. His kind act made him an immediate hero among Italy’s gay community, but Ignazio Marino was not always a supporter of gay rights.

washington narional galleryMayor Marino was here in the states last week, bringing the National Gallery in Washington an ancient work of art known as “Dying Gaul” (right). Rome is in financial trouble, and is “loaning” (meaning renting) its treasured art as a means to raise cash. (Something Detroit should think about.)

While he was here, the mayor sat down for an interview with James Nichols of the Huffington Post, in which he confessed that twenty years ago, he would not have been a supporter of marriage equality or even adoption by gays. Mayor Marino credits his time living here in the states with changing his mind. The mayor’s explanation of his evolution is very similar to the one given by President Obama. He says it was raising his daughter in Pittsburgh, meeting the same-sex parents of her friends, that led him to realize LGBT equality was the right and moral thing to do.

So earlier this year, the evolved Dr. Marino ran to become gay-champion Mayor Marino, promising to make civil unions a reality in Rome. He also pledged he would fight for a city-wide LGBT non-discrimination law. Except for the standards demanded by the EU, LGBT protections do not exist in Italy on a national level, but non-discrimination laws are being passed by local communities more and more. He also said he would institute a program teaching acceptance of LGBT people in Rome schools. Mayor Marino:

It’s not possible that a city like Rome there continues to be crimes and offenses driven by homophobia. In my city I don’t want violence of this type and I will fight it.”

“I believe homosexuals must have recognition of the same rights as everyone else. Respect of rights is fundamental.”

Rome mayor and popeThe election brought hope to the LGBT community in Rome. There was a tremendous celebration. Supporters chanted “We freed Rome from the fascists,” at the election night victory rally. But right out of the chute, Mayor Marino appeared to let his gay supporters down. The mayor was elected a few days before Rome’s Pridefest. He was expected to make an appearance. Maybe even a speech. But Mayor Marino was a no-show.

The Mayor assumed office last June with a black financial cloud hanging over Rome. His first order of business had to be a budget battle with right-wing council members who are very Tea Party-like in their push for austerity. Perhaps the new mayor felt an appearance at Pridefest would make it seem like he was rubbing their faces in his landslide victory and complicate his negotiations with them. But among the LGBT community there was open speculation about how, now that he was elected, Ignazio Marino had forgotten all about his promise to work for gay equality. Photos of him embracing the new Pope Francis (above right) only made things worse. Say it’s not so Ignazio! The gays of Rome are waiting for a sign.

The sign came this week. The message. The reassurance. Mayor Marino has not forsaken the gay community. And his promise came in the form of a rainbow.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino and City Assemblywoman Imma BattagliaThere is a mile and a half long street in Rome known as the Via del Corso, a bustling shopping district that runs from the Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo. Each year the Via del Corso is decorated for Christmas with what the Italians call a “carpet”of lights overhead. Last year, the lights were white. In 2011, for the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, they were the colors of the flag. But this year, lesbian Councilwoman Imma Battaglia (left with Mayor Marino) who is an LGBT activist, went to the new mayor with an idea he immediately embraced. Her idea? This year, the lights should be rainbow.

Officially, the rainbow lights of the Via del Corso were said to honor three young gay Italians who had recently taken their own lives due to bullying. Perhaps the hope was even the right-wing wouldn’t trample on the memory of dead children. But trample they did, of course. For an example of the right wing’s reaction, just imagine what Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum would say under similar circumstances, and then translate that into Italian. Laura Rossi, the event planner who installed the lights, was so flustered after the first few days of the right’s vitriol that she announced the lights were no longer about gay rights, they were now about Mandela.

“This way the message of love, tolerance, unity and sharing will become stronger.” Rossi said.

But Mayor Marino did not back pedal or equivocate under fire.  “It’s about rights.” He told the Huffington Post.

The rainbow lights are Mayor Marino’s message to the gay community of Rome: he has not forgotten them. He will stand against homophobia. He will stand for equality. He intends to keep his promise to champion gay rights and bring civil unions to Rome. It’s not Kermit’s doubts that should be playing in their heads:

“Rainbows are visions, but only illusions…”

It’s the Eagles’ Desperado:

“It may be raining. But there’s a rainbow above you…”



Mayor Marino’s Photos 
Mayor Marino and Councilwoman Battalia Photo
Light Photos Facebook


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