Queer as Bologna: The most colourful city in Italy?

The city of Bologna is often considered open-minded, tolerant, and queer-friendly. This means it provides a safe environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community, that is gay, bi, trans, or, in general, queer people. What does it mean to be gay-friendly in a country where the Catholic church is prominently represented?

Walking hand in hand through the city is the most normal thing to do when you are in love. At least it should be. A man and woman, a heterosexual couple, can show their love publicly without the fear of being harassed. They don’t have to be afraid of being insulted just because they love each other. In some cities, broader areas, or even countries not fitting into this spectrum of romantic relationships between opposite sexes can have dire consequences. Some might include being discriminated or yelled at in public, others could even mean a death sentence. Bologna, the capital of the north-Italian region Emilia-Romagna is known to be queer-friendly. But what does “queer-friendly” mean? “Here I don’t feel judged in any way” – says Andrea Fantini, a student living in Bologna. Not having to feel weird about showing off his homosexuality is something he appreciates about the city. Walking through the streets of the city you can see rainbow flags hanging out of the windows, you find writings on the walls of houses that range from “Antifa Bologna”, “Smash Patriarchy” to “Fuck Sexism” – signs that prove the political orientation of the city.

A history of gay movements in Bologna

Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, is known for its left-wing political orientation. From 1945 to 1999, the city only had left-wing mayors, who showed a strong political identity; a huge progressive spirit, greatly influenced by the presence of the oldest university in Europe. Founded in 1088 the University of Bologna (Unibo) claims humanist values and ideals of common progress and tolerance. Today we can see many LGBTQ+ flags and many people from the LGBTQ+ community who come to study here. Perhaps one of the reasons of attending Unibo can be the political heritage of the city. In the early 1970s, the Italian gay movement was established in Bologna thanks to many students and activists who came there to study. Students from all over the world helped to make the demands of the gay community more visible. Bologna had a huge impact on the rights of gay people: the first gay association in Italy, the “Circolo di cultura omossessuale 28 giugno” (“Homosexual Culture Club 28th June”) was born in 1978, in Bologna, and has been active in the city since. Other than that Bologna was the first city in Italy to create a public symbol of remembrance of the Nazi-fascist persecution of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals.

As the birthplace of the first gay movement in Italy, Bologna has since become the new political place for cultural expression and identity in a very religious country. People who don’t belong to the heteronormative spectrum tend to be considered “different” feel less judged and more accepted. Today, the capital of Emilia-Romagna is one of the most gay-friendly destinations in Europe, recognized for its quality of life and open-mindedness. For instance, a brochure, published by the municipality itself, presents gay-friendly places, such as, among others, Palazzo D’Accursio, the seat of the townhall, the university area and the Salara, a historic salt warehouse that now hosts the association ‘Arcigay’. Besides, the gay pride that yearly takes place in June is very important for Bologna, the so-called “Italian San Francisco”. Since 1995, people walk in the streets of Bologna, for the LGBTQ+ pride, an event where queer people from all around Italy come to Bologna to celebrate and be proud of themselves.

The importance of queer spaces

The iconic place for queer people in Bologna is Cassero. Hosted in the Salara, it is known as a must-go place for LGBTQ+-community as well as for queer parties. The venue of Cassero hosts the first LGBTQ+ center in Italy, which started its operations in 1982. Cassero belongs to a committee called “Arcigay”, a political association that stands for the acknowledgment of gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender rights. Currently, it is the headquarters that coordinates more than 100 clubs in Italy. Because of this, this organization is the safest place for people that identify as queer, namely any sexual orientation or gender identity that is not heterosexual or cisgender.

“As a queer person, I feel more free in Bologna”.

About living in Bologna as a gay student, Andrea Fantini has plenty to say. Originally from Ferrara, he has lived in Bologna for two years now. He decided to move there to study History at the University of Bologna. 

According to the 20-year-old student, the variety of churches in the city has affected society in many ways. As he mentions, “the Italian Catholic church has an impact on the LGBTQ+ community, as older people are stick to traditional beliefs.” The younger generation sees reality through a more modern lens and, as a result, they may turn away from the Church. It is well-known that many governments have retrospective views. Many local Italian governments show very conservative views regarding the rights of queer people, and this is being evident in some laws that may be considered homophobic. In 2021, there was a major political debate about the so-called Zan law within the Italian parliament – an anti-homophobia law, that was named after its initiator, the politician Alessandro Zan (Democratic Party). The text of the law provided, among other things, for preventing and also punishing discrimination against people based on their gender, sexual orientation, or identity. Homophobia would have been equated with racism in the penal code, with the possibility of prison sentences. In the end, the Italian parliament rejected the introduction of a law against homophobia. The right-wing parties Lega and Fratelli d’Italia in particular were against the bill.

In many countries and small cities, people don’t feel safe to develop freely: men feel afraid to use make-up or dress up against the norm of what men “should” wear, not showing up as masculine. In Bologna, this is not true, Andrea stated. He says that he is considering Bologna as “a safe city because it is left-wing and also the mayor has left-wing beliefs.” He adds: “As a queer person, I feel freer here than for example in my hometown Ferrara. It is also important that it is a bigger city, and it has a faster pace of life. Here I don’t feel judged in any way. I can walk hand in hand with my partner without any uncomfortable looks. Moreover, the pride that is organized here is huge and people come from everywhere for this event. For example, last summer there were thousands of people for the pride even though parades were cancelled due to Covid. Bologna embraces these ideas. Talking about Cassero, Andrea pointed out that he always chooses it “for the people, the music, and the events they organize.” He added “it’s the best place for us in my opinion” – and by “us” Andrea is referring to the LGBTQ+ community.

Cassero is also closely associated with art. It’s a cultural space that often organizes many art exhibitions. A huge space, full of works of art and open-minded people to work there, make art flourish. Moreover, for history, Cassero hosts the only monument in Italy dedicated to gay victims of the Nazis. So, as we see this LGBTQ+ center is a huge part of society in many different points. But most of all it is a safe zone for everyone, and all people can just be themselves. Therefore, it seems to be the first choice to party for non-queer people too. The whole mood and vibe are free, open-minded, and against any type of racism, sexism, and fascism. Also, Cassero is a safe zone for women too. They don’t feel offended or violated in any way. Freedom, happiness, creativity, and expression are the basic virtues of Cassero.

Bologna as a queer utopia in a predominantly Catholic country?

Though Bologna seems to take a special position in terms of open-mindedness to the queer community, the general conservatism is still perceptible in Italy. Especially the Church being not only sceptical against homosexuality but denying it to be equal with love between man and woman is something that has a huge impact on the cultural tradition and the political development of the country. Especially the rejection of the Zan-Law in 2021 shows that Italy has a lot more to do concerning tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community. Precisely for this reason, institutions such as Cassero seem to be even more relevant because they create spaces where queer people can develop and behave freely without the fear of being judged for who they are. Andrea hopes that in the future more Italian cities will open up; to change their mentality and their beliefs, providing safe spaces for queer people. In a country like Italy where the Catholic church has such power in government and society, it is important to constantly raise attention and awareness to topics that belong to the queer spectrum.

A cura di Elena Felicita Blüm, Eleni Katsamagkou, Paul Na, Stavros Tzanis 

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