Where Are All the Gay Men in Rome?

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Photo: Arcaid/UIG via Getty Images

There’s something about Rome that can push you back into the closet. Sure, the ancients were known for a little man-on-man canoodling: One of their most celebrated emperors, Hadrian — a notorious daddy-bear type — created an entire cult around his famously beautiful companion, Antinous, who died at the tender age of 19. (Hadrian’s much-suffering wife, Sabina, can be seen scowling down in centuries-old sculptures throughout Italy, looking decidedly unsatisfied.) And in the 16th century, Tuscan-born artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi made a name for himself while working in Baroque Rome under the nom de fresco Il Sodoma. (“Which he acquired for the obvious reasons,” a prominent Italian aristocrat once told me, her arched eyebrow audible even over the phone.)

But for a city long associated with Heralded Homosexuals of History, both purported (Michelangelo) and confirmed (Valentino), my boyfriend and I found very few visible signs of gay life during the two years we called Rome home.

Rome has its gay bars, of course, by our count just under ten, which is to say roughly the same number you’ll find within a quick quarter mile sashay of our current apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. But with their early-morning-to-late-night hours and their location on the recently christened “Gay Street,” next to the Colosseum, several seem to function as tourist snack shacks as much as local gay bars, doing as brisk a business in panini and gelato as they do in cocktails and cock-teasing.

And then there’s the requisite Friday gay club night, called Muccassassina (“Cow Assassin” in Italian … don’t ask, we never quite figured out how it came by that title) and another on Saturdays at an otherwise-straight place called Alpheus. There’s even a gay stretch of sea and sand a bit outside of the city, in Ostia, at one of the furthest beach entrances from the train station there, where boys tanned, muscled, and oiled sit side by side wearing the skimpiest of Speedos, or showily walk along the shore on their way to dune-shielded assignations, taking a break only to eat the cold leftover pasta their mothers packed for them in Ikea Tupperware.

Yet during the time we lived there, just walking around the city and going about our lives, Brian and I were always surprised by how few openly gay people we seemed to gaze upon. We saw signs of the Mafia everywhere we looked, but the Gay Mafia? Not so much. There wasn’t even anywhere to get brunch, all-you-can-drink or otherwise.

With their tight jeans and tighter T-shirts, their crisply tailored suits and blissful ignorance of pleated pants — “What is this, how do you say, khaki?” — not to mention their gelled hair and eyebrows waxed to razor-sharp perfection, all the guys tended to look at least a little like they might like men. But looking like you like men and actually liking to look at men are two very different things, indeed.

In a city where couples young and old tend to engage in heavy-petting PDA like randy teenagers, if not actual dogs in heat — lying on top of each other in public parks, sitting in each other’s laps at fancy restaurants, trying to eat each other’s faces off in front of architectural icons you barely remember from freshman Intro to Art History — we lived in Rome for eight months before I saw guys make out, or even just hold hands on the street.

In large part, I blame the Vatican for this. As you know, the center of the Catholic Church sits behind high walls in the very heart of Rome, a tiny baby little city-state — the smallest country in the world, in fact — casting an inordinately long shadow around the entire world, of course, but nowhere more so than Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica towers above it as the tallest structure in town. Priests stroll the streets in packs. And you can’t swing a set of olivewood rosary beads without hitting a parish church — maybe even one with an absolutely ab-tastic sculpture of St. Sebastian flexing on its façade.

When we moved to Rome, in July 2012, Benedict XVI was still the resident pope in power at the Vatican. Affectionately — if that’s the right word — known as “God’s Rottweiler,” Benedict earned his canine nickname for a certain, shall we say, dogmatic adherence to Catholic doctrine, especially when it came to hunting down any members of the clergy seen to stray from the sort of orthodox ideology he championed. Anti-woman, anti-birth control, even anti-Harry Potter, he reserved special antipathy for homosexuality — and, by extension, homosexuals — which he called “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

Brian, who grew up in a conservative, devoutly Catholic family, and has the conflicted relationship with the Church to prove it, refused to set foot in St. Peter’s while Benedict was running the show, and so, for those first months in Rome, we steered well clear of the Vatican.

But, then, all of sudden, Benedict was no more. On February 11, 2013, he announced he was stepping down from the Papacy, becoming the first pope to do so since Gregory XII — in 1415. A few weeks later, when bells all over Rome started ringing in unison and white smoke rose out of the chapel’s chimney, Brian ran the mile-plus to the Vatican, squeezing his way through the rapidly expanding masses to watch the announcement from the very center of St. Peter’s Square. He was there when the world was told that the new pope’s birth name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was there when a collective “Huh?” rose up from the assembled crowd.

Back in my apartment, I watched the scene unfold on TV, sitting next to one of my oldest friends, who happened to be visiting us with her mother — another devout Catholic, this one liberal, with a gay son of her own. We were equally confused. This wasn’t the archconservative archbishop of Milan, Benedict favorite Angelo Scola, nor the more left-leaning archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn. No, it was the Argentine, a decidedly dark horse in this race, despite his cream-colored robes and snow-white hair. We didn’t know what to think.

But soon we saw that he was from the relatively liberal Jesuit order of priests. And that he lived among his impoverished parishioners in central Buenos Aires. And that he had supported gay civil unions in Argentina. And my friend’s mother started to cry. Because maybe the newly named Pope Francis I wasn’t quite the leftist from Vienna, and maybe he’d led the Catholic charge against gay marriage in Argentina even as he allowed for civil unions, but with Benedict out and Francis in, maybe her church could someday once again feel like her son’s church, too.

Two weeks later, I see two Italian guys making out in plain sight on one of the most highly trafficked streets in the historic center. A few months after that, in response to a question about homosexual priests, Francis says, “Who am I to judge?” And gays around the world go gaga.

Back in Rome, we still don’t hold hands, much less kiss, in public. We don’t go to the gay bars, either, though we still wanted to know where all the guys who only seemed to come out of the (hand-carved, intricately gilded) woodwork during the summer at the beach were during the rest of the year. (One answer came from a visiting friend of a friend who reported that Grindr was of little use in Rome, where every guy for miles and miles around, whether 20 or 45, seemed to live at home with his mother. “But who else is going to pack you pasta to take to the beach?” we explained.)  

Francis looked like an ally, but he holds his cards close, too, and veteran Vatican watchers and wary gays alike point out that there’s something about many of his stances that seems like it might be rainbow-washing at best, gay-baiting at worst. And, mostly, the city felt as conservative as ever. We spent a lot of our remaining time in Italy at home, talking about the future: where we’d live, what we’d do, what our family might look like. Other than this LGBT lag, we loved so much about our life in Rome, we even thought about staying on for longer or coming back more permanently someday. But if we felt this uncomfortable just as a gay couple, we wondered how we’d feel as eventual gay dads.

During our time away, our Facebook feeds from the States filled with happy tales of celebrity gaybies like the twins of Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, or of W editor Stefano Tonchi and gallerist David Maupin, and with image after image of the toothlessly smiling tots of gay and lesbian friends and family in New York, San Francisco, and beyond.

In Rome, meanwhile, we read the somewhat salacious stories in the Italian and international press, including in Vanity Fair, about Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, the openly gay scion of an ancient aristocratic Roman family, whose conservative and highly Catholic sister, Gesine, had started a court battle to prevent Jonathan and his partner’s children from inheriting their share of a reported $1 billion inheritance. Born with the help of egg donors and surrogates, the kids happily live with their dads in the Doria Pamphilj clan’s 500-year-old 1,000-room palazzo turned museum on Via del Corso, but Gesine, whose husband is a church deacon, questions whether her niece and nephew have any legal connection to the family. And the law seems to be on her side: The strictures of Italy’s draconian, ass-backwards, ten-year-old Human Fertility Bill prevents both single women and gay men from using artificial insemination, and it outlaws surrogacy outright, for anyone, straight or gay.

We moved back to New York in July, nearly two years to the day after we left, returning to our place in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood now so gay it could be P-Town or the Pines or a Pride parade pre-party. And while wading through a prancing passel of self-important 26-year-old homosexuals may not be my first-choice commute to the subway, if that’s the price I have to pay for walking down the street with my arm around Brian, I’ll take it.

I want to kiss my boyfriend good-bye in front of our building before he goes to work. I want the Vatican and the Pope — whether a Rottweiler like Benedict or a potential wolf in sheep’s vestments like Francis — to feel more like foreign concepts than the local morality police. I want our kids to have the right to inherit our aristocratic riches, no questions asked, no matter how imaginary those riches (and, for now, anyway, those kids) might be. The choice to leave Rome was clear.