Perhaps we, just like Queen Victoria, (un)consciously believe that women – such innocent, pure creatures that we are – could not possibly commit “acts of gross indecency” (the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 1921) with another woman. Admittedly society has considerably evolved and opened since Victoria’s reign, but work still needs to be done for the homosexual woman. Namely, we need to get over our fear of saying the ‘l’ word out loud. In refusing to name a thing we are making a vain attempt to smother its existence and simultaneously increasing our fear of it. Refusing to face our fear is surely the easier option — for now. But like all fears and worries it won’t just sink, never to be seen again. It will one day resurface, looking us in the eyes, forcing us to deal with it.
The situation for lesbians is pretty much the same in Italy, if not worse. Lesbian movements have never really taken off in their own right, although they have been embraced within feminist movements. Outside these groups, the fact that a woman could love another, both sentimentally and physically, is generally not accepted. The lesbian is silenced, left feeling ashamed of her sexuality and destined to lead a life of loneliness.
It would be easy to blame the Catholic Church for this wrong-doing, but I do not feel that this is the case. The fact that women are objectified on a daily basis by the ‘ciao bella’ culture and that one can purchase condoms from automatic vending machines in the streets stands contrary to the Catholic faith which (to my knowledge) preaches the virtues of respect and denounces the use of contraception. So there must be some other oppressive force at large, and I lay the blame at heteropatriarchy’s door; a heteropatriarchal structure which feels threatened by the role homosexual love could play in society. It is time to challenge this destructive force. It is time to allow homosexual love the same visibility heterosexual love enjoys.
Elena Stancanelli in her novel Benzina (Petrol) makes a strong statement about living a lesbian amore in contemporary Italy. It tells the story of two young lesbian lovers, Stella and Lenni, and the array of problems they face as a result of their “abnormal” sexuality: family disappointment and eventual alienation, disgust and violence from strangers. It is, however, fair to say that the protagonists are happy in their lives; they run a petrol station together and are overtly lovers. But their space for happiness is limited to the petrol station and occupies a marginalised realm on the brink of society. Moreover, the station is tainted by the overwhelming presence of oppressive petrol. Their utopia is tarnished by the stuff, it stains their hands and clothes and cannot be washed off. It is impossible to escape its grasp and in the end it gets the better of them. Lesbianism loses.
From all this talk, Benzina may seem like a terribly tough read. It is not. Certainly, it has serious elements, but the book can be read on many different levels. Notably the narrative is funny, the majority of the comedy being provided by Lenni’s mother. A stereotypical fiorentina she is mocked for her snobbery and love of finery. And although her murder by Stella should be tragic, it somehow isn’t. The girls’ attempts to hide the scene of the murder are compelling, the narrative swings at every page and leaves you wanting more.
So let us do some good; let us read Benzina. Not only is it a good read but it attempts to unveil the taboo surrounding lesbianism in Italy. Buona lettura.