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An absolute ruler who takes defeat personally is a scary thing to watch.

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The Bitter Pope

By Ana Simo

JULY 11, 2000. On Sunday afternoon, the Pope stepped out as usual on his balcony overlooking Saint Peter's Square to bless the pilgrims gathered below. There were about 30,000 of them that day, not a record, but not too bad either in the sweltering Roman summer. Earlier that day, the Pope, Italian media in tow, had paid a much-anticipated visit to a nearby prison, where he had appealed to governments to show compassion for people in jail.

The prison photo op had been carefully staged, with burly or gaunt, yet lovable cons helping the Pope say Mass. The balcony appearance was to be the follow-up op, the one that would give global media legs to the media-savvy Pontiff's morning message. The Pope, however, was hardly "on message" as he stepped out on his balcony. Compassion and jail inmates had been dislodged from his heart and mind by an overpowering sentiment: bitterness.

A Papal Tantrum
The Pope said he felt "bitterness." The cause was 200,000 mostly Italian queers and their supporters peacefully marching through the streets of Rome the day before, against his wishes. Although expressed "on behalf of the Catholic Church," the Pope's bitterness was unmistakably personal.

It was a moment of great poignancy, and pettiness. Here was the most powerful man in Christianity throwing a tantrum in front of 30,000 people who believe he's infallible. Try imagining Jesus in his place.

The Pope had ample reasons to feel bitter. The Vatican had moved heaven and earth to stop gays from meeting and innocuously marching in Rome. It had not just failed miserably, but propelled gay civil rights out of the closet and into the Italian political mainstream for the first time in history.

An absolute ruler who takes defeat personally is a scary thing to watch. The Pope used unusually harsh language to condemn gay rights and homosexuality. Not just the march, but every single event of the week long World Pride 2000 was an "affront" to the church and an "offense to the Christian values" of Rome. Here the 30,000-strong crowd broke into loud applause. Homosexuality was "against natural law." Homosexual acts were "acts of grave depravity." And the clincher: gay folks are "objectively disordered."

Is the Pope a closet Leninist? "Objective" was, after all, Vladimir Ilich's favorite word. Don Gianni Baget Bozzo (the Italians call their priests "Don"), tongue firmly in cheek, missed the Lenin connection, but said the Pope's remark poses "an interesting theological problem." The 75-year old Genovese priest, who marched in Rome on Saturday, told Milan's daily Corriere della Sera that, "theologically speaking, there is no such condition as 'objective disorder'. There is only 'original sin.' So, I wonder if this means that we now have to consider homosexuals as creatures burdened by an original sin that's greater than anyone else's."

Is the Pope Fueling Neo-Fascists?
Gay Italian leaders reacted swiftly to the Pope's vitriolic attack. "It's time for the Pope to shut up and stop offending us," fired back Imma Battaglia, president of the Mario Mieli gay cultural association, which organized World Pride 2000. "The gay community is fed up, indignant, and offended," she said, accusing the Pope of siding with "the violent right, the fascists, who find in his words the strength and the courage to attack a peaceful community."

The Pope "is wrong to condemn World Pride, a great popular demonstration," said Franco Grillini, the honorary president of Arcigay, another gay rights organization. "The real offense is homophobia and anti-gay prejudice fueled by the Vatican hierarchy."

The Pontiff's intemperate remarks relaunched the gay rights controversy in Italy. Instead of dying a natural media death after the Saturday march, World Pride 2000 remained big news for at least another two days.

Homophobic right-wing politicians, emboldened by the Pope's words, gay leaders, and the gay movements new-found friends in the left slugged it out on print, radio, and television.

Media Attacked
Attacked by right-wing politicians for its extensive, live coverage of the march, the state-owned RAI 3 television countered with a sobering audience survey: 3 million Italians watched the two-hour special (an 18-20% audience share); news coverage after the march by another channel, TG1, captured a whooping 26% of the national audience share. The nascent Italian gay rights movement owes the Pope a big one.

The queer genie is politically out of the bottle in Italy. This is good news for the global gay civil rights movement, particularly in the Catholic countries of Latin America and in the Philippines. The Pope's bitterness, flowing through the vast expanses of the Catholic world, could bring much grief to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) folk in those countries in the short term, but it could also open many opportunities.

As Italian queers have just learned, nothing puts you faster on the map in a Catholic country than incurring the wrath of the big purple bully.

Related links:

For the official Vatican site.

For Dignity/USA, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Catholics.

For Homosexual Rights Around the World.

For Italy's Gay Web Portal Gay.it. (Italian)

For the official page of World Pride Roma 2000. (Italian and English)

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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