Last week, seemingly against the odds, Vladimir Luxuria won the Italian reality-tv game show L’Isola dei Famosi (a type of ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’). What makes her victory worth discussing – outside of the tv pundity columns – is that she is a) transgender, and b) a former member of parliament for the Rifondazione Comunista party. Take those two factors together, alongside the crushing defeat of the Italian left after more than 15 years of Berlusoni’s presence on the political stage, and you have something worth probing.
Luxuria hit the headlines in 2006 when she became the first ever transgender parliamentarian. Before that she’d been an actress and LGBT activist. Her presence in Parliament will probably, sadly, be most remembered for the bathroom incident – when, after six months of the legislature, a Forza Italia deputy Elisabetta Giardini confronted Luxuria in the women’s bathrooms in the parliament building, telling the transgendered deputy that she was ‘a man’ and as such had no right to be in the ladies toilets. A sad episode that had all the prurient elements required to dominate the media for some time.
Less publicised were her attempts to have incitement to hatred legislation extended to include protection from harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. Brave and necessary – in a country where a serving Mayor can openly call for ‘ethnic cleansing of faggots*’ and suffer no serious political consequences, let alone prosecution – but ultimately doomed to failure in a parliament with a slim majority and a significant Catholic presence in the ruling coalition.
Luxuria’s decision to participate in the show immediatly came in for criticism from various quarters of the left – seen as just another episode of someone abdicating a political role in favour of the bright lights of glitzy Italian tv. On the other hand there were plenty, including the Rifondazione newspaper Liberazione, which supported Luxuria’s move , suggesting that the participation of a transgender contestant in such a mainstream program was a strong political act.
Substantially, then, Luxuria’s participation in the show reprised a debate that has existed ever since media tycoon Berlusconi entered politics – should the left absent itself from a fundamentally flawed and biased tv system, albeit one watched by the majority of the public, or should the left learn the rules of the game and compete with the right-wing on its apparent home ground. Former leader of Rifondazione Comunista, Fausto Bertinotti, for example was the subject of this debate for his frequent appearances on talk-shows like Bruno Vespa’s Porta a Porta.
What to make of Luxuria’s victory then? Does it change the rules of the game? Bertinotti, after all, never got such a rousing thumbs up from the tv watching public. Rushing to contextualise the victory a number of commentators have thrown out the O word – Obama. Liberazione editor,, declared both in the newspaper and later on Michele Santoro’s Anno Zero programe that while the comparison was obviously exaggerated, such was the strength of feeling at Luxuria’s surprise victory that – just this once – some leeway should be given.
On the face of it the Obama comparison is absurd. The President Elect of the US managed to go against the political wisdom of the party, harnessing new media along the way, and did what until now has been unthinkable, became the first black man to be elected President. Luxuria on the other hand simply won a game show – though one watched (and voted for) by over 6 million Italians.
Even accepting that the game-show is somehow a cultural yardstick, Luxuria’s participation wasn’t really so out of the ordinary. Minorities have always played a part in the program’s carefully chosen by the program producers, and both the show and its presenter Simona Ventura have an undoubted following in the gay community.
But on the symoblic level there is something important about such a victory, particularly at this time politically in Italy. At the very least it should have some bearing on the debates going on in the PD opposition party, which has since its inception – a merger between the former communists of the DS and the centre-left Christian Democrats of the Margerita party – grappled with the traditional support of the left for gay rights. A vote for Luxuria in a game-show may not translate into gay marriage, or even support for rights for cohabiting couples (including same-sex) at the ballot box, but it does show that there are plenty of non-gay people who don’t share the homophobic tendencies of some leading figures in the PDs. Paola Binetti, a leading ‘theo-con’, for example very publicly caused a controversy when describing homosexuality as a ‘deviance’ – put BInetti up against Luxuria in a tele-vote and there can be few doubts as to who would win.
What remains to be seen, though, is how Luxuria will continue her career both as a ‘showgirl’ and activist. Whether she’ll simply become tv’s favourite transgender or a significant political voice. In short, whether she’ll be able to do what no-one on the left, up to this point, has been able to do – turn conservative Italy’s biggest resource, tv, against itself.
This monkey hopes for the latter. In the meantime, congratulations to Luxuria!
*Mayor Giancarlo Gentilini made world headlines when he told reporters that he would order police forces in the town of Treviso to carry out ‘ethnic cleansing for faggots’. His political career has not been affected in the slightest, it would seem, as he is now Deputy Mayor of the town (he had already served two mandates as Mayor – the maximum allowed).