MILAN >> In February, artists Mahmood and Blanco turned to each other onstage at Italy’s national song competition and sang, “I’d like to love you, but I’m always wrong.” It was the refrain of “Brividi” (translated as “Chills”), a song about the vulnerability of love, as experienced by all people — regardless of gender, identity or sexuality.
When the song won at that competition, the Sanremo contest, and became Italy’s entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the unexpected happened: There wasn’t much pushback.
There was some grumbling from a socially conservative politician about what he called LGBTQ “domination” at the contest, and disdain that Mahmood performed one evening wearing a garter, but Alessandro Mahmoud, known as Mahmood, had been expecting a bigger response, he said in a recent interview.
When the musician — born in Italy to an Italian mother and an Egyptian father — won the national song contest in 2019, anti-immigration comments followed. But this year, even those polemics normally trumpeted by conservative politicians did not flare up. The 29-year-old artist saw the muted criticism for “Brividi” as a sign that “something has happened in Italian society.”
Italy has long been influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, which for generations considered homosexuality as a taboo topic to be either ignored or shunned. In a 2005 text approved by Benedict XVI, who was pope at the time, homosexuality was described as “not a sin” but essentially “an intrinsic moral evil.”
LGBTQ rights in Italy have advanced after decades of campaigning, but some legal challenges remain. Same-sex civil unions were legalized in 2016, years after other European countries, but same-sex marriage is not legal, nor can someone in a same-sex civil union legally adopt his or her partner’s biological child.
So when two men sang a love song, clearly engaging with each other, as part of a cherished national competition, it was a first. The track “normalizes what should have always been normal,” Mahmood said.
The song’s video more explicitly shows Mahmood tenderly embracing a man, while Blanco sings to a woman. A video of the song on Mahmood’s official YouTube page has been viewed more than 55 million times.
Italian society’s approach to sexuality is changing. “Sexual orientation no longer has any importance, nor is it important to label oneself anymore,” said Aldo Cazzullo, a columnist in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera. In the 1950s and 1960s, many gay people in Italy were not open about their sexuality, Cazzullo said. This was followed by an era of coming out and empowerment, and “now there’s no longer the need to say anything,” he said. He pointed out that two of Italy’s southern regions had voted to elect gay men as regional presidents.
Mahmood said that although his songs speak volumes about who he is, he doesn’t define his sexuality: “It makes no sense to make distinctions anymore.”
Blanco, the stage name of Riccardo Fabbriconi, 19, said that his “generation is much more open” and that people his age no longer thought in terms of gender identity. In just two years, he has gone from posting videos “singing in my underwear in my bedroom,” he said, to a multicity Italian summer tour that sold out in 72 hours.
And Blanco said he also saw Italy as being “more open in general — I hope.”
A recent headline in the newspaper La Stampa in Turin captured this sentiment: “Blanco, son of the fluid century, his generation will save us.”
On Tuesday evening, the Italian hosts for the Eurovision Song Contest semifinal broadcast included Cristiano Malgioglio, a songwriter and popular television personality also known for his outlandish couture, who riffed on his love life. Speaking of the five countries that automatically get into the final — Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Britain — he quipped, “I have a boyfriend in every nation.” He was a host last year, too.
Eurovision has always “had a large LGBTQ element in its fandom,” said Catherine Baker, a historian at the University of Hull who has written about the competition. After significant rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in the late 1990s and the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which banned discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation, “Europe became associated with the idea of LGBTQ rights, and symbolically that had an impact on Eurovision, even if it wasn’t organized by the European Union,” Baker said.
The competition has also long been a trailblazer when it comes to LGBTQ representation onstage, featuring artists such as Iceland’s Paul Oscar, Israel’s Dana International and Finland’s Saara Aalto over the years.
LGBTQ people face openly hostile environments in several European countries, including Poland, Hungary and Russia. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the powerful head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by claiming that it was part of a struggle against ideals imposed by liberal foreigners that included gay pride parades.
Franco Grillini, a prominent Italian LGBTQ rights activist, said a song such as “Brividi” would once have been “unimaginable” at a festival that normally has Italians glued to their television screens.
In the past, homosexuality could also hurt a musical career in Italy, he said, citing the case of Umberto Bindi, a talented, gay singer-songwriter who caused a scandal in Sanremo in 1961 by wearing a pinkie ring (then a presumed sign of homosexuality). He never got the recognition he deserved because “he was brutally discriminated” against, Grillini said.
But democracies have a way of righting wrongs, according to Angelo Pezzana, another LGBTQ rights activist. “It’s always been like this. Remember that not a century ago, women went to jail for the right to vote,” he said. In Italy, women only got the right to vote in 1945. The Mahmood-Blanco duet “was a sign that things had changed in a positive way,” he said.
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Italy’s record on equal rights for LGBTQ people remains spotty. Apart from not having fair representation when it comes to marriage and adoption, in October, the Senate rejected a bill meant to make violence against LGBTQ people a hate crime, a label that would have meant harsher penalties. Critics blamed the lack of consensus both on political bickering as well as on Vatican interference, given that a few months earlier, the Vatican had openly opposed the bill, saying it infringed upon guaranteed religious liberties.
“Italy is still profoundly linked to the Vatican, which conditions Parliament,” said Grillini, who was a lawmaker for seven years.
Even under Pope Francis, the message has been mixed. Shortly after his election in 2013, Francis said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” and he has continued to encourage the church to be more welcoming toward the LGBTQ faithful. But since then, the Vatican has rejected the notion that gender identity can be fluid, and it has reaffirmed its opposition to same-sex marriage.
But at least at the Sanremo contest, old prejudices didn’t seem to apply.
“All my songs speak of my way of experiencing love and sex,” Mahmood said. “The least an artist can do is give an example.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.