On the surface, the good times returned to the Coming Out bar in Rome last week. Music boomed as crowds of drinkers spilled out into what has been dubbed Gay Street to perch on the railings, inches from a brightly lit Colosseum.
But for many gay and lesbian revellers the atmosphere was soured by the memory of how, just days earlier, one drinker was badly beaten on his way home by a gang yelling: “Filthy faggot.”
“We have been joking about the attack to cut the tension, but friends are warning us to take care,” said Giovanni, a 33-year-old marketing man from Padua.
The attack was the latest in a string of assaults on gays, immigrants and even tourists that have been linked to extreme rightwing thuggery in the traditionally tolerant eternal city, fuelled by a spiralling consumption of alcohol and following the election of former neo-fascist, Gianni Alemanno, as mayor.
“These thugs don’t get any support from the town hall, but they feel justified and encouraged by the political climate,” said Flavia Servadei, who opened Coming Out in 2001.
The assault near “Gay Street” was the eighth incident of homophobic violence in Rome in just nine months, including a serious wounding of a gay man by a veteran neo-fascist, two attempts to burn down a gay disco, and the lobbing of a firecracker into the crowd outside Coming Out.
In March four men boarded a night bus in the trendy Trastevere district and methodically beat up a black man and a homosexual student.
“Young people in Rome who are joining extremist groups, and who are no longer being warned off violence against minorities, are increasingly deciding that such violence is legitimate,” said Paolo Patanè, the president of Italian gay rights group Arcigay, which is pushing to make homophobia a crime.
With almost a third of young Italians out of work and immigrants now accounting for 7% of the population, racist attacks in Rome have also become a regular occurrence.
In March, 15 masked men armed with sticks destroyed a Bangladeshi-owned internet café, injuring four. In the tough neighbourhood of Tor Bella Monaca, immigrants from Moldavia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Albania, China and Tunisia have all been beaten up or stabbed in recent months. Last month four men were arrested in possession of machetes on suspicion of planning to assault the head of Rome’s Jewish community.
Wearing jeans, polo shirts and sunglasses, the youths swigging lager and looking for trouble in piazzas today resemble their rightwing forebears like Alemanno, who battled young Communists during Italy’s politically charged 1970s and 1980s. “The difference is that today they are less ideological and more interested in identity, in opposing anything and anyone who is different,” said Michele Sorice, a sociologist at Rome’s Luiss university.
The other generational shift is an emphasis on alcohol, as the old Italian fixation with maintaining a bella figura gives way to pride in losing control. City officials said they were considering a repeat of last summer’s ban on drinking in Rome’s piazzas to cut violence.
“Alemanno is not responsible for the political climate in the city; he is a product of it,” said Claudio Cerasa, author of The Taking of Rome, a book about the rise of the right. “Just look at the way student elections were going before he was elected in 2008.” In student council elections in 2007, after decades of leftwing rule, a quarter of Rome’s schoolchildren voted for Blocco Studentesco, an affiliate to the far-right Casa Pound.
Casa Pound leader Gianluca Iannone is described by Cerasa as a “fascist for the third millennium” who mixes eulogies to Mussolini with praise for Che Guevara and now counts on 2,000 recruits up and down Italy as well as sympathisers on Rome’s city council.
But judging by the proliferating swastikas, the problem is that a number of Romans appear quite happy to stick to the old ideas.
“There is a simply a different atmosphere here to towns up north like Venice and Padua,” said Piero, nursing his drink nervously at the Coming Out bar. “People on the far right here feel they have political cover.”