Venice is one of the most picturesque places on Earth. Its courtyards and canals draw 20 million tourists per year. Dubbed the “Bride of the Sea,” the city has inspired writers from Ernest Hemingway to D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh to Lord Byron. Truman Capote once said that “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
For a city so beautiful, however, things are suddenly getting very ugly.
The City of Bridges is quickly sinking into a quagmire of its own making as its newly elected mayor stands accused of homophobia.
“There will never be a Gay Pride [parade] in my city,” Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro told a local newspaper on Wednesday. “Let them go and do it in Milan, or in front of their own homes.”
Some Venetians fear Brugnaro is disgracing the city, which is home to one of the world’s greatest art fairs. But Venice’s gay pride debate is also part and parcel of a raging national debate over gay rights. Italy is one of the few European countries that still does not recognize same-sex unions, according to the New York Times. And the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the country’s conservative marriage laws were a human rights violation.
Despite only a couple of months on the job, controversy is nothing new for Brugnaro, a center-right businessman elected in June after vowing to pull gay-friendly children’s books from preschool libraries.
Assuming office after the previous, center-left administration was caught up in a corruption scandal, Brugnaro made good on his election promise, immediately announcing that he was banning 49 kids books.
That unleashed a fierce outcry from national and international groups. Nearly 300 Italian authors asked that their own books also be banned in solidarity with the same-sex stories.
Brugnaro’s biggest critic, however, has proved to be another Venetian (at least on paper).
Elton John, who owns a house in Venice, came out forcefully against Brugnaro’s edict. In an Instagram post praising gay-friendly children’s books, John, who has two boys with husband David Furnish, slammed the “extremely silly looking mayor of Venice.”
“He’s stupidly chosen to politicize children’s books by banning titles that touch on same sex families living happily ever after,” the singer wrote. “So instead of encouraging a world based on inclusiveness, tolerance and love, he’s championing a future society that’s divisive and fosters ignorance.
“Beautiful Venice is indeed sinking, but not as fast as the boorishly bigoted Brugnaro.”
Brugnaro defended himself in a series of tweets, saying he had “no problem with homosexuals” but accusing John of abandoning his adopted city.
While John’s comments “represented the arrogance of someone who is rich and can do whatever they want … I have to think about the majority of families where there is a mother and a father,” Brugnaro said.
Brugnaro’s latest broadside is sure to refuel his feud with John. It was delivered in an interview with newspaper La Repubblica, in which the mayor was asked about his critics, including John.
“They use Venice to make headlines in the newspaper,” Brugnaro said. “I am on the side of those who work and produce, families with children who struggle with difficulty.”
Asked about John’s criticism, Brugnaro replied: “He is haughty and has not set foot in Venice for three years.”
“Parents will take care of our children. The family with two women and the little boy is unnatural,” the mayor added before adding that “I have gay friends.”
Asked if he’d be willing to have gay pride festivities in Venice, Brugnaro called pride parades “a joke” and “the ultimate in kitsch.”
Brugnaro’s comments again drew a rapid response from gay rights advocates.
“Venice is not his city,” Flavio Romani, president of Italian gay rights group Arcigay, told Reuters. “At the moment he is governing it, but he won’t last long given the fool he is making of himself.”
“He is becoming obsessive about this,” Romani added. “Venice does not deserve it.”
Ultimately, however, Brugnaro’s bold comments could backfire. Gay rights groups have vowed to hold their 2016 rally in Venice and already have a master of ceremonies in mind.
“Brugnaro wants to turn the city into a symbol against LGBT rights. An answer is needed as we can’t accept such blatant discriminations,” Gay Center spokesman Fabrizio Marrazzo told the International Business Times.
“We would like Elton John to open the parade.”