How the Barilla campaign is helping fight homophobia in Italy

There was a beautiful piece penned by Lorenza Antonucci in Slate on Friday night, following an idiotic one from the night before, about the Barilla pasta brouhaha that we broke here first on AMERICAblog, and which quickly became one of our most-read stories ever, and also quite a big story internationally.

[UPDATE: Lorenza Antonucci will be speaking about this issue on Mike Signorile's Sirius XM radio show today, September 30, at 3:35pm ET.]

The piece I loved talked about the profound impact the Barilla story was having inside Italy, a traditionally homophobic place. The second piece, that I loathed, talked about how silly we all were to be fighting over pasta.  We’ll get to all that in a moment, but first a quick recap for anyone who might have missed this story last week.

As you might recall, Guido Barilla, the chairman of the eponymous pasta giant, told an Italian radio station that he’d never show gays in his company’s ads since Barilla is a company that likes the traditional family.  Barilla went on to note the woman’s central role in the family (slaving over the stove, one presumes), that he wasn’t a fan of gay adoption (though he is “favorable” to gays marrying), and that if gays don’t like his views, they can go buy someone else’s pasta.

bigotoniThe reaction online, and off, was swift and vicious. In the ensuing fury, Barilla was forced to issue four separate apologies, the last including taped messages of him speaking in English and Italian, and looking clearly chastened by the experience.

Then came the two articles I mentioned earlier.  The first by an Italian, explaining the significance of the Barilla outcry to her country’s quest for civil rights, and the second by some guy who found our outrage funny, or silly, or something equally condescending and typically out of touch.

I’ve been working in gay civil rights advocacy at the national (and international) level for twenty years now.  And there’s always someone who’s utterly convinced that A) any particular campaign we’re working on is silly, and B) our tactics are dumb.

The most recent example was with the Russian vodka boycott that, I’d argue, was primarily responsible for exploding internationally the story of Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on gay and trans people in Russia (a story that was nowhere on the radar for two years, and now is everywhere).  The naysayers were convinced the boycott was a dumb idea that wouldn’t accomplish our goals, until of course it did.

And the same thing is now happening with Barilla.

A lot of people, most people in fact, don’t really understand politics or political activism.  And it’s only natural that they don’t.  Every vocation carries with it a certain expertise, and not everyone can be good at everything. Boy did I learned that lesson the summer I tried to wait tables between my undergrad and law school. I was a disaster at it. I had never before so appreciated how difficult it is, or the particular skills you must have (memory and multi-tasking come to mind), to be an effective server in a restaurant. I certainly know it now.

And the same thing goes for advocacy. It takes a particular skillset to be able to pick the right issue, and craft the right campaign, in order to achieve a particular, well-chosen, political goal.  The skillset involves a lot of PR and marketing savvy, for starters, but it’s also about knowing how to fight: about knowing how, and how much, to beat the cr*p out of someone, or some company, in order to achieve a particular goal.

If you do advocacy the right way, it’s a lot more complicated than it appears on its face.  Like anything done well, it should appear simple on its face.  But if it’s done right, it’s really not.

Take the Russian vodka boycott.  To the naysayers, the boycott was about economically hurting Stolichnaya vodka, which they said we couldn’t accomplish, nor would it matter.  To those of us behind the boycott (Dan Savage announced it, Queer Nation took it and ran with it), the goal of the boycott had little to do with Stolichnaya.  Stoli was simply a foil (a well-deserving foil, I might add, since they are a Russian vodka, and up until our protest didn’t even have an LGBT non-discrimination policy, let alone partner benefits). They were a means to an end that had nothing to do with hurting Stoli financially.  The goal was to use Stolichnaya’s rather famous Russian-name as a means of catapulting the oppression of Russian gays in to the public consciousness – of using Stoli as a PR hook for the media and the public at large.  And it worked.

Which takes us back to Barilla.  If you think this campaign is about spaghetti (or that Chick-fil-A was about chicken), then you don’t know a lot about politics or effective political advocacy.  Corporations are central to our civil rights battle.  Sometimes because they take the lead in promoting our civil rights and setting an example for others (most people don’t realize that as “evil” as companies can sometimes be, they’ve often have led the way on gay civil rights – Microsoft and Apple come to mind). But sometimes even bad business are helpful, as mentioned above, because they provide a perfect foil for fixing a specific problem in that company, and sending a larger message to corporations, and all people, around the world.

Take Barilla.  There were multiple things going on in my head when I first heard about what their chairman said:

1. They’re a huge international company with big brand name appeal.  People will know them, and be ticked when they hear what the chairman did. That means this story has the potential to get big, fast.  Thus, it’s a good story from a PR perspective.

2. The chairman was talking about not wanting to put gays – gay families, specifically – in his advertising.  This is an ongoing problem for our community, visibility (though it’s improved over the years).  Having gay families appear in TV commercials helps to establish that we are a normal part of the American, Italian, and every other “family.”  And that message is priceless in terms of advancing our civil and human rights.

3. If we make a lesson out of Barilla, the ripple effect on other companies, in terms of biting their anti-gay tongue, but more importantly, their understanding that the gay, and gay-friendly, market is now huge and powerful, and the haters, not so much.

4. We had a chance to help the LGBT community in Italy.  What an interesting twist on globalization to potentially use the fact that a homophobic Italian company is so vested in foreign markets that it now much curtail its home-grown bigotry in order to survive globally.

That last point was laid out far more beautifully than I by Lorenza Antonucci in Slate.  Antonucci explains how homophobia and hate speech are regular occurrences in official public Italian life – she calls it a “system of legitimized public homophobia.”  And the international response to Barilla emboldened Italian civil rights advocates in a way that’s rarely happened before.

Do read her entire piece, but here’s a quick excerpt:

Guido Barilla’s comments are just the most recent in the barrage of bigoted public declarations that Italian LGBT people read on a weekly basis coming from MPs and other public figures like famous football players, actors, and now also corporate officers. But what made this time different was that, in a country where there is no public condemnation for homophobic speech, boycotting a specific brand is the only practical way of fighting back….

But the real power of this boycotting campaign is that it has spread over the Italian borders due to the smart use of social media to attract wider European and international attention. While Guido Barilla might have naively thought he was merely in line with “the spirit of the times” in homophobic Italy, his comments sound even more misplaced in Barilla’s global market where many countries have laws that protect gay families. Yes, I know it’s sad that we must engage with corporate forces to start a conversation about LGBT rights in Italy, but if the Italian political institutions do not respond to our demands for protection, what else would you suggest we do?

….

In the end, this Barilla campaign is not really about the potentially minor impact of boycotting—it’s about the possibility of protesting itself. And it’s about how an invisible minority of LGBT people is finally finding a way to speak for itself to a national and international audience. In a country where there are very few public intellectuals speaking for the LGBT community (and many scared just to come out), this feels grass-roots, this feels fresh. Even if it fades quickly, at least it gave us a chance to talk about the terrible situation of the gay people in Italy—and for that, the campaign deserves your respect.

A good, smart civil rights campaign is about far more than pasta or vodka or chicken sandwiches.

It’s about changing the culture, and pushing the entire world in the direction of more freedom and more tolerance.

That’s not to say that every advocacy campaign, or boycott, is well thought out or wise. They’re often not, and this is why I’m so critical of sites like Change.org.  Taking 15 seconds to pen a petition is not “change.” If anything, it undercuts true, effective advocacy by creating a lot of white noise, and a lot of useless “action” that empowers people to smugly do nothing of value.

But that’s a post for another day.  What I wanted to do today was highlight Antonucci’s column, and give you a sense of how important all of our work is, in ways that sometimes we don’t even fully comprehend.  In a real way, we all helped advance the cause of civil rights in Italy last week, potentially helping millions of people become slightly more free.  And that’s gotta count for something.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

Share This Post

  • Bebe

    Would have thought everyone knows DeCecco is by far a superior pasta. Yep, gays are just a target market like any other.

  • Mark Miller

    Sorry Guido, all I have to say is:

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention that the person(s) the petition is directed at can easily take one look at it, then ignore it.

  • Anonymous

    Yep. It took showing pictures of violence and persistence to make a change. The usual nay-sayers couldn’t ignore the evidence once it was everywhere. Also, our trial-and-error contact of various sponsors eventually got responses, even if it was more miss than hit at first.

  • Ninong

    Even if you just send them a message saying, “Arrivederci, Guido,” they know exactly what you’re talking about. Here’s their abbreviated, but quick response:

    Dear [......],

    At Barilla, we consider it our mission to
    treat our consumers and partners as our neighbors – with love and respect – and
    to deliver the very best products possible. We take this responsibility
    seriously and consider it a core part of who we are as a family-owned
    company.

    We are working hard to learn from this experience, and
    appreciate you taking the time to share your comments and valuable
    feedback.

    Sincerely,

    Barilla

    Case # 164262

  • cole3244

    anything that helps point out bigotry and starts people talking is a positive, so keep talking bigots because you’re day is fast approaching and the sooner the better.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    You’re right: Fascinating reading. Thanks!

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Funk Skunk

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Yep, and there has been a lot of Dan Choi bashing on this site by Gucci Gays.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    You might enjoy Chris Hedges article: ‘Sparks of Rebellion’ http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_sparks_of_rebellion_20130930

  • 2patricius2

    I think it was Percy Green (an African American activist who did what some people thought were outrageous stunts to draw attention to discrimination) who was interviewed some years ago on a St. Louis station about his form of activism. Some people thought it was better to sue, or march, or other more low key means of activism. He pointed out that it took all kinds of activism to achieve the goals of equality. That was true in the push for equal rights for minorities. That was true in the fight against AIDS in the early years. That is equally true in the fights we are waging today.

  • RyansTake

    Plus, there’s the whole notion that every time one of these brands says something dumb and it flares up, it makes it that much harder for other companies to a) say the same dumb things, and b) not ‘protect’ themselves by deciding to be gay friendly and offer same-sex benefits. However bigoted execs may be, most of them care a lot more about the $$$. Corporate greed screws us over so often in the world, we may as well take advantage of it where we can.

  • Skeptical Cicada

    Great post, John. You might want to specify in your opening, though, that the idiotic piece in Slate wasn’t an earlier one by Lorenza Antonucci. The phrasing left open that possible misunderstanding. I had to go over to Slate to check and then remembered the idiotic piece you’re talking about.

    And, yes, the earlier piece was massively idiotic. No, no, let’s not do anything on gay rights until we can bring down the entire capitalist system in a blaze of revolutionary glory. (Massive eye rolling at the immaturity.)

  • Monoceros Forth

    I contend that the reason Guido Barelli’s remarks were specially offensive was because he went out of his way to make the remarks. It wasn’t something he needed to say. If he genuinely believed that the only valid sort of family to depict in his ad copy was the right-wing ideal of a family comprising Dad the breadwinner and Mom the housewife whose only job is cooking dinner for her man, then he could have quietly done so and nobody really would have cared–or even much noticed. Instead he went out of his way to denigrate people who don’t fit into that sitcom fantasy family, especially with his patronizing talk of “tradition”.

    It’s a bit like what the Papa John’s CEO did when he went out of his way to bash “Obamacare”. If he’d merely quietly increased the price of his mediocre pizza nobody would really have taken much notice. Hell, I daresay we’ve all come to expect arbitrary price increases on items that used to be more affordable. Instead the CEO made a special point of bemoaning to the press that Obama was forcing him to jack up his prices. You’re gonna pay a dollar more for your dose of cheese-flavored cardboard–THANKS OBAMA!

    In a way neither of these incidents is about corporate policy at all. It’s about men who labor under the illusion that because they’re making lots of money as corporate executives they’ve got some special qualification to tell other people how to live their lives.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    This is one of the best and most detailed explanations as to the purposes and methods of protests and policy advocacy I’ve ever read.

    This is how it works. A cause or movement or protest is linked to something that makes it go viral. I read a LOT of LGBT-related news. Sure, the Russian anti-gay pogrom was generating articles here and there, but there was no buzz. And no mainstream coverage whatsoever.

    Then came the Stoli boycott. And suddenly the Olympics and Russia’s anti-gay laws are in the news everywhere. The IOC has to address the issue. People suddenly pay attention when the Olympics village ‘mayor’ subsequently makes some stupidly homophobic remarks. Even the President of the United States issued statements condemning Russia’s actions.

    None of this would’ve happened if the issue hadn’t been dragged into the spotlight. Anybody can argue it would’ve happened anyway, but the point here is that it was the Stoli boycott that got it started. Mere hypothesis loses to reality every time.

    I think one of the larger lessons to take from this is the observation that any corporation that is big and famous, and produces popular products, now actually has to watch what they say. Which is also why I’m a firm believer that, as far as the Sochi Olympics goes, it’s the sponsors we should be going after.

  • Bob Funk

    I disagree. I don’t see how the petitions crowd out “legitimate” advocacy work. Perhaps you think that your work is the only “legitimate” kind. I sign the petitions, but that does not “trick” me into thinking Ive done more than that. How dumb do you think we are? Your attitude is elitist, self-serving, and self-indulgent.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Service members who chained themselves to the Whitehouse Fence

  • StraightGrandmother

    That’s right. And virtually all of the actions that follow afterwards, the start was usually gay bloggers who wrote and wrote and wrote about the issues well after mainstream press had moved on (if they even reported it in the first place)

  • Hue-Man

    Has the Gay Sensitivity Meter been turned up to 12 and is this a case of Gay Faux Outrage? I’ve been trying to figure out why I have been so offended by the gay-hating remarks of a CEO whose product I last purchased while living in Paris more than a decade ago. First is a lack of respect – paraphrased version: “Gays are sub-human and don’t deserve to purchase my pasta” This is like the gay-hating B&B owners turning away gays and lesbians while ignoring all their bible’s teachings about the customers they invite into their homes. The second is how it reflects the mis-treatment of the LGBT community in Italy both in public statements but also through lack of rights. Barilla’s comments against gay adoption are symptomatic of many decades of anit-gay indoctrination.

    The parallels with Russia’s treatment of gays is striking – the threat of physical violence may not be as high in Italy but the social exclusion can be as devastating. So the answer to the question is NO and NO.

  • jomicur

    Just as every profession has its own special expertise, every profession has constant thorns in its side. I can’t remember any action gay activists have ever taken that hasn’t gotten that same “this is just silly” reaction from the clueless. Remember the dismissive, trivializing press coverage of the Stonewall riots? And even before that, when gay civil servants picketed the White House (and other early actions, of course), there were all the usual sniggering comments in the press. This crap is a constant in our lives. I’ve come to not only expect such a reaction to everything we do but to regard it as a clear sign we’re accomplishing something.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Well we can litigate this till the cows come home, but that Russia story was going nowhere fast. There was no media hook, there was no activist/grassroots hook. A number of factors were coming together – like Harvey Fierstein’s NYT piece, and Matt Stoppard’s Buzzfeed piece – but it was Dan’s call to action, and Queer Nation’s implementation of the call, that got the media to report on the story like wildfire, and it got the grassroots – gays and our allies – to the share the story like crazy. This is another fallacy I often deal with on these issues, which is why I keep beating the dead horse – people think these issues just blow up on their own. Sometimes they do. And sometimes it’s because some rather smart people jumped on the story and massaged it in a way that made it palatable to the media, and interesting, and outrageous, to the grassroots.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    I don’t know if you can really compare the Vodka boycott with this. For one, the vodka boycott had nothing to do with any particular company itself but was a reaction against Russia’s anti-gay laws and boycotting the Olympics. I know a lot of people still think that the boycott worked because it brought attention to the Russian gay issue, but I disagree – it was happening regardless Give props to Dan Savage, etc. when it works, but when it doesn’t it doesn’t. I really don’t want to debate that because I think there are people who believe it and people who don’t.

    But Barilla has clearly just shot themselves in the foot. With Barilla there is a very clear enemy. With the vodka boycott the enemy was nebulous, which is largely, why I think it didn’t work. But I think people are clearly outraged against Barilla because the CEO came right out against gays.

    It’s good that this is happening in Italy. Italy is the weirdest western country I’ve been to with regards to homosexuality. It’s still so backwards.

  • dcinsider

    Nice work John . . . again.

  • Mark Melton

    This is a really fantastic piece. Thank you for illuminating the critical importance of advocacy and what it actually means to effectively engage others using this platform. As you suggest, too often our ways and means appear to simplistic and irrelevant when, in actuality, “the message” is slowly creeping into the consciousness of the broader community. I really enjoyed your article and thank you for making so simple what is not so simple. Best. Mark

  • Indigo

    Yup. This one’s a good one and Guido is helping us more than he’s helping his family fortune. Whadda dummy! He could have shut up. He could even have said, “Oops! I made a mistake, let’s talk it over.” But no . . . here in the States he’d be a Republican of the Cruz Clique.

  • Indigo

    They could donate it to all to Second Harvest or a local food outlet for the needy. If they seriously want to get the stock off their shelves, I mean.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yeah, I didn’t even want to get into his article. A “mere” disagreement over what a family looks like. Gay kids kill themselves over those mere disagreements about what their family looks like because their families kick them out.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    The other problem with change.org, which I didn’t get into, is that it convinces people that they actually have done something, so they can then kick back and take a breather – when they’ve actually done nothing. It’s not just white noise, it’s a rather serious political opportunity cost. Not only do those stupid petitions crowd out legitimate advocacy work, but they trick people into thinking they’re doing – they’ve done – something to help, when they haven’t. So when the time comes for them to do something real to help, some of them think, “I already have.”

  • Drew2u

    Before I read the Dan Savage article that precedes this one, let me circle this article around to his podcast last week, the 24th or whatever. Dan begins by talking about doing “the doable thing”, in his case the city council signing a joint resolution with the mayor to speak out against the Russian laws to the Russian consulate in Seattle.
    “The Doable Thing” is what’s being mocked in all these cases – that it’s silly for one person to try to do something about a larger cause. Frankly I think there needs to be easy instructions – something that’ll fit on a pamphlet – that informs people their right to do the doable thing and how to accomplish that task; anywhere from making a 30 second phone call, to changing brands at the grocery store, to firing off a short and polite email during a commercial break.
    The thing about Change.org, which you bring up, is sort of like that – I can’t believe how many emails for how many different causes I get through that site that have now, I agree with you in this respect, turned to white-noise for me, unfortunately. A lot of the times I see redundant offers for me to sign on to the same story but from different sources (say, Change.org and WeThePeople.gov for example) to which I then become confused as to which one will be more effective and if I won’t count if my name is on both.
    But it all circles back to the whole “Doing the Doable Thing”. While I do not live in a part of the country that has Chik-Fil-A, when I worked in Tennessee for 4 weeks, I never stepped foot in one. The least I could do was the doable thing.

  • disqusux

    Barilla was my pasta of choice but you don’t have to be gay to take Barilla’s advice and buy someone else’s pasta. I don’t give my money to bigots OR dickheads. I have no doubt there are many other acceptable alternatives- and made locally.

  • StraightGrandmother

    This is from the “other” Slate article,

    “but if the issue is merely some disagreement over what a family looks
    like or whether Guido wants to cast us in his lame commercials, let’s not give him the energy or publicity.”

    This guy is an idiot. I would say he is afraid to loose although he provides all various different reasons, but my impression is he is afraid to loose. My successful father always instilled in us one saying I remember quite well, “Nothing ventured nothing gained”

  • StraightGrandmother

    I get it, I get all of what John writes.

    Which is why I think it is so important that sexual minorities & their straight supporters send letters, e-mail, and call during a Civil Rights Campaign. It doesn’t work unless once we the public are informed and then WE do something with the information we learned of.

    John Aravosis is smart, I’ll tell you another smart one, Joe My God. If you read the Joe My God Blog you can see that he gets it as well. Just like John he ran story after story after story on Russia, AND he ran them early on before Dan Savage came out with his push. I have a few favorite bloggers that I can’t get through the day without reading and John is right up there at the top of the list. The New Civil Rights movement also like John Aravosis, does first hand reporting and analysis which I find is so valuable to me. Our great gay bloggers can’t do it alone, once they inform us we gotta do our part.

  • Fill2

    Bet they are hoping to get it sold cheap. If it goes old on the shelf Barilla will have to replace it . I heard a story that a cashier was checking pasta brands as they came thru & talking about the ban. If it is true good for her.

  • MyrddinWilt

    Stop and Shop here in Massachusetts have Barilla on sale for $0.77 /box, it is usually $1.25. Have to wonder if they are trying to dump the stock.

    They normally carry three brands of pasta, store’s own, Barilla and Prince. Which is obviously sub-optimal for them. They would probably prefer to cut down to just two and now they have a pretext.

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