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 | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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