Steve Galluccio was pacing the floor backstage at Montreal’s Theatre Jean Duceppe when his play, Mambo Italiano, premiered in mid-December 2000. The playwright remembers feeling like a nervous wreck. It was a big night. The play, about a young man struggling to reveal his homosexuality to his family, featured a first kiss between two men. But that’s not the only thing Galluccio worried about: “There were 800 people in the audience, my entire Italian family was there, and it was the first time I talked openly about my sexuality. I had not directly come out to my parents yet, so this was how I came out to my family,” explains the 56-year-old.
Galluccio admits coming out before hundreds of people and the national media is not for the faint of heart. He jokes that this was a very passive-aggressive way of telling his parents he’s gay, but admits that his very traditional Italian-Catholic upbringing made it difficult for him to directly broach the subject of sexuality with his parents. “After the play they said, ‘So, you’re one of them?’ I said ‘Yes’ and we never talked about it again. They were fine with it. I had completely misjudged them all these years,” says Galluccio. “I realized that their biggest concern was not that I was gay, but that I was an artist. I thought that was an incredible openness considering they came from small-town Italy.”
Galluccio immigrated to Canada from the small Campanian town of Galluccio in the early 1950s. An only child, he says he was raised with two sets of parents because his aunt and uncle also lived with the family in a small apartment on Chabanel Street in east-end Montreal. Galluccio says he was around five years old when he realized he was gay. “I remember my friends at school were always talking about girls and I just wasn’t interested. I was interested in boys,” he recalls. “But I grew up at a time when there were headlines in the papers about gay clubs being raided and gays being brought to jail. That was scary for me because I realized that I was part of that.”
Although Galluccio stresses that he has always been very comfortable with his homosexuality, he felt the need to hide it from others because it was viewed so negatively at the time. In fact, homosexuality was against the law in Canada until 1969 when then-justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, moved to decriminalize it. “My teenage years were a very conflicted time. Being gay was sick, degenerate, it was condemned by the Catholic Church. So even though I was alright with it, society made me feel ashamed of who I was.”
It wasn’t until Galluccio graduated high school and started venturing out of his very Italian surroundings that he realized there was a whole other world out there. “In high school I was invisible and I was bullied a lot. But once I got to university, I went from a completely Italian, straight entourage to a non-Italian, gay entourage. And that’s when I discovered this beautiful diverse world and I was in my element.”
Galluccio started openly identifying as gay when he was 19 and many of his friends were aware of his sexuality, but it took 20 more years before he officially came out to his family. The playwright says that since his very public coming out, many members of the Italian community have reached out to him: “There’s a lot of kids who come up to me and tell me that I’ve helped them come out and accept themselves. It’s a very, very personal journey,” he admits. “There is no right or wrong way, you just have to find your way.”
Toronto lawyer, Michael Battista, also struggled with his sexuality growing up. Like Galluccio, Battista was raised in a very traditional Italian-Catholic family. His father, who died when Battista was only 12 years old, immigrated to Canada from Molise and his mother’s family is from Caserta. Battista says sexuality wasn’t an issue for him until he hit puberty. That’s when he started having feelings about men that he didn’t really know what to do with. “I was quite tormented about it. Our family was Catholic and we went to church every Sunday,” remembers the 51-year-old. “I felt awful about how I was feeling.”
The lawyer says he recalls lying in bed as a teenager, reciting the rosary and praying for these feelings to be taken away from him. “I was very, very afraid – as I think most gay Italians are – of losing family support,” explains Battista. “If there’s one thing that characterizes Italian culture it’s our close bonds with our family members.”
Battista says he was hoping this was just a phase and he did all he could to quash his homosexuality – he even tried dating girls: “I actually thought that I would marry a woman, and have children and just hide myself for the rest of my life.”
Attending law school was a welcome distraction from his struggle with his sexuality, but Battista says he always felt conflicted. He knew he had to come out, but he was so terrified of being ostracized from his family that he waited until graduating law school and being financially independent to drop the bombshell. The first person he told was his older brother. “His reaction was very positive but he made me promise not to tell our mother,” explains Battista. “But I knew that I couldn’t keep that promise.”
The very next day, the then 27-year-old lawyer sat his mother and sister down and told them the truth. They both cried. “They said that they loved me but they just didn’t understand it, and it was painful for me to see that I had hurt them.” Battista continues: “I think the real shock was that all these aspirations my mother had about me getting married, in the traditional sense, and having grandchildren, were shattered.”Battista says his mother eventually came around, and six months later she was cooking a pasta dinner for her gay son and his then-boyfriend. Today, Battista is raising a seven-year-old son with his husband, a retired city of Toronto firefighter.
“So my mother did get her grandchild and an in-law,” laughs Battista. “But I have a lot of Italian friends that stay in the closet for fear of losing their family. I really hope that my story can inspire people to take those risks.”