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  • Writer's pictureZhihao Zhang

Unveiling the Queer Italian-Canadian Artists Project: Lessons in Diversity, Identity, and Artistry

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Greetings! My name is Zhihao Zhang, the undergraduate research assistant for the queer Italian-Canadian artists project. I am grateful to be a part of this project. To be honest, while I was aware of the word “queer”, my understanding of queer-related matters was limited. Initially, my goal was to gain more exposure to the Italian-Canadian community and refine my research skills. However, as I became more involved in the queer Italian-Canadian artists project, I discovered a profound passion for learning queer theory and Italian-Canadian history.

This blog draws inspiration from 'Here & Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing' and insights gathered from interviews with Anthony Portulese and Monica Meneghetti. Reading the text mentioned above and conducting interviews has provided me with a deeper understanding of the challenges that artists within this community have faced.

(We are delighted to have interviewed both Anthony Portulese and Monica Meneghetti; the clips from the interviews can be found here.)

In the Queer Italian-Canadian Artists project, the artists open the door to their world, sharing their personal stories of growing up with Italian heritage. Their journey through life involves a profound quest for self-discovery, particularly in relation to their identity. Along the journey, they encounter inevitable obstacles, including the challenges of being part of the LGBTQ+ community and artists who are not supported by many parents because of concerns about the stability of the profession. Through an exploration of the project, we find an insightful interview with Anthony Portulese, who generously shares his unique experience.

Anthony Portulese was born and raised in an Italian-Canadian neighborhood in Montreal, where nearly 80% of his classmates also bore Italian backgrounds. He often found himself pondering on the essence of being Italian. While Italian culture carries traits and stereotypes like an affinity to sports and culinary mastery, Anthony, like many others, tries to understand what "italianità" (Italianess) truly signifies for him, beyond the confines of these common stereotypes.

This process of self-discovery is a universal journey, transcending culture and background. In this process, cultural inheritances are like a statement tattooed on one's body—indelible and something one is often unwilling to erase. There is an undeniable connection and pride in one's identity, inextricably connected to their cultural heritage.

Many artists are second or later-generation Italian immigrants in Canada. What they learn about Italy in their childhood is often based on descriptions from their parents, or the traditions passed on by their nonni. On one hand, there is the emotional connection to Italian culture, passed down through generations; and on the other, growing up in Canada has shaped one's identity in a unique way.

Growing up in Canada introduces a distinctive layer to the artists’ identities. Canada is a place where cultures often intersect, leading to both clashes and the blending of traditions. This intermingling can sometimes give rise to tension in value systems and beliefs, leaving individuals experiencing the complexities of dual cultural identities. This duality is a terrain where boundaries of traditional norms and expectations can feel limiting and confining, particularly for queer creators. As Anthony Portulese commented in the interview, if he had grown up in Italy, his relationship with queerness might have taken a different path. This shows how growing up in a different cultural background can greatly shape one's identity and self-recognition.

"If I am in Little Italy, in an Italian caffè for instance, I'm obviously not going to behave the same way I would behave if I were in my friend's apartment when we were drinking around the table having a fun time." - Anthony Portulese

Dr. Licia Canton, the editor of Here & Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing, describes the place of queerness within the mainstream Italian-Canadian value system as: “not a topic for Sunday lunch.” (Canton, p. 11). While Canada has generally evolved into an LGBTQ+-friendly environment, many Canadians with Italian heritage may still hesitate to openly discuss their identities with their families. The journey of coming out to one's family is a significant challenge that many queer Italian-Canadian artists have experienced. They often struggle with a profound desire to connect with their family members, yet an evident divide stands in the way of this process. This divide can be attributed to the differing understandings and perceptions of queerness within the family. In our interview with Anthony Portulese, he shares that he is out to his parents and sister, yet he finds it complicated to come out and explain queerness to his nonni. For some elderly family members, the concept of queerness might be entirely unfamiliar, leading to potential misunderstandings, as they could easily misconstrue queerness as something incompatible with traditional marital and cultural norms. The generation gap and cultural differences can create barriers to open and honest conversations about queerness. However, it is important to recognize that the silence surrounding these topics does not help to improve the relationship with family members. In fact, this silence emphasizes the need for more understanding and acceptance within families, so that queer Italian-Canadian individuals can find the love and support they need to thrive within their identities and communities.

Continuous research in this field promises to encourage queer Italian-Canadians to share their experiences, fostering a community of mutual support. Furthermore, it is worth noting that some artists are automatically assumed to be heterosexual solely based on their cultural background. In an essay submitted by Monica Meneghetti to The Global and Mail, titled “I'm Queer and Italian-Canadian – Coming Out Was Twice as Hard” (2018), she narrated an incident of misunderstanding during a book reading. Meneghetti had chosen to read a passage on her memories related to Italian cuisine. Initially, two readers approached her, praising her exceptional writing and purchase her memoir. However, the following day, they contacted her for a refund, expressing disappointment because her content did not align with their expectations. They had assumed that she was a straight Italian-Canadian Catholic woman based on the material she had presented. This underscores the misunderstandings that the queer Italian-Canadian community often faces, particularly the presumptions regarding the correlation between their sexuality and Italian heritage.

In the Canadian landscape, topics related to queerness have gained wider acceptance, making it a more open and inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community. However, queer experiences and identities, according to many of our research participants, remain relatively “underground” within the Italian-Canadian community. This duality creates a unique challenge, where individuals struggle with the tensions between their Italian heritage and their identity as members of the queer community.

This complex intersection of experiences highlights the need for open conversations and greater acceptance within both the Italian-Canadian and LGBTQ+ communities. It is a call for inclusivity, understanding, and a celebration of the diversity that emerges when cultures intersect. The queer Italian-Canadian artists, through their narratives and artistry, are helping bridge these gaps and pave the way for a more accepting and inclusive future.

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