My move to Italy in 2001 sharply curtailed my career possibilities and earning power. The best I could do was become an English instructor, a job that would never pay well or give me much chance for advancement. My companion Alberto, on the other hand, was a doctor with a secure position in a local hospital. What’s more, he already owned a modest apartment in Milan and had inherited part of a house on Lago Maggiore.
Many people still hold to the idea that one partner, usually the man in a heterosexual relationship, must be the primary wage earner, the so-called breadwinner. My father told me this in no uncertain terms, calling me a “parasite, living off Alberto’s money.” While it’s true my standard of living is higher than what I could manage on an English teacher’s salary, I still pay my own bills, including half of our second-hand car and our old boat. Though I share living expenses with Alberto, we don’t split things 50-50 and he contributes more.
If anything were to go wrong between us, Alberto could continue living as he does now. I’d have to return to Canada and find a way to reinvent myself in the workplace.
I married Alberto in Canada, but the Italy I moved to in 2001 contained no legal mechanisms to protect me. Same-sex civil unions didn’t exist. Alberto named me as his heir in his will. He added an insurance policy and also drafted a contract stipulating I had rights to a certain percentage of his estate. Unfortunately, as many wives would attest, not all husbands are as careful or considerate.
Take my friend Fabrizio, whom I’ve known for more than a decade. He’s a 40-year-old man who owns an apartment in the same community in which he grew up outside Milan. He’s worked as a computer technician for an Italian bank for 15 years. About five years ago Fabrizio met Lillo online. After six months of dating Fabrizio asked Lillo to move in with him.
Lillo is a social worker in his mid-30s who came to Milan to find work and start a new life away from his large and complicated Neapolitan family. After a series of short-term jobs, Lillo finally landed a longer contract with a Catholic mission that works with the homeless. His job is stressful, poorly paid and insecure. All the same, he loves it.
This winter, in a shrewd real estate flip, Fabrizio sold his apartment and, along with Lillo, bought another, cheaper one in the same building. Not only did Fabrizio profit from the sale but also, with Lillo paying for half the new place, he was able to put aside cash that he’s since invested. When Lillo one day praised Fabrizio for his financial know-how and pointed out that they document and split all expenses 50-50, alarm bells rang in my head.
Lillo is burdened with a mortgage and half their car payments. That means he’s left with little or nothing at the end of the month. If for any reason, Lillo’s contract isn’t renewed, he’d risk bankruptcy. As it is, he’s so buried in debt that he can’t keep up with Fabrizio’s lifestyle. He can’t even afford a restaurant or a vacation.
In their case, the 50-50 split has helped Fabrizio at Lillo’s expense, probably because Lillo, who has very low self-esteem, doesn’t feel entitled to the rights and privileges he deserves. In a classic cake-and-eat it scenario, Fabrizio conveniently has a partner but assumes no responsibility for his protection. It’s footloose and unfair.
Fabrizio and Lillo are typical of many gay couples we know who live together, buy an apartment or home, split the expenses, but never go through with the civil union process. It’s a kind of internalized homophobia. When it comes to same-sex unions, the underlying assumption is that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual privilege. The assumption is so deeply ingrained that many gay Italians remain in an undeclared, unprotected liminal zone, even though same-sex civil partnership and its legal protections now exist in Italy.
Everybody prefers sunny weather to a hurricane. Just in case, however, we make emergency plans so that people not only survive the storm but can get on with their lives. Should Lillo’s work situation change or if Fabrizio and Lillo were to separate, Fabrizio’s life would likely continue as is. But in the absence of the legal recognition and protection afforded by a civil union, the same can’t be said about Lillo. And Italy is a country in which men in Lillo’s position are anything but the exception.