Did the Barilla Boycott Make Anything Better in Italy?

Have Guido Barilla’s apologies to the LGBTQ community helped with homophobia in Italy?

Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Lorenza’s earlier dispatch about the Italian LGBTQ (and subsequent international) boycott of Barilla pasta after the company’s president, Guido Barilla, said he “would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family” because he doesn’t “agree with them.”

Within a matter of hours in late September, the Barilla case became one of the most viral boycott campaigns of the web era, confirming—along with the recent turmoil in Russia—that local LGBT rights struggles can spread beyond national boundaries. But now that the semolina flour has settled, it’s time to assess what effects the boycott had on the ground. 

Initially, Barilla’s reaction was guided by the standard damage control strategy of reaching out to a few LGBTQ groups in Italy as a gesture of goodwill. That was their first mistake: “Barilla has refused to meet the people in the LGBTQ community who were really behind the boycott: They met the representatives of established LGBTQ groups, but those do not represent LGBTQ people in Italy” said Italian LGBTQ activist Klaus Heusslein.

Not much of substance happened until early November, when Barilla announced a new “Diversity & Inclusion Board” along with a few other ideas designed to improve its “corporate culture.” The good news is that a leading LGBTQ activist, David Mixner, will join the Board. Having a leading U.S. LGBTQ activist helping to guide a major Italian company could surely help to change not only the corporate culture, but the overall national culture on LGBTQ issues. However, creating a new committee is not enough: Barilla still needs to engage in a public discussion on LGBTQ rights in Italy—not just within their company.

Why should it be up to Barilla to change the national culture on LGBTQ issues? The counter-argument, well-expressed in Outward by J. Bryan Lowder, is that we should not be particularly interested in whether private companies are hostile or friendly to LGBTQ people, or look to them for leadership on social justice issues. However, the truth is that this has never been and will never be simply a corporate issue: As I wrote when the Barilla story broke, the Italian boycott was a grass-roots reaction to a system of legitimised public homophobia in Italy of which Guido Barilla’s words were simply a part. It was a political reaction which aimed to finally bring the LGBTQ struggle to the public’s attention. As John Aravosis pointed out in AmericaBlog, the LGBTQ community uses boycotts and actions against corporations as tools to attract the interest of the wider public and not only to punish the company itself.

But the question remains: Was the boycott useful to the LGBTQ Italian community in the end? Despite the lacklustre “corporate response” from Barilla, I think it was. All the media attention on the topic clearly helped the visibility of the Italian LGBTQ community and led to many discussions on the state of LGBTQ affairs in Italy. Many people who read my previous piece told me that they had no idea things could be so bad for the gays in a Western European country. Indeed, in a certain way the Barilla incident represented a “public coming out,” a process of becoming visible. In countries where people are afraid to come out, LGBTQ issues tend to be not discussed at all or (paradoxically) are discussed by ignorant heterosexual people. What makes the LGBTQ community, as a minority group, truly different is this necessity of becoming visible before any progress toward equality can be made. In the Barilla case, it seems that the Italian LGBTQ community finally found a voice, and the international LGBTQ community sustained this voice and made it louder through participating in the boycott.

The need of visibility is not a theoretical argument; it has practical implications in people’s lives. A few days ago, a 21 year-old young Italian gay man, Simone, killed himself, after reporting multiple incidents of bullying at his work to a Gay Help Line. The last message that Simone left refers explicitly to the atmosphere of public homophobia that LGBTQ people suffer under Italy:

I am gay. Italy is a free country, but homophobia does exist. Those who have homophobic behaviors will need to take a hard look to themselves.

This is a scarily rational message to leave and a very powerful one, as it calls to mind the issue of public homophobia. Following many other episodes of suicides amongst LGBTQ teenagers in Italy, the story made headlines and provoked demonstrations. But, following a familiar pattern, the discussion has quickly moved toward a private lawsuit against the individuals that called Simone frocio (“faggot”) at work, conveniently ignoring the perfectly accepted use of the word in Italy. A tragic personal episode which refers explicitly to the presence of homophobia in a country is not just a private affair; it is also a public issue, the same as Barilla’s homophobic declarations.

So here’s my recommendation for Barilla’s redemption, one which would have real public implications: Fund a project that actively helps individuals affected by homophobia in Italy as a memorial for Simone. That’s the only good thing I can imagine coming out of such a sad story.  

Lorenza Antonucci is a lecturer in social policy at the University of the West of Scotland. She compares, researches, and writes about inequality and young adults in Europe. Follow her on Twitter @SocialLore.