Holy City's low life feels the pinch

European Times: Rome
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AS THE sun edges down on the second millennium, the shadow cast by the dome of Saint Peter's grows longer, and the pariahs in the penumbra are beginning to feel the pinch.

"It's the same old story," complains Vladimir Luxuria, doyen(ne) of Rome's cross-dressers: "They've got it in for transsexuals, and prostitutes, and gays. And it can only get worse.The nearer we get to the Jubilee, the harder they're going to crack down."

It's nothing new. In past centuries, the Holy city's urban outcasts have been ferried to Rome's more squalid outskirts by the cartload each time the city gears up for a sacred celebration. For the 1985 Holy Year, red- light cinemas, which for decades had clustered cosily around Catholicism's heart, found that their licences had miraculously expired, and were never to open their doors again.

But the 2000 Holy Year will be a mammoth event. More than 30 million pilgrims are expected to head for Rome. There is a lot at stake here. Rome's reputation as city of virtue, or vice, will be tested, and the secular and spiritual authorities are taking no chances.

"They want to make Rome into something that it has never been," says Ms Luxuria. "They want to make it into a holy city." "They" are the members of the Rome town council, under what Ms Luxuria alleges is "clearly very strong pressure from across the Tiber" in the Vatican. "Throughout history, holy years have been a show of political force. It's the Vatican's way of making it clear that in spite of everything, they're still in charge. It has always been that way and it still is."

Given the doggedness with which Rome's spiritual black sheep are being pursued by an administration that is left-leaning and supposedly open- minded - Mayor Francesco Rutelli briefly transformed himself into a gay icon when he attended a Gay Pride march - you can't help feeling that the willowy, raven-haired spokesperson for Rome's transsexuals has a point. "Take Monte Caprino," says Ms Luxuria. Until recently a blind eye was turned to what went on at night in the bushes of this ill-lit, unkempt area at the foot of the Capitoline hill. But Rome's traditional gay stamping ground has now been cut down, lit up and and fenced off, much to the chagrin of the community.

"First they say at least part of it will be left open. Then they say that they're going to lock the lot up at 2am every night. I mean, they can't say one thing one day and another the next. Unless, of course, the Vatican is forcing them to."

Monte Caprino is only the tip of an iceberg. Rome has revived some little-used laws in the war against prostitution. Both the demand and the supply sides of the world's oldest trade have been hit with the sudden vogue for fines for neglecting to use seatbelts, which the police are now imposing on those they find parked in dark hideaways around the ancient city walls. As for the transsexual prostitutes with which Rome abounds, they are being dragged off to the police stations and charged with "concealing their true identity".

"It's a law from 1931, a Fascist law, introduced to stop masked bands from trying to react to the Fascist regime. It has quite obviously been resurrected just to get at us," says Ms Luxuria, who has organised a series of public protests. "What we do is turn up in jackets and ties, then rip them off, revealing our true selves in women's clothes beneath."

With their right to be alternative under attack, "we're prepared to go to any lengths to stop the persecution," says Ms Luxuria, who is working hard to entice the world's homosexuals to Rome for the 2000 International Gay Pride march.

If the Vatican thinks that trimmed bushes and fences are going to purify the Eternal City, it can think again, she adds. "If they lock up Monte Caprino we will just stay inside. No, on second thoughts we won't. We'll just shift our activities across to Saint Peter's square."