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First Italian woman to come out in public dies at 83

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First Italian woman to come out in public dies at 83
Gay pride placards in Milan, 2016. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
11:59 CET+01:00
Mariasilvia Spolato, hailed as the first Italian woman to come out as gay in public, died this week at the age of 83.

Spolato passed away on Wednesday at a nursing home in Bolzano, South Tyrol, where according to the newspaper Alto Adige she spent the final years of a fascinating and tragic life.

Born in Padua in 1935, Spolato emerged as a gifted mathematician who graduated with honours. She went on to move to Milan, where she taught at university and authored text books, as well as becoming involved in the student movements of 1968.

In the early '70s, she was among the founding members of the Italian Revolutionary Homosexual Front or, as it was known by its Italian acronym, FUORI – 'Out'. She wrote poetry, essays and a book setting out her vision of gay rights.

But the moment that would reverberate throughout the rest of her life came on March 8th, 1972, when hundreds of people gathered in Rome for women's day celebrations and protests. Spolato attended with a placard that bore what was at the time a shocking message: "Homosexual liberation".

A press photographer took her picture and her face appeared on newsstands around Italy in the magazine Panorama. Her employers took objection: Spolato was sacked, deemed "unfit" to be a teacher.

"One day, with an excuse, they sent me packing," she would tell an interviewer decades later at a homeless shelter. "My political engagement bothered them." 

Her family felt the same and, without the salary that had afforded her independence, Spolato found herself with nowhere to go.

"I lost my job, bit by bit I lost my money, and then everything started. I slept at friends' houses, because I could no longer pay my rent. I roamed here and there, from city to city. My home had become the trains. Conductors and engineers from half of Europe knew me. I laid my head wherever I was. I ate whatever I could get."

Spolato eventually settled in Bolzano, where according to Alto Adige she spent her time between the streets and public libraries, hoarding whatever books and newspapers she could find. When gangrene set in to one of her legs she was taken to hospital and transferred into the care of homeless shelters, where she would live for another two decades.

The transition wasn't easy: the newspaper describes Spolato resisting staff's efforts to help her, defiantly telling them "I want to be free!" In her later years, however, Spolato's carers said that she softened, occasionally sharing parts of her past. She returned to one of her passions, photography, and entrusted her beloved books to local libraries.

"Silvia won everyone's hearts," photographer Lorenzo Zambello, who took a final portrait of Spolato last year, told Ansa news agency.

Spolato remained estranged from her family to her death. Her funeral is expected to be organized by the town council. "It would be wonderful to have many people come and pay their respects," wrote Alto Adige's Luca Fregona. "To thank someone who paid too high a price for all her courage."

While Italy has come a long way since the 1970s, activists say it remains one of the worst countries in western Europe for LGBTQ rights. Same-sex marriage is not legal – couples can only enter civil unions, which provide fewer guarantees on parental rights – and cases of blatant discrimination, hate speech and violence continue.

The situation seems unlikely to improve under Italy's current government. One of the first acts of Minister for Families and Disabilities Lorenzo Fontana – a conservative Catholic – was to declare publicly that same-sex parents "don't exist at the moment, as far as the law is concerned" and express his preference for "natural" families with one mother and one father.

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